Plug-In Hybrids and Our Next Car, Part 2: Analysis Paralysis

September 9th, 2021 by Potato

Yesterday I set the stage with a general discussion on plug-in hybrids with a chance that you might find some part of it useful. Today we move on to the personal blog hand-wringing part where I try to decide what to do in my own life (which you can safely skip).

To get a new car, or not to get a new car? That is the question that I had managed not to ask myself for over a decade.

A few things came together to get me thinking about getting a new car. First off were discussions with my dad before he died — he was trying to push me toward getting a new car, trying to convince me I could afford it and deserved it. But that was before the pandemic. It was also a symptom of how his values were different from mine: he was just much more of a car person than me, after all he had 4 cars in his name when he passed.

And talking about moving to a PHEV for my next car with Blueberry got me to thinking why not make that transition sooner? Now, even?

On top of that, we have the weird market dynamics during the pandemic: used car prices are up a lot, so it might make sense to sell the old car now and buy a new one.

Obviously this is not a matter purely for economics — as a personal finance blogger I may have to forcibly repeat the conventional wisdom that buying used is usually the cheaper way to go. But I bought my Prius new, and will very likely buy my next car as a new car (and then keep it for 12+ years) even if it costs a bit more. I don’t want to be too loose with my budget, but this has been one area I’m willing to splurge a tiny bit every decade or two.

It’s kind of ridiculous to think about upgrading my car when the current one works great, and looks like it will have many more years of trouble-free operation to come. On the other hand, we’re a single-car family. ‘Til the wheels fall off’ is no longer our end point, we will be trading up at least a few years before that point because our one car has to be reliable.

So let’s be ridiculous for a bit and consider it.

Part of why used car prices are up so much is the chip shortage, which is causing delays for new cars. A Rav4 Prime has a 15-month waiting list at the moment, and a 6-month delay for an Escape PHEV. There are conflicting reports on how long the supply chain chaos will ripple through the market, but the consensus building in my head is that it could be a few years (several more quarters of chip shortage, and then a few more to work through the backlog). So maybe I don’t want to upgrade now, but if I want to 2 or 3 years from now, I might need to start shopping and maybe even getting on a waiting list now. As much as this mindset contributes to delays and shortages, I don’t think you want to go car shopping when you need a new car in this environment, you want to be out ahead of it. So maybe it makes sense to be thinking about this now even though the current car is in great shape?

What to get?

A PHEV is a no-brainer even for our minimal driving, if we’re comparing similar models.

The Prius is an astounding car, we cram all kinds of stuff into that hatch… but we’re not prepared to sacrifice on cargo space from there. We went to see a Prius Prime in person, and noped right out as soon as I put a box in there to see how the cargo space truly compares. So sadly, the Prius Prime is out (though as the kind folks at PriusChat pointed out, I could get a roof rack or small trailer for the few times a year we do need all the space the regular Prius offers).

And while a PHEV SUV makes sense compared to a gas or hybrid SUV, they don’t make financial sense compared to a regular hybrid Prius, at least not for our level of usage. So do we want to move up a size class just to be able to plug in? (I am leaning strongly that way because I do want a plug-in)

We went out and test drove a Ford Escape Hybrid (no PHEVs available to test, but close enough to evaluate most aspects of the vehicle). I do have a Toyota bias, but was pleased with how it drove and how the controls were laid out (though I wish the Prius’ high-centre display had taken off in more cars). We hated the standard SE-trim seats (mostly that the headrest was too far forward for comfort, and not adjustable), but the ones in the higher trims seemed fine. I haven’t driven a hybrid Rav4 in a while, but I am somewhat familiar with what it entails, and am quite sure that it would be a close match-up.

Either would be a perfectly fine choice for our next car… but we weren’t swept off our feet, and haven’t felt that irrational lust to upgrade, which otherwise might have short-circuited all of this analysis paralysis. They’re just good choices for the next step, but really no better than what we have now in terms of driving feel or comfort.

Based on what’s out there now, I’m putting the Ford Escape PHEV at the top of the list, though it’s essentially a tie with the Rav4 Prime. I have some brand loyalty to Toyota, but I don’t like the look of the new Rav4s (too truck-like and mean-looking, though I know that’s superficial of me), while I do like the more rounded look of the Escape. I also don’t love that the SE trim only comes in 3 boring colours — as Wayfare said, if we’re going to spend all that money for a new car, it should at least come in a fun colour that we love. The Rav4’s XSE trim is a big jump in price to be able to get a fun colour and a few other features, and while the tech package is very interesting (a heads-up display!) to me, it costs a tonne (perhaps because of the moonroof, which I would prefer to do without) — at that point it’s essentially in another class. The lower-trim SE Rav4 costs ~$2k more than the fully loaded Escape, and the XSE is $7.5k more. That’s quite the premium (though to be fair, with the Toyota name it will probably keep a chunk of that on resale value) for vehicles that I liked about equally.

