If you're searching for a new or used vehicle, you may have checked out a hybrid car. You also may have noticed that hybrids tend to be more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts. So are they worth the extra money? We examine a few scenarios to see if they are.

Scenario 1: City Driving

A 2014 Toyota Prius starts around $25,000. A reasonably equipped 2014 Toyota Corolla with similar features will run closer to $20,000. So can the Prius make up the $5,000 difference with its lower fuel costs?

If you drive almost entirely in the city, you can expect 51 miles per gallon from the Prius. In the Corolla, that number falls to 28 mpg with the base model or 30 mpg with the economy-minded Corolla LE Eco. With today's average gas price of around $3.52 per gallon, making up the $5,000 difference will take a while. In fact, plan on driving more than 90,000 miles before the Prius becomes cheaper than the Corolla.

The problem is the initial cost. In the first 10,000 miles, the Prius saves drivers only around $525 -- nowhere near enough to account for the $5,000 savings from choosing the Corolla.

Scenario 2: Highway Driving

Now imagine the same cars for someone who spends a lot of time on the highway. The Prius returns around 48 mpg hwy, while the Corolla reaches as high as 42 mpg. In that case, the Prius gains back only around $105 per 10,000 miles -- meaning it would take drivers well over 400,000 miles to earn back the extra $5,000 spent on the Prius.

What About an EV?

Things get a little more even when we're talking about purely electric cars. A Nissan Leaf starts just under $30,000 with shipping, while a similarly equipped Nissan Sentra is more like $24,000. While the $6,000 difference is greater than the gap between the Prius and the Corolla, the Leaf requires no fuel and costs almost nothing to run.

As a result, driving 10,000 miles per year in the Sentra costs $1,100 in fuel -- compared to nothing in the Leaf. That means the difference would take less than 60,000 miles to make up. And if you take advantage of the Leaf's $7,500 federal tax credit, the EV becomes less expensive even more quickly.

The Lesson

Most hybrid drivers have many reasons for buying a hybrid car. Some want to benefit the environment, and they're willing to spend a little extra to make that happen. Others don't mind paying more up-front if it means their annual fuel costs are lower. But for shoppers interested in saving the most money, a hybrid may not be the way to go. Instead, we recommend an electric car -- or just an inexpensive gas-powered model with great fuel economy.

author photo

Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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