Using data provided by TrueCar, The New York Times compiled a list of today's most popular green cars - including hybrids, plug-ins and eco-trim levels - and worked out just how long it would take for savings at the pump to erase higher prices paid at the dealer. The findings were somewhat shocking, with only a handful of vehicles returning a reasonable break-even period.
According to the report, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI has the shortest break-even point of any vehicle on the market, with the diesel's 35mpg average taking just 1.1 years to erase its premium over the gas-powered Jetta.
The New York Times says the Lincoln MKZ is just behind the Jetta TDI with a 1.2 year break-even period, but realistically the MKZ's fuel savings start the day you drive it off the lot, thanks to a starting price that is identical to its gas-only counterpart. The Toyota Prius files in behind the MKZ with a 1.8 year break-even period, although its comparison with the standard Camry is a bit of a stretch.
Aside from the Jetta TDI, the Chevrolet Cruze Eco is one of only two high-mileage models on the Times' list with a reasonable break-even period, requiring 4.4 years to pay off its real world premium of about $700. The Ford F-150 EcoBoost is the other, taking 4.7 years to pay off its higher MSRP.
The Kia Optima Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid all have realistic break-even periods between 5.5 and 6 years, but those sedans mark the end of the green car value story. From there break-even periods range from 8.4 years for the Porsche Cayenne Hybrid to 26.8 years for the Ford Fiesta SFE and Chevrolet Volt.
Why give up greenbacks for green cars?
With the math laid out it's hard to believe that anyone would pay a significant premium for a green vehicle, but Jesse Toprak, vice president for market intelligence at TrueCar, says that most buyers simply don't take the figures into consideration. "The price of the vehicle, you only pay it once and then soon forget about it,"¯ he said.
On the other hand, some people consciously pay extra just to get a green image.
"Fuel economy has become a social attribute,"¯ said Tom Turrentine, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis. "People want to have good fuel economy because if they have poor fuel economy they might look stupid."¯
However, if you're more concerned with saving your bank account than saving the earth, it's probably wise to stick with standard models.