August 8, 2005
Hype-Bred Cars: You’d Better Think Twice
By Michael D. Shaw
Ever since the first automobiles rolled off the assembly line, cars have always straddled the line between form and function. For most people, there is an undeniable sense of status involved with the type of car an individual drives or aspires to own.
From a Cadillac to a Mercedes to a Porsche, there is a display of personality—if not mid-life crisis—in buying such an expensive automobile. The message to the outside world is equally clear: You have arrived. Unless of course you drive a hybrid car, which means you are most likely not only affluent but—dare I say it—ignorant. For few products enjoy such incredible publicity, yet deliver so little as hybrid automobiles.
Led by Toyota’s famed Prius, which attracts the likes of any number of low-rent celebrities, this car purportedly represents the future of transportation, a fuel efficient product that will transform America’s highways. Never mind the car’s high sticker price, its tendency to sell well above this sticker price, or its virtually nonexistent presence within the used car market, people have convinced themselves that this car is THE ANSWER.
Here’s one big problem: There is absolutely no financial savings in buying a hybrid car. Why? Because the price tag on these automobiles, a fact companies like Toyota and Honda are deliberately silent about, negates all these stories about miles-per-gallon and money in consumers’ pockets.
According to Smart Moneymagazine, which did a study comparing hybrid cars and traditional gas-powered models, the Prius or Honda Civic Hybrid will sell anywhere from 25% to 30% more than its advertised price. Even with a tax break from the IRS, which unnecessarily has the government favoring one industry at the expense of another, it would still take four years to simply break even on the purchase price. Why are most people unaware of these facts, particularly individuals who sign their names to waiting lists to buy these cars?
Notwithstanding the guilt factor, which Toyota and Hollywood willingly oblige, there is a weird brand of prestige also involved. After all, one of the telltale signs of having “made it” was that legendary trip to the car dealer, whereby a newly minted law partner, successful doctor, or wealthy entrepreneur would drive off in a Cadillac or Mercedes convertible. The idea of these people buying a Japanese compact with a small engine, not to mention cloth interior and an far from macho design, was simply anathema. And then along came celebrities with a cause and a marketing budget.
Suddenly, it was no longer prestigious, it was even gauche, to drive through Beverly Hills or Malibu in a Rolls-Royce. Today, a famous star is less likely to motor through Rodeo Drive than to be seen shopping at Whole Foods and driving a Prius.
Here is another shocker, courtesy of USA Today and Edmunds.com: When compared with the smaller and conventional Toyota Corolla, the Prius would not equal the five-year costs of its price differential unless it were driven 66,500 miles a year, or gas reached $10.10 a gallon! The study shows, “If people go in with the idea they are saving money, they are mistaken,” says Jesse Toprak, pricing director for Edmunds.com, an auto research site.
To quote Gabriel Shenhar, a senior auto test engineer for Consumer Reports: “If you’re looking at your pocket, you’re not gaining anything there anytime soon.”
As to the environmental impact, you might be using less gasoline, but you’ll have to dispose of nasty batteries at some point. Moreover, with an incredibly weak resale market (Who wants last year’s new technology?) many hybrids will find their way to environmentally-unfriendly junkyards years before conventional cars.
It seems the hype-bred market is just that: A cleverly advertised campaign that all too willingly exploits people’s fear of pollution, energy conservation guilt, and their need for status. If we let logic intrude, then this whole charade falls apart. Forget the ignorant appeals of various celebrities, and act like an informed consumer. You might actually save yourself a lot of money.