Wanna buy a Prius? It'll cost you

As more people clamber to get their hands on a Prius, the popular hybrid is getting harder to come by. Jon Oltsik's advice to potential car buyers? Wait.

With gas over $4 per gallon, on average, across the country, there is now a carpet bagger economy on the Toyota Prius.

Many dealers will still sell a new one at MSRP, but you are likely to wait 10 to 12 weeks before seeing a car. Yes, if you act quickly you can buy a used Prius, but this is where the real price gouging occurs. Case in point, a basic 2007 Prius with no options and 29,000 miles will cost you around $27,000. If you bought a brand-new car identical to this in 2007, it would have cost around $24,000, and Kelly Blue Book, the authority on used car prices, says that this car is worth just under $23k today.

Obviously, there is a new supply-and-demand curve in the market. Nothing illegal mind you; this is capitalism at work, but it just doesn't seem right. Gas may go up to $6 per gallon, or oil may go down to $80 per barrel; no one really knows, and there are bulls and bears forecasting both extremes. Since rationality has given way to speculation and panic, my advice to would-be Prius buyers is:

1. Do the math. A nicely equipped 2007 Honda Civic EX with equal mileage carries a suggested retail price of about $18,300. Assuming 30 miles per gallon for the Civic, and 45 miles per gallon for the Prius, it could take around 13 years to recoup the extra money for the Prius at $5 per gallon (assuming 12,000 miles per year of driving). Now I know that there are a lot of assumptions in this formula, but suffice it to say that when you do the math, the Civic seems like a better deal overall--not to mention that the EX has a Sunroof to boot.

2. Wait. Delaying a Prius purchase could have two benefits. First off, buyers get to see whether the price of gas goes up or down. If it does go down as some predict, the Prius premium is likely to disappear faster than a Lakers fan after the NBA finals . The other advantage to waiting is that the highbrow Prius will finally get some competition moving forward. Honda is rumored to have a 2009 hybrid Fit and brand-new five-passenger hybrid--with better gas mileage than today's Prius--waiting in the wings. Rumor also has it that VW , Hyundai , Ford , and others aren't far behind with high-mileage alternatives of their own. Finally, in 2009 or 2010 Toyota will introduce its own next-generation Prius that may offer plug-in capabilities and better gas mileage as well.

Supply and demand are constant market conditions, but shortages come and go. Is a used Prius really worth a $3,000 to $4,000 premium? The answer to this question can be summed in two sagacious words: caveat emptor!

Jon Oltsik is a senior analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group.
 

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