But the big question is what’s coming out next? The 4th gen Prius is overdue for a makeover, though reports are that the 5th gen Prius won’t hit the market until 2023. And the plug-in version took an extra year or more for each of the Prius, Rav4, and Escapes, so while there’s a chance the 5th gen Prius Prime might find a no-compromise way to hide the plug-in batteries in the floor or under the seats and be perfect for us, it might not be available until 2024 or 2025 (when my current car will be 14-15 years old) — a close enough future to maybe wait with a very high chance the current car will be fine through to then, but just far enough to trigger the worries and analysis paralysis. And looking back at past news stories, Toyota seems to only release detailed info on the next generation less than a year before it’s on sale, so it’s not like we’ll have specs in hand to answer the question about the 5th gen Prius Prime and reassure us about the plan to wait any time soon.

Timing Questions

If we were going to get just another hybrid, it wouldn’t even be a question: I’d wait at least for the 5th gen Prius, and wouldn’t even be considering the SUVs. Also, the chip shortage doesn’t seem to be hitting Priuses too hard, with many in inventory at the local dealers (i.e., no wait at all right now).

But the prospect of moving up to a PHEV to stop burning gas for a big chunk of my driving is an attractive idea, and is making me consider an early upgrade. Plus my dad put that damned idea to get a new car in my head, so I was primed for that debate to start up.

The chip shortage has of course thrown another wrinkle into the mix. It’s about a 15-month wait for a R4P now, and a 5-6 month wait for an Escape PHEV. The chip shortage and supply chain disruptions look like they’ll continue to create waiting lists for at least another year, and I’d rather upgrade while I have the luxury of wallowing in analysis paralysis on my blog rather than when something big breaks on my car and I worry that I am getting close to its end of life. Plus prices are weird — there are no discounts to MSRP to be had, but it’s acting as a cap to prices on a new car, while used cars have increased in value. Paying $1.25k more on a new car from not being able to negotiate a discount while getting $2k more back on the trade-in (if we can accomplish that — it remains to be seen how much more valuable our specific car is) seems like a situation that’s worth taking advantage of.

So here we are at the end, with no clear conclusion for what I should personally do. Wayfare says we still love the Prius, it’s still in good shape, and we’re not feeling that primal need for a new SUV after the test drive, so the smart conclusion is to wait. And she’s right, but I’m not sure how long to wait — can I wait for the 5th gen Prius Prime to make the move? And what about those worries about incoming inflation?

I think I’m going to take at least 6 months to cool off and reconsider in the spring — maybe we’ll get lucky with an early preview of the 5th gen Prius by then that will make the next step clear one way or the other, or maybe Toyota will offer the R4P SE in teal (sorry, ‘Blue Magnetism’) and the rational discussion will end.

A small part of me that has skipped ahead to the last page thinks that I’m going to be picking up a Ford Escape PHEV next year, and then is immediately replaced by the part that says we’ll have that Prius for another decade until Blueberry goes off to university (and then she can drive it fully into the ground). It’s an almost perfect superposition of two opposite states — such is life in the analysis paralysis web.

So I guess I’ll see you in 6 months with another whiny, inconclusive blog post!

2 Responses to “Plug-In Hybrids and Our Next Car, Part 2: Analysis Paralysis”

  1. Matt Cecile Says:

    I recently went through a similar analysis and opted against a PHEV in lieu of waiting for a full electric in 3-5 years. One item that tipped the scales for me is that PHEV will sometimes run on gasoline even if you have battery charge to avoid the gasoline getting stale. According to our usage, it seemed that this would happen frequently.

  2. Potato Says:

    Matt — yes, that will happen, and it may also run the engine when accelerating hard or for heat when it gets too cold for the heat pump.

    But unless you have a lead foot, the engine running to keep the gas from going stale is still going to be a fairly small bit of usage — if you go a month or two or three (depending on the specific car’s logic) without otherwise burning gas to move, you’ll still be doing a big portion on electric. From what I’ve found, most PHEVs will look to turn over a few tanks/year — so ballpark 1000-1500 km/yr minimum on gas. If you drive 15,000 km/yr, that’s still ~90% on EV, and even for my minimal driving I’d still come out ahead on cost (let alone GHG) with a PHEV.