Kim Min-kyu, a 35-year-old TV producer, recently purchased a Toyota Prius, the world’s best-selling hybrid. Despite the price being almost double that of same-size Korean brand cars, he feels good about his fuel savings.
“I actually didn’t like the futuristic car design but its fuel efficiency rating was more appealing to me. It’s also cool to be seen driving a hybrid,” he said.
|The hybrid Hyundai Sonata, Kia K5|
Amid high gasoline prices, a growing number of Korean drivers, like Kim, are turning to more fuel-efficient vehicles, such as clean-diesels, hybrids and electric cars.
Last year, hybrid sales in Korea soared more than 50 percent to 37,000 vehicles from 20,000 in 2011, while diesel cars made up 60 percent of the total imported car market.
Experts warn, however, that drivers need to gauge exactly how much money they can save by opting for the vehicles that promise a better mileage but at a higher price.
According to data collected from carmakers, it would take almost 10 years to pay off the added cost of a hybrid car compared to its conventional gasoline model. (The data assumes that an average Korean drives 15,000 kilometers a year and the gasoline price is 1,992 won per liter, the price as of Wednesday.)
The hybrid Hyundai Sonata, Kia K5 and Toyota Camry are likely to generate enough savings through lower fuel costs within 10 years on average to make up the 8 million won to 10 million won price difference with the original gasoline models.
Considering a 3.4 million won government subsidy and promotional discounts by carmakers, the payback period could be shortened to eight years, the data found.
In Korea, according to other industry data, car owners replace their vehicles every five to six years and every three to four years for imported car brands.
Hybrids by Toyota, which owns the patent rights to most of the important hybrid technologies, produce better mileage ratings and more monetary savings than Korean brand cars for now.
The hybrid Prius, with a fuel economy of 21 kilometers per liter ― one of the highest ― makes up the 10 million won price difference with the similar-size Kia K5 within seven and a half years.
Carmakers, however, were cautious about the direct comparison between hybrids and gasoline models.
“A hybrid model usually comes with higher-end options compared to its gasoline version. So customers need to consider diverse factors when they make a car choice,” said a Hyundai official, declining to be named.
Other eco package versions or diesel-powered cars also take five years on average for the owners to see monetary savings, the data showed.
Experts advise that a driver who drives more than 15,000 kilometers a year generally in urban areas would benefit most from buying a hybrid.
They say a diesel driver also needs to consider that the diesel price, even though it’s cheaper than gasoline, is also rising, and engine maintenance costs at least three to four times more than gasoline engines.
Despite the lower price competitiveness, hybrids are undeniably the next big trend in the auto industry, said Kim Pil-soo, an automotive studies professor at Daelim College.
“Hybrid technologies have seen major progress compared to those for electric cars. Their safety has largely been proven even when the owner drives the car for more than 10 years,” he said. “Car prices are also stabilizing now.”
He predicted it would take four to five years for Hyundai to catch up with the hybrid leader Toyota in terms of technologies and price competitiveness.
Kim, like other experts, agrees that driving a fuel-efficient car is not enough without “eco-driving.”
“Korean drivers use 1.5 times more fuel than their European peers. If they don’t change their rough driving habits, any fuel-efficient car is meaningless,” said the professor.
By Lee Ji-yoon