Suburbans Cheaper To Run Than Hybrids?

By on April 4, 2006

A report just released by CNW Marketing Research is shaking up many a tree hugger today. CNW’s research concluded that a hybrid vehicle will have a higher energy cost per mile travelled through the life of the vehicle than many larger and less “green” vehicles; what CNW terms the “Dust to Dust” cost of a vehicle.

CNW’s findings show that the Chevrolet Suburban has an energy cost per mile of $3.134, while a Toyota Prius
, the darling of the hybrid crowd, comes in at $3.249. Obviously the Prius can go much farther than the Suburban on a gallon of gasoline, but according to the CNW report, that is only part of the equation, as you must also factor in the energy required to build the vehicle, service it through its lifetime, and recycle its parts at the end.

As you can guess, the green crowd isn’t taking this news sitting down, and are firing back with their own statistics. But this news kind of confirms the feeling I’ve had toward hybrids from the get-go; they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They may save a little on fuel, but not nearly enough to justify the higher sticker price, the higher maintenance costs, and the higher cost to retire them. I’m no bean counter, but I know there is much more to the cost of a vehicle than its mpg figures.

What CNW is telling us is likely very true, but my theory is that the higher energy cost of running a hybrid is more the early adopter penalty than anything else. The automotive industry has been building internal combustion-powered rides for a long time, and the methods for building, maintaining, and retiring those vehicles is well established. Right now we’re still on the steep side of the learning curve for more energy efficient means of transport. I’m betting that the vehicles that we’ll end up with on the downhill slope of that curve won’t look or operate anything like what we drive today. Hybrids are just a baby step in the right direction.



  1. Electric cars aren’t as efficient as fossil fuel driven ones as long as the electricity they run on is generated from fossil fuels.

    The key environmental benefit they provide is exporting the pollution from combustion products out of urban centres, away from high densities of people.

    An additional benefit is the fossil fuel burning in a power station is easier to clean up before release to the atmosphere.

  2. So, If Im a lifelong Suburban customer ($40000) and I buy a Prius ($25000), I’ve already saved $15000. Plus, If I drive 33,000 miles a year, my Prius will burn through $1600 in gas, while the Suburban $4600. So to say that the savings aren’t there is how you apply the variables in question.

    And, give me numbers on how much it costs to dispose of a Prius, please. Don’t make blanket claims.

    And, a toyota is much more reliable than any GM, keeping maintenance costs low!

  3. While the energy cost today of recycling the materials in the hybrids, when they EOL, might be higher – that cost will come down over time as the technology becomes more prevalent. They contribute less emissions and are generally a lot quieter.

    Also, the hybrids are using less fossil fuel TODAY and the energy to dismantle and recycle them later may well come from another source. Sure, it is trading today for tomorrow – but energy research will have to replace fossil fuels sooner or later.

  4. Interesting factoid – I have heard about the “embodied energy” as a metric through the life of the vehicle. Where this smells of spreading FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) is that the goal of a hybrid vehicle is low operating costs as well as low CO2 and other pollutants’ emissions. Embodied energy measurements would rarely take that into account.

    It is an interesting article nonetheless, after all are we really making the planet better with such a choice? But then again – is this a distortion of what is really going on, too?

    Reminds me of a South Park episode where everyone in town bought a hybrid causing a thick pall of “smugness” to form, threatening the town.

    Now where is my 45mpg Geo Metro? :-)

  5. I think the concern with the disposal costs center around the huge batteries the cars require, or their lifetime. The last estimates I’ve seen were that the battery packs could cost many thousands of dollars to replace (up to around $10K I’ve seen, but with no sources to back this up). That’s just buying a new one, not disposing, or the impact of the disposal. As far as reliability, the Prius has already had one major recall in the US, and I read of another in the UK for leaking batteries – that sounds like a fun and unique problem to have.

  6. 1) Bob: if you are storing the otherwise wasted kinetic energy of a normal car for re-use, than yes, a hybrid can be much more efficient than a normal fossil-fuel burning car. If you then also design the car from the ground up to me more efficient, you are increasing the effect. You seem to be under the huge delusion that current generation hybrids are plug-in.

    2) GRS, you need to read more recent estimates on the costs to replace a hybrid battery. Yours seem to be about six years old. Plus, the the Prius has been out since ’97 and none has needed a replacement battery yet. How many ten-year old conventional cars have needed a new transmission in that time?

    The CNW report, by the way, according to US News, cites the greater number of moving parts and disposal costs of lead-acid batteries among the reasons that hybrids have a higher lifetime cost. No hybrid uses lead-acid batteries for its electric motor, and the Prius at least has fewer mechanical parts than a conventional vehicle.

    As Churchill said, there are three types of lie: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Comments are closed. If you have something you really want to say, tweet @gadgetopia.