I saw a glowing review of the new 2004 Prius in the weekend paper. The car is a hybrid, so it gets excellent gas mileage (estimated: 55 mpg), and Toyota’s MSRP is the same as for the previous model year despite numerous improvements, a new aerodynamic body design, and a US-market-centric interior design.
Just for fun I thought I’d write up a comparison between the Prius and a typical gas-hog SUV, the Ford Excursion. I compared the cost of the vehicles in two ways: the operational cost per mile — a simple calculation of the price of a gallon of gas divided by the vehicle’s estimated gas mileage; and the cost per cupholder, calculated by dividing MSRP by the number of places provided for storing your beverage.
|2004 Toyota Prius||3.9¢||$10,405|
|2004 Ford Excursion||17.9¢||$6,301|
As expected, the Prius has a much lower cost per mile to operate, because it will drive approximately 4.6 times farther on a single gallon of fuel. In a typical year of driving, the Prius would consume $469 worth of gas, whereas the Excursion would consume $2150.
But if like many SUV fans your main criteria for selecting a vehicle is the number of cupholders, then the Excursion is a much better deal. Featuring six cupholders, the Excursion is sure to provide a place for your entire family to hold their beverages, all at once. And get this — for $38,800-$43,200, you can upgrade to an XLT, Eddie Bauer, or Limited edition with eight cupholders. Whoo-hoo!
I have to admit that my analysis is flawed. I’ve assumed gas costs $2.15 per gallon, which is not true. According to a 1998 report from the International Center for Technology Assessment, the the real price of gas is significantly higher:
This report … identifies and quantifies the many external costs of using motor vehicles and the internal combustion engine that are not reflected in the retail price Americans pay for gasoline. These are costs that consumers pay indirectly by way of increased taxes, insurance costs, and retail prices in other sectors.
The report divides the external costs of gasoline usage into five primary areas: (1) Tax Subsidization of the Oil Industry; (2) Government Program Subsidies; (3) Protection Costs Involved in Oil Shipment and Motor Vehicle Services; (4) Environmental, Health, and Social Costs of Gasoline Usage; and (5) Other Important Externalities of Motor Vehicle Use. Together, these external costs total $558.7 billion to $1.69 trillion per year, which, when added to the retail price of gasoline, result in a per gallon price of $5.60 to $15.14.
Let’s take a fresh look at those operational costs, using a “real” cost of $15/gallon:
|Model||annual “real” gas expense|
|2004 Toyota Prius||$3,272|
|2004 Ford Excursion||$15,000|
OK, so the Ford Excursion is a big fat loser when it comes to fuel economy and toxic pollution. Everybody already knew that. At least it’s a safer vehicle, right?
Um. There are no published crash test results for the 2004 models, but in general, SUVs kill more people than mid-sized sedans.
I was able to find one somewhat relevant test: “Head Restraint” ratings from the IIHS. They use a four-item scale: Good / Acceptable / Marginal / Poor.
For the 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 model years, the Prius has earned the highest possible rating, “Good.”
For the 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 model years, the Ford Excursion has earned the lowest possible rating, “Poor”.
Frequent correspondent Jacque Harper points out reports that some Prius owners get much worse mileage than the vehicle’s EPA estimates would indicate. There’s a whole story here, worthy of investigation and analysis at a future date. But for the purposes of my SUV vs. hybrid shootout, I don’t find it particularly relevant. Whether the Prius gets 55 mpg or 42 mpg or 31 mpg, Prius owners are taking a stand: they are voting with their dollars for small, aerodynamic, fuel-efficient vehicles. They are attempting to do less damage to the environment than they could. They are setting a good example to others. They’re making a viable market for low-emission vehicles.
[Update: I test-drove a Prius for a day and measured 53.9 MPG.]