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Hybrid vehicles are hitting the mainstream. Bear with me – they really are. We don’t take notice every time a Toyota Prius drives by. You probably don’t even realize when Honda’s Accord Hybrid or a Toyota Camry Hybrid cruise past. Perhaps you perceive that the Civic you saw was different (funny wheels) or the Honda Insight that whistled by looked like the embodiment of fuel economy. The Lexus and Ford hybrids never caught your eye. It’s normal now.

What does that say for the new generation of diesel-powered automobiles? The Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec is so quiet we wouldn’t know it was anything other than a regular 6-cylinder Benz. People may wonder when they see “Bluetec” on the rear decklid. Then it’s out of sight and out of mind. As these lean, green, environmental machines become somewhat ordinary, the questions surrounding them become more inquisitive; the opinions more judicious; the decisions more fiscally prudent.

Thus, for the purposes of full disclosure, here are the facts in a real life situation. Just the facts, nothing more or less. I did not drive four vehicles for a total of 80,000km as these facts would have you believe.

The aforementioned Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec is an incredible torque-monster. 400 lb-ft of twist, in fact, with over 200 horsepower. Energuide says this car will use 9 litres of diesel for every 100km in the city; 5.9 on the highway. Ideal conditions, consistent driving manner and all that jazz. Those are the test-tube numbers, but how does it apply to real life? Say an owner travels 13,000km a year in the city. The Bluetec would use 1,170L. With 7,000km on the highway, the Bluetec would sip only 413L of diesel. At a diesel price of $1.08 on the east coast of Canada, the owner would spend $1709 in a typical year’s driving. For the sake of the facts, at Post-Hurricane Katrina diesel prices, the total would rise around $31. To gain entry into a Benz of this nature, your base price is $67,800 in Canadian dollars.

But there’s a ‘cheaper’ E-class Mercedes available to us. It is known as the E280 4Matic and offers 228bhp, but 179 lb-ft less torque than the diesel. At Energuide’s ratings of 13/city and 9.1 highway, the recommended use of premium fuel, and using the same formula, the E280 would cost $2829 at $1.21/L. The post-Katrina fuel prices would drive that total up to $3374.

All of a sudden the gas-powered vehicle costs $1120 more to fuel for a typical year’s worth of driving. Adjust the mileage to suit your own lifestyle and remember that diesels do a very good job of getting close to the Energuide ratings. In late August of 2005, the fuel cost difference between these two oh-so-similar Benz’s would have been $1634. The E280’s trick is a base price $2300 lower than the diesel E-class.

When it comes to the oft-hyped Toyota Camry Hybrid, the cost differential between it and other Camry trim lines is hard to decipher. You can have four-cylinders or six, well-equipped or a Lexus-by-another-name. With the Camry Hybrid’s base price of $32,000 and its 187 horses, the 5.7L/100km in both the city and on the highway sounds great. Especially when compared against, say, a Camry SE ‘B package’ 4-cylinder which costs only $105 less and has less horsepower (but also less weight). Not as nice when compared with a basic Camry at $25,900. 2.4L Camry engines are rated around 9.8L/100km in the city and 6.5 on the highway. Utilizing the same formula as above and today’s fuel prices, the Hybrid will cost $1311, with only $458 of that on the highway. The typical 4-cylinder Camry would cost $1465 in the city alone (all driving, drivers, and conditions identical) and another $523 on the highway. That’s a total of $1988, and you can see why the Hybrid looks attractive when compared with a Camry of the same price.

With $677 saved on fuel in a year’s worth of driving, the Hybrid driver would make up the cost against the first gas-only Camry we mentioned in short order, and go on to save $3280 over the course of five years. Buy an inexpensive new Camry, and over five years the Hybrid would never make up the cost difference. It would take you nine years to break even when saving $677 per year on fuel but spending $6100 more on the car.

Slant the advantage to the Hybrid if more driving is done in the city, because that is where Hybrids are a)more likely to achieve their hyped-up ratings and b) their improved efficiency shines even brighter versus typical gas Camry’s. Slant the argument toward a non-electric-accompanied Camry by driving more on the highway because the efficiency differential is much smaller; only 0.8L/100km more than the Hybrid, in fact.

All arguments for the Bluetec and Hybrid accelerate when fuel prices rise. The Camry Hybrid could stretch its savings to almost $800 in the first comparison at post-Katrina prices.

Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer. All of this assumes Energuide’s ratings, currently supplied MSRP’s, and no government rebates. Regardless, do the math on the car price before you plan to save dollars at the pump.