Electric Cars, Hybrid Cars OR High MPG Gas-Powered Cars?

With gasoline hovering ever so close to the $4 mark (premium is already there!) who doesn?t think fuel economy matters? After we?ve done all we can do to cut back on our gasoline consumption?consolidating trips, tuning up the car, maintaining proper tire pressure levels and even slowing down a bit when we drive?we?re still left with the inescapable fact we have to drive to work and survive. And that means we need gas, lots of it.

Long term the biggest factor affecting fuel economy is the type of car we drive. We can?t make a car that gets 15 miles per gallon suddenly get 30, so the ultimate solution is to replace the gas guzzler and go with a more fuel efficient vehicle.

Right now there are three options to reduce fuel consumption, electric cars, hybrids and tried and true high miles per gallon (MPG) gas powered cars. Which is the best vehicle type to attain maximum fuel efficiency?

Electric cars

Electric cars represent the ultimate solution. A car that runs 100% on electricity means freedom from gas prices, and even from disruptions in gas supplies. All you need to do to power them up is plug them into a wall socket at home, let them charge and you?re good to go.

Sounds perfect, right? Not exactly. Electric cars can go barely 100 miles between charges?and that?s when they?re brand new. The scuttlebutt is that the batteries quickly degrade, and actual mileage between charges is substantially less, like closer to 50 miles. There is no backup power system, so when the battery drains, you?re stuck where ever it happens.

If you work from home, are retired or work very close to home, an electric car may work for you. For everyone else, it won?t. And it will never do a long trip for anyone. Electric cars will have their day, but it looks like that won?t be for a while.

Hybrid cars

Hybrids are a step up. The can run on electricity, but switch to gas as a back up, or in driving conditions where electric power isn?t optimal. As good as that sounds, it?s not a perfect situation either. There are three problems with hybrids: 1) price, 2) continued reliance on gasoline, and 3) while hybrid MPG is substantially better than for the average car, it isn?t radically better than other less expensive alternatives.

The Toyota Prius is the current standard of hybrid cars. The 2011 version lists at a base price of about $29,000, and gets about 42 miles per gallon.

That?s a rich price for what is essentially an economy car and MPG that?s hardly a radical step up from the most fuel efficient gas-powered cars. Meanwhile, gasoline is still a critical component of it?s power. And it would seem that fuel efficiency would be degraded still further due by the weight of the batteries during times when the car is running on gasoline only.

High MPG gas-powered cars

The basic problem even with high MPG gas-powered cars is that they rely entirely on gas. Beyond that however, the advantages stack up favorably?not only on mileage efficiency, but more particularly with price.

An article on Yahoo Autos, For non-electric, non-hybrid cars, 40 is the new 30 (mpg) provides a list of six cars that are getting at least 40 miles per gallon:

2011 Ford Fiesta SE Sedan, 40/29 highway/city mpg, purchase price $16,290

2011 Ford Fiesta SE hatchback, 40/29, $17,300

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco (manual transmission), 42/28, $18,175

2011 Hyundai Elantra, 40/29, $14,830 base

2011 Smart ForTwo, 41/33, $12,490

2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, 40/28, $18,790

The article lists five additional gas-powered vehicles that are not yet available, but coming soon and provide comparable fuel efficiency at similar vehicle cost.

Note that with each car, the MPG is comparable with that of the Prius, but the cost of the cars themselves is substantially less in each case. The Elantra is priced at less than half the Prius and virtually every one of the other cars is at least $10,000 less.

High MPG gas-powered cars are the best option?for now

It?s not hard for any of us to drive 50 miles or more in a single day, nor is 100 miles out of the question. Even if you only average 20-30 miles per day, a phone call can require us to double that, jeopardizing the ability to get home before the battery dies. For that reason electric cars will impose real restrictions on driving flexibility.

100% electric powered cars are definitely worth waiting for, but they aren?t for now, not for most people.

