Hybrid car owners cite price, technology in refusing to buy again

For a surprising number of U.S. hybrid car owners, the experience is one and done.

According to recent analysis by Polk Automotive, last year just 35 percent chose to buy another hybrid when it came time for a new car. Loyalty dropped even more, to about 33 percent, in eco-conscious cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland.

Despite a desire to help the environment, lighten fuel bills or reduce dependence on foreign oil, hybrid owners' decision to buy a second one comes down to dollars and cents.

"There are a lot of gasoline-powered vehicles out there that are much more fuel efficient, and cost thousands of dollars less than their hybrid counterparts," says Lacey Plache, chief economist with Edmunds.com.

Industry expert and UC Berkeley Prof. Harley Shaiken says the payback period for a hybrid often exceeds 6 years-- the average time car owners hold on to their vehicle.

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"If you take two similar, even identical models, one a hybrid, one not, for the Ford Fusion, for example, you're paying a $5,000 premium up front, versus a non-hybrid," explains Shaiken. "Going forward, it could take 8 to10 years to make up that savings. If you only plan to keep the car for 6 or 8 years, you are not going to see it. People are thinking twice about that kind of a decision."

For Los Angeles resident Bruce Cornelius, the decision was less about the cost, more about the hybrid technology and performance. He says his 2008 Honda Civic hybrid didn't get close to the promised 45 miles per gallon -- more like around 28. Echoing complaints made by scores of other Honda hybrid owners, Bruce says the electric battery system often failed, which meant his green car released carbon emissions just like the Mercedes-Benz he'd given up.

"They weren't delivering on the gas mileage, and they really weren't delivering on the green benefits of owning a vehicle like that," says Cornelius, speaking about Honda.

Some states have also put the brakes on tax credits, use of car pool lanes, and other perks once given to hybrid drivers.

Analysts predict the low repurchase rate will motivate car makers to improve the technology, and dealerships to lower sticker prices. They say it's either going to take reductions in price, or soaring costs for gas, to bring former hybrid owners back for a second tour.