Are You A Prius Lover or Hater?

When is the last time you got into a heated argument about cars? Cars in general are not controversial. Yes, there is the odd low-key Chevy vs. Ford thing from days gone by and that sort of thing, but most people generally don’t get worked up about cars, arguing about them after dinner in mixed company.

The Prius Parade

That changed a decade or so ago, when gas prices spiked and the media fueled public outrage over behemoth SUVs like Ford’s Expedition and Chevy’s Suburban. The “darling of the day” solution became the Toyota Prius. Californians were so enthralled with it that they pushed through legislation allowing single drivers to use the carpool lanes if they drove a Prius. If you’ve ever lived in the Bay Area or the L.A./Orange County sprawl, you know there is no ground on earth holier than their freeway carpool lanes. Other than winning the lottery, no fantasy occupies commuters’ minds more than finagling a way to zip along that ribbon of greased lightning while the rest stew in their mobile prisons, stuck listening to talk radio.

The Prius became the first car in eons that people talked about when they met for a little libation, or even just standing in lines. Sales went through the roof and dealers had waiting lists. Hollywood celebrities, always chasing the latest cool, hid their blinged-up Escalades — and Cameron Diaz, Harrison Ford and others made sure cameras saw them driving to the 2003 Academy Awards in their Priuses. (Actually not theirs, just loaners from Toyota, but cameras can’t tell the difference.)

All that chatter made the little car the most controversial thing on four wheels since the Edsel. Everyone seemed to sing its praises.

Not everyone, though. Jeremy Clarkson, on the top-rated British show Top Gear, never missed an opportunity to bash the car and humiliate anybody who confessed to even sitting in one, let alone owning it. The TV show South Park parodied the Prius parade in a 2006 episode, citing its excessive emissions of “smug.” Elsewhere, I read a lengthy rant from someone in the Bay Area incensed by an extreme Prius driver driving less than 20 mph on a freeway, windows rolled up while sweating, obviously minimizing the wind drag of open windows while keeping the AC off. Why he didn’t change lanes and blow by Planet Earth’s last savior escapes me, but that’s not the point.

The point is the Prius excited more passion than any Lamborghini or Yugo ever could, or ever did. And that passion is centered around a lovely word in these quarters: saving. The gas savings make it easy on the planet as well as your wallet.

How much is this saving?

You’ve no doubt read numerous articles and posts claiming the Prius is the best thing since recyclable tissues, and others which say that’s baloney. So, what’s the truth?

There are many variables to skew the numbers this way or that. In fact, most articles I read only selected the numbers they quote to favor their stance. In pursuit of the truth, I took all costs, not just gasoline, over a five-year period, doing my best to track them down from neutral sources (i.e., sources that didn’t have an axe to grind in the debate).

It’s impossible to avoid picking a number not favoring one position or the other, though, so I decided to favor the Prius where there was latitude for choice. For instance, I picked a gas price of $4 a gallon for the entire five years, making the Prius’s fuel economy count for more. (A lower price obviously negates that benefit.) I also used the EPA “City” mileage number in my calculations. Not all miles are driven in city conditions, but I had to pick a number, and that’s the one that favors the Prius the most.

A glimpse at the IRS mileage reimbursement rate components shows the biggest car expenses are:

  • Depreciation (they say close to half of all vehicle costs)
  • Gas, and
  • Insurance

All the other costs add up to roughly the same as insurance, which is not that different from car to car, so I ignored that. (The goal isn’t to determine the total actual cost; it’s to see where and how big the difference is.)

To get depreciation, I looked at three cars from 2009, to get a five-year number:

  • Toyota Prius (obvious)
  • Toyota Corolla (same company, same size)
  • Chevrolet Tahoe (most popular gas guzzler,  added just to see how bad it really was)

I found the MSRP of a mid-level model for each car, and then looked up the current Kelley Blue Book private party price for it in “good” condition with 60, 000 miles (1, 000 miles a month). The difference gives us the depreciation of each car over five years.

For fuel, I assumed 1, 000 miles a month, all in the city, at the aforementioned $4 a gallon.

Insurance was a little trickier to get because, in order to give you an accurate quote, all of the online sites like and the individual carrier sites want to know everything from your firstborn to the last time you read a blog (just kidding, but not by much). I am astounded by how many extraneous variables go into car insurance cost — my social security number even makes a difference (they say). I got quotes for each car being the only car, so no multiple-policy discounts. My age, driving record and occupation probably make for more favorable rates than a young delivery driver, but at least it’s the same assumption across the board. Bottom line: Your car insurance rate is affected much more by who you are (and where you live) than by what you drive.

Okay, so what’s the number?

prius costs

It’s as close to a tie between the Prius and the Corolla as you can get, basically. What you gain in the cost of gas you lose in additional depreciation. (And if you had any illusions that your Tahoe had any redeeming merit in the economy wars, it’s time to go and hide in a corner.)

