The Automotive Amanojaku

This is where you'll find news, random car-related thoughts and personal views from a rabid car nut. "Amanojaku" is Japanese slang that means "person who is deliberately contradictory". I've always found myself drawn to the less appreciated car makes - the "underdogs" if you will. Suzuki, Pontiac, GM Daewoo and Holden, are among my favorite brands to watch and comment on. Let me hear your thoughts!

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Hype-rid Challenge: Value vs. Vogue

Written Originally: 10-22-2005

The Hype-rid Challenge: Value vs. Vogue
4-cylinder Low-Emission Wagons pitted against a Media Darling Hybrid
Commentary by Ming

When talk around the water cooler turns to gasoline prices, the inevitable word that pops up is "Hybrid". From automotive news to Hollywood actors, Hybrids are given free PR by the bucketloads, especially when it comes to contrasting their fuel economy and environmentally friendly image against large, gas guzzling SUVs. But are Hybrids the only way to save money in an environment of high gas prices? What about the less talked about choice of a fuel efficient, low emission engine equipped, value packed 4-cylinder wagon?

Is the purchase of a Prius type Hybrid something buyers think will lead to a pat on the back from their socially and environmentally conscious friends at parties and the workplace, or purely for the intent of saving gasoline money, or both? Since seeing people I know purchase hybrid cars at or above sticker price, sometimes right there negating several years worth of gasoline savings, my practical and contrarian side demanded that I check the situation out. Is the Prius the PT Cruiser of the day, not because of styling but because of image? Are people willing to pay over sticker price even though that means killing most of the monetary benefit of buying a hybrid in the first place? Is the "environmental choice" for the moment truly the Hybrid car, or something more mundane? Is the Toyota Prius the trendy Apple iPod of cars, and are there less expensive, less appreciated choices out there that achieve many of the same goals for less money?

Supporting the idea that the Prius is mostly about image, as some claim was the case with SUV's and their boom in the 1990's, is This Article: "Toyota study finds that owners want others to know they're driving fuel-efficient cars".

It comes down to this: is a hybrid at this point really worth the money, or are people paying too much for those Nickel-Metal-Hydride batteries and gee-whiz gadgetry so the Joneses next door can smile and nod in approval?

To settle the debate, at least for the moment, I decided to put the much touted "savings" of the Prius to the test by comparing it to the PZEV (partial zero emissions vehicle) Ford Focus ZXW (wagon) and the value-packed KIA Spectra5.

The car choices were an effort to prove that I am not going to simply be biased towards a GM car to a foregone conclusion, and so I decided to eliminate GM cars from my comparison. That and to be brutally honest, GM doesn't have a good car for comparison that is based on its own engineering. The best comparison vehicle would have been the Pontiac Vibe, which is essentially a Toyota in Pontiac clothing. Nothing wrong with that for you Vibe fans, but it is a sad commentary when GM in the U.S. can't offer a family sized wagon-like vehicle that gets highway gas mileage at least in the mid 30's and is powered by a GM engine. The Chevrolet HHR would have been a good choice, except that its mileage while good is not the benchmark for fuel efficiency, and the Aveo surely fits the value equation but is a tad small for this comparo. An Astra Wagon with a 1.9 CDTI diesel engine would have been great, but we don't have that option in the U.S.

On to the comparo. I decided to break it into several categories and score a 1-2-3 point system for each place in a given category. In the event of a "tie", potentially all cars could score 3 points.

The Cars:

Toyota Prius
60 / 51 mpg

Ford Focus ZXW - PZEV
26 mpg / 35 mpg

KIA Spectra5
24 mpg / 34 mpg

All cars were chosen with similar trim levels, airbag options, and automatic transmissions using True Market Value "What others are paying" price, with a Zip code based in Texas. All are 2006 models, except the Prius, for which only 2005 model information was available at the time this was written. All were given white as the paint option. A few options may have been added (such as ABS or Cruise Control) or deleted to even the types of options out between cars.

