Delayed Gratification: 10 Hybrids and How Long it Takes to Get Your Money Back

The fuel economy advantages and subsequent money savings of hybrid vehicles over their non-hybrid counterparts is often a major consideration when making a new vehicle purchase. But how much does a hybrid really save you? More precisely, how long does it take to even out the higher up-front cost of a hybrid over the often-cheaper non-hybrid? Here are 10 examples of some of the more popular hybrids on the market and how long it’d take you to start raking in the savings compared to buying a non-hybrid version (or equivalent in a few cases).

We’ve used the latest average national fuel prices ($2.24-$2.70) and a mix of 55 percent stop-and-go driving to calculate the cost per year for each vehicle when driving 15,000 and 30,000 miles each year.

Ford Fusion SE vs. Fusion Hybrid SE vs. Fusion Energi SE

Ford makes comparing the different trim levels pretty easy. The Fusion SE is available as a non-hybrid (with a 2.5-liter I-4), as a hybrid, and as the plug-in hybrid Energi. There’s a significant gulf between the base prices of each model (though incentives vary based on the model), but operating costs were more surprising. The hybrid jumps down significantly, lowering fuel costs by $500 each year. The Energi, however, was also only $500 cheaper than the regular Fusion each year. What gives? Electricity isn’t free, and although you’re not polluting for the first 20 miles of your commute, it still costs you about $800 per year to operate.

If you’re putting 30,000 or more miles in every year, the Fusion Hybrid SE pretty quickly makes up the difference and is (figuratively) putting an extra $1,000 in your pocket every year you keep it after that. Not bad. The plug-in hybrid Energi, although reasonable, is only going to save you big money if you have the right kind of commute, and even then if you’re doing a 30- to 40-mile round trip to work with charging at both ends, just get the regular Fusion; you’ll save more money. Unless, of course, you’re looking for one of those sweet primo parking spots by the chargers. In that case, plug away.

Model Ford Fusion SE Ford Fusion Hybrid SE Ford Fusion Energi SE MSRP $23,995 $26,865 $31,995 Difference — $2,870 $8,000 Cost per year (15,000 miles) $1,300 $800 $800 Time to Break Even (15,000 miles) — 5 years, 9 months 16 years Cost per year (30,000 miles) $2,600 $1,600 $1,600 Time to Break Even (30,000 miles) — 2 years, 11 months 8 years

Toyota Corolla vs. Prius c vs. Prius Eco

If your aim is low operating costs, Toyota has one of the best reputations in the business for cheap running. All else being equal, what about those tantalizing fuel economy numbers the tiny Prius c and snazzy new Prius posted up (53/46 mpg for the c, and 54/50 mpg for the Prius)? Against the lowly Corolla, which is estimated by the EPA to get just 27/36 mpg city/highway with a four-speed automatic, the two hybrids are no match in the long game: five years for the absolute cheapest Prius c and an absurd your-kid-will-drive-it 16 years and 5 months to make up the difference between a cheap Corolla and the Prius Eco.

What about those above-average commuters? Well, at 30,000 miles per year the Prius c is paying drivers back well before the loan is paid off, but the Prius Eco still takes a good number of years. If you need the extra space afforded by the versatile hatchback Prius, though, it might be worth the extra scratch to get one. Just don’t try to justify your purchase with the fuel/money savings argument.

Model Toyota Corolla Toyota Prius c Toyota Prius Eco MSRP $18,135 $20,395 $25,535 Difference — $2,260 $7,400 Cost per year (15,000 miles) $1,100 $650 $650 Time to Break Even (15,000 miles) — 5 years 16 years, 5 months Cost per year (30,000 miles) $2,150 $1,350 $1,200 Time to Break Even (30,000 miles) — 2 years, 10 months 7 years, 9 months

Toyota RAV4 vs. RAV4 Hybrid

When Toyota brought the RAV4 Hybrid, we couldn’t help but say, “About time!” Toyota, makers of the segment-defining Prius hybrid, finally anointed the incredibly popular RAV4 with a hybrid system, and it’s a good one with one of the best-feeling regenerative brake pedals in the segment. When comparing similarly equipped models (XLE with AWD to the XLE Hybrid), the RAV4 Hybrid makes up the $1,225 difference well before the five-year mark—even sooner when you really start piling the miles on. If all-wheel drive is high on your list, jumping up to the hybrid is a no-brainer.

Model Toyota RAV4 RAV4 Hybrid MSRP $28,555 $29,780 Difference — $1,225 Cost per year (15,000 miles) $1,300 $1,000 Time to Break Even (15,000 miles) — 4 years, 2 months Cost per year (30,000 miles) $2,600 $2,050 Time to Break Even (30,000 miles) — 2 years, 3 months

Kia Soul vs. Soul EV

From a pure dollars and cents perspective, the Kia Soul EV never seems to make sense over the garden-variety Soul with a gas motor. It must be noted, though, that the driving experience of the Soul EV is far more refined than even the loaded regular Soul. How, you ask? The Soul EV’s instant-torque electric motors and single-speed transmission are far smoother and quieter than the relative cacophony of economy-car sounds the ICE-toting Soul makes. Sure, putting more miles on the car each year lowers the gap, but we’d be impressed by anyone who could manage such a feat; the EV’s miles can only be accumulated at a maximum of 90 miles a whack.

Verdict? If you get some serious state/local rebates, free charging at home/work, and stupendous parking spots, the EV might be worth it. Otherwise, skip the electricity.

