Even with $4 Gas, Few Drivers Choose Electric Cars—Or Even Hybrids

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Chevy Volt electric vehicles come off the assembly line at the General Motors Detroit Hamtramck Assembly Plant.

With each passing month, and with the average gallon of gas rising 1¢ more each day, consumers are turning more and more to fuel-efficient cars. The average new car sold in February got 23.2 mpg, up from 22.9 mpg in January and 21.4 mpg in February 2011. While drivers are increasingly opting for cars with better mileage, though, only a tiny fraction are going with the most fuel-efficient vehicles of all, hybrids and electric cars.

A new TrueCar post traces the average miles-per-gallon rise among new cars sold in the U.S. All of the top seven automakers posted year-over-year increases in average mpg for new cars, and some of the increases are dramatic. Last February, the average new Ford got just 17.3 mpg, compared with 22.2 mpg in February of 2012.

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The rise comes primarily as a result of Ford doubling sales of small cars such as the Fusion and the Focus—both traditional, fuel-powered vehicles. Ford’s hybrid cars, on the other hand, didn’t sell well in February. An Autoblog post notes that Ford’s hybrid sales were down 24% last month compared to February 2011, including a 20% drop in sales of the Fusion Hybrid and a 45% decline in the Escape Hybrid.

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Honda’s hybrids, the post reports, fared even worse than Ford’s, with a 41% dip compared to the year before. Toyota, by contrast, is the unquestioned hybrid king, thanks almost entirely to the success of the Prius. The company announced that it sold 20,593 new Priuses in February, a rise of 46% compared to the year before.

Even so, hybrids still represent only a very small part of new car sales. Last year, hybrids accounted for only 2.2% of new car purchases, down from 2.4% in 2010. The proportion isn’t expected to change much this year, even as gas prices shoot past $4 per gallon and approach $5 in some cases.

Meanwhile, sales of plug-in electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt are positively down in the dumps. General Motors recently made news with its decision to put production of the Volt on hiatus later this month because of lackluster sales. Nissan sold just 478 Leafs in February, down from 676 in the previous month, when gas was cheaper.

(MORE: Plug-In Surge: The Newest Hybrids and Electric Cars)

Why aren’t more drivers buying hybrids and EVs? Thus far, the feeling is that the math doesn’t work out for the vast majority of consumers, and the higher upfront prices of these vehicles outweighs the potential fuel savings down the road.

An Edmunds post shows that it usually takes seven or more years of ownership for a consumer to “break even” on a hybrid purchase—meaning that overall costs would be cheaper compared to a similar, traditional-powered car, once years of gas purchases are factored in. A Toyota Corolla, for instance, is about $6,000 less than a Toyota Prius, and the Prius only makes financial sense, on average, if the owner hangs onto it for eight years. Even if gas prices hit $5 a gallon, it would take six years before an owner “broke even” on a Prius, compared to the Corolla.

The average consumer, meanwhile, now hangs onto a new car for less than six years before selling it or trading it in.

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The math arguing for picking the Chevy Volt over a comparable traditional-powered car is least convincing of all. According to Edmunds, even after factoring in government subsidies the Volt costs about $12,000 more than its sister, the Chevy Cruze. You’d have to own the Volt for 14 years at current gas prices, or 9 years with $5 per gallon, to break even.

What we have may be a situation of, as Slate calls it, “premature innovation.” Clearly, the vast majority of drivers don’t want EVs right now, and the Detroit Free Press sums up the two main reasons why this is so: “price and range.” As in: The purchase price is too high, and/or gas prices aren’t high enough, combined with so-called “range anxiety” (worries about running out of power before the vehicle’s battery can be recharged), make today’s EVs unattractive compared to the many fuel-efficient, traditional-powered cars in the market.

If money out of pocket is what matters most, then at this point in time, it’s unlikely that either a hybrid or an EV is the smartest way to go. A new Kelley Blue Book post lists 16 cars that run $30,000 or under for total cost of ownership over a five-year period, including estimated fuel consumption and other expected expenses.

(MORE: Poll: Most Americans Won’t Change Lifestyle Until Gas Tops $5 Per Gallon)

Only one of the cars on the list is a hybrid (Honda Insight, a tiny hatchback), and none are plug-ins or fully electrified cars.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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