As to hybrid cars, while I can see the value in having an electric power source for a car?mostly for gas supply disruptions?I don?t see the advantage of paying an extra $10,000 (or more) to have it. As well, the wider variety of gas-powered economy cars means we have far greater choice in vehicle selection.

Love ?em or hate ?em, high MPG gas powered cars represent the fuel efficiency cutting edge. They may be the last of their generation before a new wave of high charge electrics come on the market, but at the moment they produce the greatest fuel efficiency for the price paid.

That may change in five or ten years, but by then you?ll probably be back in the new car market, this debate will be over and the all-electrics will be the way to go.

( Photo from Flickr by Erik Christensen, Porkeri )

25 Responses to Electric Cars, Hybrid Cars OR High MPG Gas-Powered Cars?

  1. Do you know if any electric cars have solar panels on the top? Seems like a halfway decent way to at least get some kind of charge to the battery while it’s sitting around.

  2. Hi Paul, Haven’t heard of such a thing, but maybe it will part of the longer term solution with electrics. It sure sounds like an idea with merit.

    My thinking is that once an electric car can go at least 200 miles between charges, gas-powered cars will start going the way of the buggy whip.

  3. Both the range and cost of EVs will improve faster than most people expect. Within a decade, EVs are expected to have a range of 250-300 miles and they will start around $20K, in todays dollars.


    Both the Toyota Prius and Nissan LEAF have a solar panel option. But, this just runs a cooling fan on the Prius and the cabin accessories on the Leaf. The problem is that solar panels are only around 15% efficient, so there is no way they are going to charge a 24KWH battery, like the Nissan LEAF’s. Boeing has a solar panel for satelites that is around 45% efficient. Once this technology hits the mainstream, it may be viable for EVs.

  4. Hi Bret–This supports the main point of the post, that all-electrics are on the horizon and progressing fast, but they aren’t quite here and now, not yet. I agree with the time horizong of within the decade. We’re just muddling along until we reach that point.

  5. Hello there Kevin, I’m interested in this also. (Please take a look at my most recent post.) Your post makes for very thought-provoking reading; you have definitely given me lots of food for thought!

    Regards :-),


  6. Hi William – That’s the purpose of the post, to stimulate some thought. I’m thinking that this is a topic that should be getting a lot more coverage than it does. It seems to hold the key to our automotive, environmental, energy and even economic futures.

  7. Hi Michael – The human mind seems limited to three choices before confusion sets in…

  8. Ok, I’ll say it. Electro Magnetic Induction. Like the base I put my electric toothbrush in.
    Load these under the center lane of local highways, and meter how much power is purchased at the car. This innovation would take a lot of the heat off of the battery technology, and the required range would drop to under 100mi. The infrastructure would also set the stage for automatic steering, as the road would be able to keep the car locked on to the route.

  9. Hi Joe, It sounds something like electric trains! The infrastructure part is where I think this technology might break down. Infrastructure seems to be beyond us at this point in our national evolution. Every dime seems to go to support some program somewhere that mostly moves money from one group to another. Not much money for building things in that construct.

  10. Understood, Kevin. The truth is that I have no idea what the cost would be for such an undertaking. I do imagine that it can be done piecemeal, the sections of highway most traveled.
    Somewhere in all of this one needs to account for the benefit of non-combustion engines (I’m no global warming fear monger, but my lungs tell me the air is dirty), the creation of jobs, and the economics with and without government intervention.

  11. I’m in full agreement on your points in the last line. Call me simple, but I see the change from internal combustion to electric engines as part of an economic re-energizing of the economy–and we badly need that right now.

  12. Hi, Kevin — I think that a lot of people may be interested in Hybrids but, as you noted, the cost to own and maintain one may still be prohibitive. Even with rising gas prices, it takes a significant amount of time for the cost of gas versus a higher car cost to balance.

    And what about folks that want to maintain a car themselves? What kind of specialized training or mechanical understanding do you need to work on a hybrid versus a traditional combustion engine?

