WILMINGTON -- When it comes to saving money on gas, they seem like a good option. But are hybrid cars really as environmentally friendly as we think? When it comes to going green, consumers are increasingly turning to alternative cars. Honda sales representative Christian Gibbs said, "The type of buyer that buys [a gasoline-electric hybrid] car is not usually a performance-oriented person. They're after the fuel economy and the effects on the environment." The Honda Civic hybrid is one of the most highly rated alternative cars on the market. It combines a traditional gas-powered motor with a battery. Gibbs said, "When you first start the vehicle it uses the electric engine. Then it's going to kick over to the gasoline engine. Once you get going, it's going to switch back over to the electric engine." So the question remains: when it comes to saving the environment, are hybrids worthy of the hype? Despite hybrid technology improving significantly since being first introduced, recent sales have fallen flat. Critics point to a fuel efficiency advantage that may not be significant enough for buyers to stray from their gas-powered cars. Honda reps say the civic hybrid gets 48 miles per gallon in the city and 50 on the highway. But buyers beware -- those numbers may not give you an accurate picture. If you've ever thought your car doesn't seem to get the gas mileage it's supposed to, it may not be your imagination. That's because the last time the EPA revised its methods for calculating gas mileage was 1984. It was based on speeds lower than what people typically drive today. It also didn't take into account things like the temperature outside and the use of an air conditioner -- all things which can impact your car's fuel economy. That's why, beginning next year, the EPA will change the way it calculates a car's fuel efficiency. So cars that now tout 25 miles per gallon may only be able to claim 20 after the re-calculation -- meaning next year we should get a clearer picture of just how fuel efficient hybrids are. And even with better fuel economy, does that translate into cost savings for the consumer? Hybrids cost between 2-3,000 dollars more than the gas-powered alternatives. UNCW Environmental Studies Chair Jack Hall said, "They are going to save some money on fuel. But, that is a lot of times overwhelmed by the cost of the increased cost of the car." Gibbs said, "A lot of times, people come in wanting to maximize their fuel economy and they don't mind paying a little extra for the hybrid technology." As gas prices creep closer to $3.50 and $4 dollars a gallon, hybrid owners will see a greater benefit. The increased up-front cost will be offset by fewer fill-ups. Critics also point to the environmental hazards of the battery manufacturing process that people often don't think about. Bottom line: when it comes to hybrids, experts say the jury is still out. Hall said, "I would wait to buy one." But just how long can we afford to wait? In 2005 the federal government began issuing tax credits to hybrid buyers. But lawmakers started phasing out of the benefit when car makers manufactured their 60,000th hybrid.
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