The Categories:

1. Value: - The Prius suffers from a $2,200 dollar premium over the MSRP according to, and that seems about right from what I've heard others have paid for their Prius'. And that's not counting the waiting lists. The options packages seem strangely configured and include some items that would be standard in any car selling for a base price near $20,000. The Focus wagon SES model appears to have a good value from its base price, but when typical options like the automatic transmission and antilock brakes are added, the price creeps up closer to $20,000. It's disappointing that the SES "up level" wagon would not offer these options standard in its selling price. This is somewhat mitigated by the 600 dollars lower than sticker the Focus sells for, before another 1000 dollars of factory incentives are subtracted from the sales price. The end result is The KIA Spectra, as might have been expected, offered the best bang for the buck, options-wise, and only required the addition of Antilock brakes. The cost of these is easily ignored since the Spectra5 also sells for several hundred dollars less than its sticker price. There were no factory incentives for the 2006 Spectra5 as of this writing. The Spectra gets the nod for best "value" by pulling off a long list of standard equipment for a low price, even without factory incentives. The Focus is second best, and the Prius takes last place due to inflated sales prices. Spectra - 3 Points, Focus - 2 Points, Prius - 1 Point

2. Environmental Impact: - According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a variant of the PZEV engine setup available in the Focus Wagon in select states has the same high (good) score of 9.5 for Air Pollution as the Prius. It also offers the PZEV version for all of the US that scores an "8", while the Spectra's regular engine offers a "7" choice across the U.S. but also offers a "9.5" engine choice in California and a few other states. The Prius' "Greenhouse Gas" score is a higher "10" due to better advertised fuel economy (less gas usage), and the Focus Wagon and Spectra get a "7", which is still high when compared to, for instance, a Chevrolet Equinox that scores only a "4". All of them are high, but the higher win points go to the Prius for its AT-PZEV and the Focus for offering the PZEV engine nationwide. Prius - 3 , Focus - 2, Spectra - 1

3. Passenger and Cargo Space:* -
Front Head Room: 39.1 in. Front Hip Room: 51 in.
Front Shoulder Room: 55.3 in. Rear Head Room: 37.1 in.
Rear Shoulder Room: 53 in. Rear Hip Room: 51.6 in.
Front Leg Room: 41.9 in. Rear Leg Room: 38.6 in.
Luggage Capacity: 16.1 cu. ft. Maximum Cargo Capacity: 16 cu. ft.
Maximum Seating: 5

Front Head Room: 40 in. Front Hip Room: 52.4 in.
Front Shoulder Room: 55.1 in. Rear Head Room: 38.8 in.
Rear Shoulder Room: 53.9 in. Rear Hip Room: 53.9 in.
Front Leg Room: 42.8 in. Rear Leg Room: 35.4 in.
Luggage Capacity: 18.3 cu. ft. Maximum Cargo Capacity: 12 cu. ft.
Maximum Seating: 5

Focus ZXW:
Front Head Room: 39.1 in. Front Hip Room: 49.4 in.
Front Shoulder Room: 53.5 in. Rear Head Room: 39.8 in.
Rear Shoulder Room: 53.6 in. Rear Hip Room: 50.7 in.
Front Leg Room: 40.7 in. Rear Leg Room: 37.6 in.
Luggage Capacity: 35.6 cu. ft. Maximum Cargo Capacity: 74 cu. ft.
Maximum Seating: 5

The Prius is often touted as having the feel of a "mid size" car (Edmunds calls it a compact), but the specs show little significant interior space difference with the Spectra5 and Focus Wagon here. At least it cannot be said that the Prius hatchback affords the same utility as the Focus ZXW, which has substantial potential cargo space "Luggage Capacity" with the rear seats folded and even when the rear seats are up the ZXW offers small SUV cargo space. In fact, the only score where the "mid-size" Prius clearly leads is the rear legroom. The rear hip room, on the other hand is lead by the Spectra, and the rear head room is where the Focus shines. The win here goes to the Focus ZXW for providing so much cargo space and still keeping pace with the other two in most of the other scores. The Spectra beats the Prius in most measurements, so it takes second place with the Prius and its ample rear legroom in a close 3rd. Focus - 3 , Spectra -2 , Prius -1

