A few years back, I had a fair amount of skepticism about whether buying a hybrid car was really and truly the best buy for the climate.

My argument at the time: hybrids came at a pretty steep price premium.  A low-end Prius cost many thousands of dollars more than a comparable Corolla.  I ran the numbers, and decided that a green-minded consumer who just wanted a new set of wheels would probably be better off buying a cheaper car that got decent-but-not-awesome mileage, and investing some of the savings in something even more effective at reducing emissions: new insulation, say, or super-efficient appliances and furnaces.  Then both you and the planet might come out ahead.

But a few months back, I basically abandoned that line of thought.  What changed?  Mostly gas prices.  As the cost of fuel has risen above $4/gallon, the cost savings from a gas-sipping car have risen in tandem.  Plus, hybrids are proving that they maintain their value very well; maintainance costs are low, and worries about expensive battery replacements are subsiding.  Car rating service Intellichoice.com concluded that the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid were the cheapest cars of their class available, considering the total cost of ownership over 5 years.   So if hybrids are the best buys in their own right, the climate benefits are just gravy.

But now, I see that Edmunds.com has come to the opposite conclusion, and that hybrids aren’t even close to being the cheapest cars on the lot.  The Prius, according to Edmunds, clocks in at #26—not terrible, really, but not stellar either.   And the Edmunds report even assumes that gas rises to $5 per gallon. 

And apparently Consumer Reports has yet anothertake; they rated the Prius as the third most economical new car, behind 2 versions of the Honda Fit.  Of course, Consumer Reports limits their consideration to cars that meet their other criteria for quality and safety. (See here for a list of Edmunds & Consumer Reports top 10 most economical cars).  Still, by their reckoning, hybrids fare pretty well.

If I dove into the numbers, I might figure out what’s going on here.  Are there different assumptions about mileage, or maintenance costs, or financing? Hard to tell.  But for the moment, I’ll consider the issue unsettled.  At current and or/foreseeable gas prices, and factoring in the total cost of ownership, hybrids are either the very cheapest cars to buy; close to the cheapest; or not too shabby, all things considered.  Your mileage may vary.