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Buying a Fuel-Efficient Vehicle

February 17, 2017

You're searching for a new car and interested in fuel-efficient vehicles. On the surface, they sound like a good idea: You may save money by making fewer trips to the gas station, and you'll help protect the environment.

Know your options

Many different vehicles fall into the fuel-efficient category. There are electric vehicles (EVs), which run solely on electricity. One or more electric motors are powered by rechargeable battery packs. Some EVs have built-in chargers, whereas others must be plugged into external chargers. EVs produce zero emissions and run quietly.

Another kind of fuel-efficient vehicle is the traditional hybrid, which exists in two forms: parallel and series. Parallel hybrids have a small internal combustion engine as well as batteries that power an electric motor. The vehicle's transmission and wheels can be powered by both the engine and electric motor. Series hybrids use an on-board generator to produce electricity which, in turn, charges batteries or powers the electric motor. The vehicle is never directly powered by the gasoline engine.

Plug-in hybrids are very similar to traditional hybrids, but plug-ins rely on a different primary energy source. The battery-powered electric motor functions as the main source of power. When the battery reaches a certain level, the internal engine's power kicks in and the vehicle uses gasoline to extend its range. The battery is recharged by plugging the vehicle into an external charger, hence the name.

In addition to EVs and hybrids, vehicles that run on alternative fuel are also considered fuel-efficient. Alternative fuels include diesel, bio-diesel, ethanol, compressed natural gas, and hydrogen fuel cells.

Weigh the advantages against the disadvantages

One of the biggest factors in deciding whether to buy a fuel-efficient vehicle is cost. Generally, fuel-efficient vehicles come with a higher purchase price that can be off-putting when comparing them to standard vehicles. And if your fuel-efficient car is equipped with an expensive battery, you must be prepared to pay even more when the battery eventually needs to be replaced.

Other drawbacks include scarcity of public chargers, limited driving range, and fewer model options to choose from (as opposed to traditional vehicles).

On the other hand, driving a green vehicle could add some green to your wallet. Many EVs and hybrids qualify for a federal income tax credit. Depending on your vehicle's battery capacity, you could earn a credit ranging from $2,500 up to $7,500. However, certain restrictions do apply. For more information, see IRS Form 8936, Qualified Plug-in Electric Drive Motor Vehicle Credit.

Your auto insurance provider may also offer discounts if you drive an EV or hybrid. It's worth checking to see whether you will save on insurance by driving a fuel-efficient vehicle.

Chances are good that a fuel-efficient vehicle will save you money at the gas station. Fuel-efficient vehicles typically have superior fuel economy, which means you'll likely be taking fewer trips to refuel your car. Over time, the savings from reduced gas station stops could be significant.

Decide what suits your lifestyle

Financial considerations aside, think about what kind of car best fits your needs. To help decide, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you afford a more expensive fuel-efficient vehicle, or does it make more sense to buy a conventional vehicle?
  • How much driving do you do in a typical week?
  • Do you want an EV or a hybrid? Or do you want to consider an alternative fuel option?
  • If you choose an EV or plug-in, are you able to charge it at home? If you frequently drive longer distances, will you be able to recharge it easily on the road?
  • When will you need to replace the battery in your vehicle? How expensive will it be?
  • What kind of gas mileage should you expect to get from an EV or hybrid?
  • Are there any reliability or safety issues associated with EVs or hybrids?

If you don't drive your vehicle on a consistent basis, you might consider sticking with a conventional vehicle. For example, after just one week of not driving an EV or hybrid vehicle, the battery could be affected and may not function properly.