So, the Prius can be the lowest cost vehicle for you, but not by much. And to get that, you need to:

  • only drive in the city
  • live in an area with sky-high gas prices,
  • not own it too long, because high-mileage maintenance on the Prius is much higher, and
  • disregard the higher interest on the higher initial price if you finance a new one.

In real life, odds are a Prius is not going to be as economical for you as a Corolla. In the past decade, the Prius’s advantage has been eroded as almost all cars get better mileage than a decade ago.

In closing, forgive me for not resisting the temptation to note that your friendly government does not intend to let this good work go unpunished. Back when they raised taxes on gasoline, a big justification was that you, miserable gas-guzzling consumer, need to be saved from yourself. Noble public servants that they are, they did their duty by raising gasoline taxes to give you a bigger incentive to conserve precious fuel.

It worked. However, as gas consumption dropped, so did their gasoline tax revenue. Their solution: simply add other taxes. Michigan, for example, is floating the idea of taxing you on miles traveled,  in addition to the existing gas tax. Why indeed should they suffer when you do what they want you to? Next time your government tells you they’ll increase your taxes for some social good purpose, ask what will happen if they reach their goal.

11 Responses to “Are You A Prius Lover or Hater?”

  1. Anonymous

    Not hating on the Prius, I don’t like they way they look so I’m not a buyer.

    BTW I do hate on some Prius owners. More than once I have gotten behind one in the left lane of the Edens expressway in Chicago who thought 50 MPH was an acceptable left lane speed. Drive what you like but don’t be so self righteous as to try to control the speed of everyone else. On major expressways that are full of aggressive drivers such as Chicagoland this creates dangerous situations. Wanna drive slow stay out of the passing lane.

    Then again I have also seen people bombing down the road at high rates of speed in their Prius.

  2. Anonymous

    Over its life a Prius would save you time spent in gasoline stations. In the example above the Corolla driver would spend almost twice as much time refueling as a Prius driver, and the Tahoe driver would waste more than triple the amount of timehanging out at the fuel pumps.

    I think that my time is valuable, and especially during inclement weather, appreciate not having to stop for gasoline.

  3. Anonymous

    I love my Prius, I drive it everywhere. I dislike people who hate the Prius without even driving one. They are good cars and I’ve saved a significant amount of money with mine.

  4. Anonymous

    @William – You’re aware the gax tax isn’t a percentage, but a fixed dollar per gallon, right? If you were collecting a toll based on 1992 dollars, you’d want a new revenue stream too. What MDOT’s doing makes complete sense.

  5. Anonymous

    Thanks Susan for reminding me of something. Yes some other hybrids do have reduced utility. The Honda Accord plugin is 40G and has 9 cubic feet of trunk. I was at the Chicago Auto Show was was amazed at the Ford C-Max plugin. The battery ate much of the lower space behind the rear seats. Where most cars have a well area or flat floor over a spare tire it’s all battery.

    I have not driven Prius as it has no appeal to me, note PMs dislikes of the car, this was the plugin but the main difference is a larger battery pack. Still the other PI hybrids rated all had issues with either NVH or utility.

    Full disclosure my last 2 cars were a V6 Accord coupe ~24 MPG with my commute. Just traded to a 2011 BMW 328 sedan and unsure on the commuting MPG yet.

  6. Anonymous

    My 2006 Prius, with 97,000 miles, has been a great car for more than just fuel economy (47.3 mpg in mixed city/hwy use, 51-53mpg on long road trips going about 65 mpg). Maintenance has consisted of oil changes 2-3x a year, replacing tires and wipers, replacing the regular (12v?) battery a yr ago, and replacing the headlights (1/10th the cost quoted by the dealer). The hatchback provides great cargo capacity (hauled very large desks and dressers) and back seat passengers report plenty of leg room. Other vehicles with comparable mpg had small trunks mostly filled by the hybrid battery.

  7. Anonymous

    @Tim: You’re right, it would be nice to have a “pollution” comparison that includes building the car (how much goes into creating those batteries) and the disposal of the car (how are the batteries handled).

    I like the idea of an electric car but I don’t believe it is necessarily the most environmentally friendly option.

  8. Anonymous

    Also from the green angle the Prius has the problem of the NiMH batteries and other materials that go into it.

    They do say that over time the hybrid does have overall less carbon emissions but they are not as green as some think.

    From my car guy side that “Prius for Everyone” ad is annoying. Not just Clarkson hates on the Prius, many reviewers say it is a dull driving experience and there are hybrids from other automakers that get better mileage etc. But then they look like convention cars and don’t get the same “street cred” as the Prius.

  9. Anonymous

    “Next time your government tells you they’ll increase your taxes for some social good purpose, ask what will happen if they reach their goal.”

    They never reach their “Goal”, because the goal is to extract more from your pocket. And they can’t get enough.

    I don’t love Or hate the prius. People should drive what they want to drive. I prefer my Lexus LS. It gets around 25 mpg on the hwy and has plenty of room. Bought it used for a fraction of the new price. You can’t beat it on the hwy.

  10. Anonymous

    I’d love to see a comparison against a Volkswagen TDI, and a 10-year comparison that includes replacing the batteries in the Prius.

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