Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Garrett Barnes stands by his new Toyota Prius hybrid on Saturday. The Sugar House resident is also on the waiting list at Mark Miller Toyota to buy a second Prius, the nation's No. 1 fuel-efficient midsize vehicle, which can get up to 48 miles per gallon.

If you're thinking of trading your gas-guzzler in for a zippy little fuel-efficient car, beware: You might end up handing some of your gas savings to your insurance company.

Three of the government's top-ranked vehicles for fuel efficiency — the Toyota Prius hybrid, the Honda Accord and Toyota Corolla — also are on Insure.com's top 10 list of the most expensive 2008 vehicles to insure.

But insurance rates are complex, differing by state, by how and how far you drive, by type of car, crash history, claims costs. And in some cases, even a consumer's credit history.

Quotes gathered by the Deseret News on four of 2008's top-selling vehicles show rates could go either way in a gas-guzzler-to-sipper trade.

The bottom line, says consumer advocate Carmen Balber, is to get smart before you shop.

"If you're out in the market for a new car, certainly (look) at not only the fuel efficiency and ... cost of the vehicle, but how those insurance premiums stack up," said Balber, who works for the Santa Monica, Calif.-based group Consumer Watchdog, which pushes to have insurance rates based more on drivers' habits than their car types. "I think it's wise for all consumers to get quotes on auto insurance before they purchase that vehicle."

Fuel-efficient vehicles are hot sellers as people seek relief from gas prices, now exceeding $4 a gallon. As of last week, 101 customers had crowded onto the Mark Miller Toyota-downtown waiting list — up to nine months long — to get their hands on a Prius, the nation's No. 1 fuel-efficient midsize vehicle at up to 48 miles per gallon, staff there said.

Last week, as Miller debuted his "green" LEEDs certified, eco-friendly building, a first for a Utah dealership,— he was able to round up just one "green" car — a Highlander hybrid — for the showroom floor.

"Luckily," he grinned, "we have one in stock."

But will buying a Prius, or other fuel-efficient car, hike insurance rates? And by how much?

Last November, Insure.com, which aims to give consumers impartial insurance information, issued its top 10 most expensive vehicles to insure. It considered only top-selling 2008 vehicles.

The Prius was listed the third most expensive to insure, with an average premium of $1,210 a year, according to Insure.com.

The Honda Accord is the government's top-ranked fuel-efficient large car, getting up to 31 mpg. It's fourth on the most expensive list, at $1,203 a year. The Toyota Corolla, ranked second in the compact car fuel efficiency ranking, was listed as the sixth most expensive at $1,190.

Leading the most expensive list is the Dodge Ram pickup at $1,336. Also included were: Nissan's Altima and Ford's Focus, which get up to 32 and 35 mpg and are $1,198 and $1,185 to insure, respectively.

There are some possible reasons for fuel-efficient-vehicle rates.

Prius technology is new and relatively expensive to replace, said Carolyn Gorman, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute's Washington, D.C., office.

However, not all insurance companies consider the hybrid engine in rates. Progressive, for instance, says it's still too new. "This is a group we'll be monitoring going forward as loss experience begins to develop," spokeswoman Kathy Bell said.

Another possibility: Fuel-efficient cars tend to be smaller and lighter.

"Unfortunately, when they come up against a much larger vehicle, they're going to lose, and the people inside are going to lose," said Don Griffin, vice president of personal lines for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade association that includes more than half the nation's auto insurers.

Small, two-door cars are the subject of more property claims than any other class of car, according to a claims frequency report issued by the Highway Loss Data Institute, which accounted for claims on 2005-07 vehicle models. Claims on "very large" SUVs were least frequent. This doesn't mean, however, that smaller vehicles are not safe. The 2008 Focus, for example, received top ratings in offset-front, rear and side crash tests, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Some smaller cars also attract thieves. Older model Honda Civics and Accords were the top two most-stolen vehicles in 2007, largely because of profitable parts, the National Insurance Crime Bureau reports. Thefts resulted in a $2 billion loss to insurers in 2006, the Highway Loss Data Institute reports.

Insurance rates also are relative. Meaning, a lot depends on the kind of car you're driving now.

The Deseret News sought quotes on four 2008 vehicles: The Chrysler Town & Country — which Insure.com listed as the cheapest 2008 top-seller to insure — the Accord, Prius and Toyota Tundra. It used three different major insurance companies — Farmers, Geico and Progressive — and averaged the quotes.

The newspaper found insurance would go up $122 a year for trading a Chrysler Town & Country for a Prius. It would go up just $32 more a year for trading it for a Honda Accord sedan instead.

That's based on rates for a 35-year-old married woman with a good driving record and credit report, receiving the standard $100,000/$300,000 coverage and $500 deductible.

But substitute the trade-in, and the outcome is very different. Swapping a Toyota Tundra for a Prius would save $428 a year in insurance, not to mention all that money at the pump. The insurance savings would jump to $518 a year with an Accord.

Garrett Barnes of Sugar House is more at the break-even point.

The Sugar House resident is trading in a Civic and a truck for two Priuses. He has one Prius and is on Mark Miller's waiting list for the other. With the Civic trade-in, his insurance went up less than $2 a month.

"We were a couple months ago watching news and gas-price stories ... and thought, what is it going to take to change things around?" Barnes said. "For us, yes, it's gas prices, but it's also less emissions into the environment."

As for those whose insurance would go up, the long-term investment in fuel efficiency could outweigh the cost.

"They may spend more on auto insurance," Gorman said, "but (that) probably won't be anywhere near the money they're going to be saving with a more fuel-efficient car."

Also, some insurance companies — Travelers and Farmers, for example — offer hybrid discounts. Travelers also has a Web site, hybridtravelers.com, with information about state and federal tax credits.

You can look at other ways to bring your quote down, too, said Dave Snyder, American Insurance Association's vice president and assistant general counsel.

Many insurance companies give discounts for buying policies online. Some offer discounts for belonging to the AAA motor club and paying for the policy up front.

"Shop around for companies," Balber said. "Find the insurer that gives (you) the best rate for that kind of car."


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