4. Fuel Economy: - No shocker here. The Prius clearly takes the win, with the Focus in a distant second and the Spectra close behind. Most Prius owners report lower fuel economy than the EPA numbers, but even at 44 to 48 mpg it is substantially superior to its 4-cylinder only competitors here. It is also noteworthy that the Focus ZXW has the largest gas tank capacity at 14 gallons. Prius - 3, Focus -2, Spectra -1

5. Styling: - This is purely subjective, and you can choose to ignore it because it won't figure in to the final score. If badges were removed or rearranged, with no brand bias present, I think the KIA Spectra5 has the best looks on outside, but the interior is a bit chintzy, namely in the bulbous center stack. I have not been a fan of Toyota's huge headlights of late, but the interior of the Prius is very well done and stylish, and the gee-whiz factor of the LCD display in the dash that keeps track of your fuel usage is worth an easy second place. The Focus Wagon, despite its recent exterior and interior redo, has a very plain and typical look to it that won't turn heads. But the redesigned front fascia's new headlights look a lot more "mature" than the old pie-wedge shaped ones did, and I like the look better, along with the "mesh" grille edged in chrome. Same with the less funky lettering in the badging. Winner? You decide.

6. Driving Dynamics: - From a mix of personal driving experience, reviews from around the web, and a touch of subjective bias, I'd have to give the win here to the Spectra5. While the engine is buzzy at high revs, the Spectra, like many KIAs and Hyundais I've driven before has the kind of agile (or light-weight) character that makes you want to weave in and out of traffic. Its no sports car, and there are better examples of nimble handlers in the compact car segment, but for the sake of this comparison it gets the nod. The Focus comes second. Likely due to its wagon configuration or perhaps something else, the ZXW did not seem as responsive as other Focii I have driven in the past. It still was far more "fun" to drive than the Prius, however, which seemed detached from the road and the driver. The Prius has a driving character that only a hybrid fan could love and appreciate, but I found it to be bland and uninteresting at best. Watching the LCD for reactions to your driving style was interesting, but I could have been on the sofa at home playing Gran Turismo with a Logitech wheel for the same effect. Spectra - 3, Focus - 2, Prius -1

Point Totals:

Focus ZXW: 11
Spectra5: 10
Prius: 9

Winner: 2006 Ford Focus ZXW PZEV

The results were much closer than I had anticipated, and I honestly had my doubts as to how they would come out. They are so close, in fact, that if you prefer the styling of one car over the other, then your choice could make any one of the three cars the winner, or at least tied for first place.

Despite the strong emotional support that drives Prius buyers to wait months for their purchase, I think it is clear that when it comes to bang for your buck, the Focus ZXW and Spectra5 give the Hybrid Prius a run for the money. And the money that you save by buying a Spectra being as much as $10,000 dollars (not to mention the superior warranty) makes it appear a much more intelligent choice than a pricey hybrid with batteries that will eventually need replacement.

Some might ask where "resale value" is in the comparo, something that might give the Toyota the edge. Since we have no way of knowing if the Full-Hybrid hype will last the full length of a KIA warranty (10 years), or how long an owner might choose to keep the car, I left this out. If you are the kind of person who would pay over sticker for a Prius and then sell it 3 years later - before you recoup your savings on gas - then you are unlikely to be interested in a value comparison with a KIA and a Ford in the first place, and good luck on your Prius purchase, Leonardo DiCaprio would be proud.

Likewise the warranty could have given the Spectra the edge, but again, we can't be sure how long the buyer in question here will hold on to the car.

There are also other considerations such as fit & finish, quality scores, and a host of other concerns you might have with any of the 3 choices. I decided to keep those out and give my aching hands a rest.

But if you want the combination of low price, great cargo room, a PZEV engine and decent if not hybrid-like fuel economy, then the Ford Focus ZXW merits a serious look for the bargain shopper and puts a question mark on the "obvious" value of a Hybrid purchase.

In a few years, when Hybrid technology is integrated into more cars, and the cost of opting for it becomes cheaper, this argument may no longer be valid. But for now, I think, the Prius doesn't quite live up to the hype.

* Interior space information from

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