Model Kia Soul Kia Soul EV MSRP $16,750 $32,800 Difference — $16,050 Cost per year (15,000 miles) $1,300 $600 Time to Break Even (15,000 miles) — 22 years, 11 months Cost per year (30,000 miles) $2,600 $1,250 Time to Break Even (30,000 miles) — 11 years, 10 months

Lincoln MKZ vs. MKZ Hybrid

If Lincoln’s strategy was to sell hybrids, they certainly hit upon a successful plan. Instead of a significant premium and a little extra content, the MKZ gives you a no-cost choice between hybrid and non-hybrid. When you consider fuel savings alone, Lincoln MKZ Hybrid drivers can start the celebrating on day one of ownership. At 15,000 miles per year, the hybrid saves $450; commuting 30,000 miles per year gives you an extra $900. With that much money you could watch more than a few of Matthew McConaughey’s more entertaining movies and still have some dough left over for a couple steak dinners. It’s nice to drive a hybrid Lincoln.

Model Lincoln MKZ Lincoln MKZ Hybrid MSRP $35,935 $35,935 Difference — $0 Cost per year (15,000 miles) $1,300 $850 Time to Break Even (15,000 miles) — 0 months Cost per year (30,000 miles) $2,600 $1,700 Time to Break Even (30,000 miles) — 0 months

Audi A3 vs. A3 e-tron

Although it’s not a pure apples-to-apples comparison—the Audi A3 e-tron is a hatchback, and the regular A3 is a sedan—the two small Audis demonstrate a point that’s coming across otherwise. Unless you have a very narrow use case, a love of small European hatchbacks, or a deep guilt about carbon emissions, plug-in hybrids just aren’t efficient enough to pay back that difference in purchase price in a reasonable amount of time.

Model Audi A3 Audi A3 e-tron MSRP $31,850 $38,850 Difference — $7,000 Cost per year (15,000 miles) $1,250 $1,000 Time to Break Even (15,000 miles) — 28 years Cost per year (30,160 miles) $2,500 $2,086 Time to Break Even (30,160 miles) — 16 years, 11 months

Volkswagen Jetta vs. Jetta Hybrid

The Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid is one of the best-driving vehicles in the “let’s add electricity” segment (excluding expensive sport/hyper cars), but when you compare the pricey premium model to the entry-level gas burner, there’s not much of a point. The hybrid is better, but it doesn’t improve fuel economy substantially enough to make up for the huge difference in price between the entry-level Jetta, which starts at less than $20,000, and the hybrid, which starts at more than $30,000. How long is this process going to take? A long, looooong time.

Model Volkswagen Jetta Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid MSRP $18,500 $31,940 Difference — $13,440 Cost per year (15,000 miles) $1,050 $900 Time to Break Even (15,000 miles) — 89 year, 6 months Cost per year (30,000 miles) $2,100 $1,850 Time to Break Even (30,000 miles) — 53 years, 8 months

Chevrolet Malibu vs. Malibu Hybrid

To call the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu a step up from the previous generation would be a massive understatement. The 2016 Malibu has been improved in nearly every appreciable way, including a roomier interior, handsome sheetmetal, and snazzy new powertrains. One of those powertrains is the Malibu Hybrid, which posts a competitive 47/46 mpg city/highway to the base car’s 27/37 mpg. Despite the significant difference in fuel economy, it would still take far longer than the length of a reasonable loan for the hybrid to catch and surpass the non-hybrid Malibu.

Model Chevrolet Malibu Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid MSRP $22,500 $28,645 Difference — $6,145 Cost per year (15,000 miles) $1,100 $750 Time to Break Even (15,000 miles) — 17 years, 6 months Cost per year (30,000 miles) $2,150 $1,450 Time to Break Even (30,000 miles) — 8 years, 9 months

Hyundai Sonata vs. Sonata Hybrid vs. Sonata PHEV

Like the Ford Fusion trio, the Hyundai Sonata is the best bet of the bunch unless you’ve got some extenuating circumstance in your daily commute that make a plug-in hybrid more viable. Although it would take less time for higher-mileage commuters to make up the difference in a Sonata Hybrid, taking more than seven years to get there is no doubt far too long for most.

Model Hyundai Sonata Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Hyundai Sonata PHEV MSRP $22,585 $26,835 $35,435 Difference — $4,250 $12,850 Cost per year (15,000 miles) $1,100 $800 $750 Time to Break Even (15,000 miles) — 14 years, 2 months 36 years, 9 months Cost per year (30,000 miles) $2,250 $1,650 $1,500 Time to Break Even (30,000 miles) — 7 years, 1 month 17 years, 2 months

Lexus RX 350 vs. RX 450h

By now, you probably won’t be surprised when we remind you that the hybrid isn’t going to make up the difference in fuel savings. Even the best-selling crossover ever isn’t immune to the expensive-hybrid myth. However, as with a few others on this list, it’s important to remember positioning when you consider pricing. The RX 450h is billed as a more powerful RX, not necessarily as a more efficient one, although it is that, too. Just don’t jump into a Lexus hybrid and forget about that starting MSRP before you start calculating how much money you’re going to be saving on gas.

Model Lexus RX 350 Lexus RX 450h MSRP $42,850 $53,185 Difference — $10,335 Cost per year (15,000 miles) $1,450 $1,350 Time to Break Even (15,000 miles) — 103, years 5 months Cost per year (30,000 miles) $2,900 $2,700 Time to Break Even (30,000 miles) — 51 years, 7 months