Should I Buy a New Car Now or Wait for More Fuel-Efficient Models?

Ask a Scientist - February 2018

Richard E. of Brown Mills, NJ asks, "As a driver of a 2009 Toyota Camry hybrid, would you recommend that I purchase a 2017-2018 hybrid vehicle or wait until higher miles-per-gallon (mpg) vehicles are available?" and is answered by David Reichmuth, Ph.D., senior engineer with the UCS Clean Vehicles Program.

The decision to buy a new car is highly personal decision, involving financial, lifestyle and environmental considerations. But while it’s impossible to give you specific recommendations on what car to buy, I can suggest some guidelines.

First, you should choose the most efficient vehicle (conventional, hybrid or plug-in electric) that will meet most of your transportation needs, not necessarily all of them. If you need a pickup truck only once or twice a year, for example, it would be much cheaper to buy a car and rent a pickup from a traditional car rental company; a short-term, hourly rental company; or a peer-to-peer rental service.

Second, pay particular attention to plug-in options. Choosing an all-electric or plug-in hybrid can reduce how much you spend on fuel as well as how much pollution you emit by driving. I recently completed a study on the cost to recharge an electric car and found that drivers in some cities can save more than $1,000 per year on fuel. Those EV drivers also are producing much less pollution, especially in states where the electric grid is cleaner. For example, driving on electricity in California is the equivalent of driving a hypothetical 95-mpg gasoline car.

Choosing an electric car does require a bit more research to determine how you would recharge it and how much your electric utility charges for power. The first consideration is how and where you would plug in an electric car. Most plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevrolet Volt or Toyota Prius Prime, only require a standard three-prong, 120-volt outlet near where the care is parked overnight. An overnight charge from a standard outlet can provide about 40 miles of range, enough to fully charge most plug-in hybrids. Drivers of a fully electric car, such as a Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf or a Tesla, should consider investing in a higher power, 240-volt charging unit. These units require a circuit similar to those used to power an electric clothes dryer.

Another consideration is when to recharge an electric car. Many utilities charge differing time-of-use rates that offer cheaper power during off-peak periods, most often late at night and early in the morning.

If an electric vehicle isn’t right for you at this moment, there are plenty of efficient gasoline-powered options available. The Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid, Toyota Prius and Toyota Camry Hybrid, for example, currently achieve better than 50 mpg, which means they use at least a third less fuel than your 2009 Camry Hybrid. If you drive 15,000 miles a year and upgrade to one of these vehicles or a comparable model, you can cut your annual global warming emissions by as much as 2 tons. New cars are generally getting more efficient every year, so trading in your nine-year-old car for something more efficient is one of the biggest lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your environmental footprint.

There is no one right answer for which car or truck to buy. But it is important that prospective buyers have options to make an affordable, environmentally sound choice. That’s why UCS is advocating for clean car standards, which would ensure automakers continue to invest in technologies that make gasoline cars more efficient and expand electric drive options that will eventually eliminate combustion engines and petroleum use altogether.

David Reichmuth is a senior engineer in the Clean Vehicles Program, focusing on oil savings and vehicle electrification. Dr. Reichmuth earned his master’s and Ph.D. degrees, both in chemical engineering, from University of California-Berkeley where he investigated biological methods to reduce the sulfur content of fuels.  He earned his bachelor’s degree at University of California-Davis.