    I think we are heading in the right direction, but lots of factors play into whether or not its cost effective to own a hybrid. When it becomes more easily obtainable for the general public, I’m sure we’ll see more of them on the road, too!

  13. Chris, I couldn’t agree more. Hybrids remind me of that saying “one size fits all means one size fits none”. In theory it combines the best of both power sources, but it does so at such a cost that it isn’t competitive with gas-powered cars.

    I think that based on where we’re at technologically at this point, gas powered is still the way to go, but the electrics on the horizon are getting a lot clearer than they were just a few years ago.

  14. Hi Kevin:

    Please forgive me if you already had this question as I have not read the other comments – too many and my time is precious as you already know 🙂

    I have been dying to ask this, doesn’t the electric car run up your home electric bill from having to be plugged in to recharge?

    ***We finally got a second-hand laptop and internet at home. Yippeee!!! But I still visit the local labor department and library just to get out of the house. Yes, so over this not working(lol)***


    My Website: Surviving Unemployment!

  15. Hi Angela, That’s an oustanding question. I haven’t found anything written on the cost of the electric power used to charge the car. My GUESS(!) is that it probably will be less expensive than gasoline, if only because gas is so expensive right now.

    My vision for electrics–and maybe this is optimistic–is that the true arrival of practical electric cars will coincide with cheap solar power, the kind we can generate at home. An electric car running on power from a rooftop solar panel or windmill will free us of the cost of gasoline and of electric power from utilities. That will be a real jump for the economy because we’ll all have more money to spend. I know that sounds like “somewhere over the rainbow” and maybe it is, but the technologies seem to be heading in that direction.

    Congratulations on the new laptop! I know it’s been a while in coming. Having your own is like having your own car, you just have more freedom to get on it when you want to, rather than being limited to when the library is open and how many others want to get on it. Still, I really like your demonstration of using the library computer as a free, interim solution to a computer/internet expense. That’s really thinking outside the box, and it’s valuable to others.

  16. Hi Kevin, I think you make some good points about the state of hybrids and electric cars. However, the CR-Z hybrid is only about $20,000 so it’s competitive with the high MPG gas cars you list. I have a friend with one and he really likes it (and his last car was a Porsche).

    My car is 10 years old so I think about replacing it sometimes. I could get away with an electric car because I rarely drive more than 20 miles in a day. However, I agree that they are expensive for what you get. Maybe in a few years they will be much better and cheaper!

  17. Hi Jennifer, One point on electrics and hybrids that maybe we can’t know is will current batteries be replaceable if new, long charging batteries come out in a few years? If so, it would be worth if for some people to buy them now. But again, how can we know that for sure? The technology is evolving, so anything is possible.

    I’m fascinated by this topic, but there are a lot of questions that are wide open. Oh, and the other question is how long will it be before we have the electric equivalent of gas stations coast to coast where you can pull in and get a “fill”?

  18. I agree, the conventional thinking of “let’s go out and buy a green (anything)” often looks more like a social statement than a constructive act. A new car will take resources and energy to build, and there’s nothing green about creating more demand than necessary.

  19. As an FYI some car insurance companies will give you a discount when you purchase a hybrid vehicle,that is a discount on your car insurance.

  20. Since this has been an outdated post for a while i thought i’d renew it! Tesla has been making a car that can run estimated 250mpg on a charge. Look at the current roadster. BUt yes, thats pricey… the Model S now can get similar mileage, carry 7 people (SEVEN!), and is about 43k starting. Batteries warrantied for EIGHT YEARS! The Model X (Disclosure: I’ve sent in my deposit for one) is even an AWD 100% electric. Its startng at the Luxury SUV pricce point, same warranty, range from 160 miles to 250. We are losing reasons to NOT buy an electric car

  21. Hi Domenic–Thanks for the update. Can you provide a link to the site that describes it? This would be a major advance, especially as it flows to lower priced cars in the future.

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