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Toyota Prius vs Ford Fiesta: which one for MPG

Rising gasoline costs this year should make a hybrid car like the Toyota Prius more interesting, because higher fuel efficiency should mean lower cost of ownership, but surprisingly the Ford Fiesta costs less to own than the Prius.

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Gasoline prices are rising meaning that many are again looking to reduce the fuel cost to drive around town. Hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius are commonly recognized as having the best fuel economy, but in reality there is a range of trade-offs to ponder about cost of ownership that can lead to some surprising choices. The Ford Fiesta is a highly fuel efficient car, with a price enough lower than the Prius to make for a lower cost of ownership even if gasoline prices go as high as in 2008.

We might think that because the Prius has such high fuel efficiency, it will be cheaper to own. While fuel efficiency is a large part of ownership cost it isn't the entire picture. For example, the Prius Liftback (MRSP $24,000) has a $8,330 price premium over the Ford Fiesta (MRSP $15,670). That price premium means that even though you'll pay more to fuel up your Ford Fiesta, it will take hundreds of thousands of miles of driving to make up for the Toyota Prius price premium.

Let's first consider whether the Prius and Fiesta similar enough cars to make this comparison? Both are compact five seater cars with a lot of similar features. The biggest difference is in cargo capacity. The Prius Liftback has 21.6 cubic feet of cargo space, the Fiesta Sedan has 12.8 cubic feet, and the Fiesta Hatchback has either 26 cubic feet if the rear seat is folded down, or 15.4 cubic feet of cargo if the rear seat is kept upright. Hence, the Prius offers a little more passenger and cargo capacity, making it a little more functional, but otherwise the two are similar cars.

The next consideration is a simplified cost of ownership model focusing on the MSRP and the cost for gasoline over the life of the vehicle.

Toyota Prius, with 51 miles/gallon fuel efficiency burns 196 gallons per 10,000 miles driven, while the Fiesta burns 250 gallons over the same distance.

At a $3.50/gallon price for gasoline a Prius owner spends $686 per 10,000 miles driven, while the Fiesta owner spends $875 over the same distance. If gasoline prices rise to $4/gallon (in California the price is already higher than that) the costs rise to $784 for the Prius and $1,000 for the Fiesta. It means that at $3.50 per gallon the Fiesta owner spends $189 more per 10,000 miles than the Prius owner, while the at $4 per gallon the cost difference is $216 for the same distance.

Given enough time the Fiesta owner will spend enough more on gasoline to account for the $8,330 price premium. How many miles? At $3.50 per gallon, it takes 440,000 miles of driving, and at $4 per gallon it takes 385,000 miles, to make up for the Toyota Prius price premium. That seems like a lot more miles than these cars are likely to be driven, meaning the Fiesta owner is unlikely to ever drive enough miles for their cost of ownership to equal the Prius.

The Prius c, however, offers a different story. With a $19,000 MSRP the price premium for the Prius c is only $3,330 over the Ford Fiesta. As a compact Prius it's closer in size to the Fiesta making it a more even comparison.

Because the Toyota Prius c has a 53 miles/gallon fuel efficiency it burns only 189 gallons per 10,000 miles. This means at $3.50 per gallon the Prius c owner spends $661.5 on gasoline per 10,000 miles, and at $4 per gallon the cost is $756 for the same distance. This makes the Fiesta fuel cost price premium $213.50 at $3.50 per gallon, and $244 at $4 per gallon, again per 10,000 miles driven. This means, for the Fiesta owner to spend enough more on gasoline to account for the $3,330 Prius c price premium, at $3.50 per gallon it takes 156,000 miles of driving, and at $4 per gallon it takes 136,000 miles.

In both cases it means that the while the Fiesta owner is spending more on fuel to drive, because of lower fuel efficiency, the cost of ownership (MRSP plus the fuel cost) is lower for the Fiesta owner.

What's happening here is that the automakers are not only developing electrified vehicles, they're also improving the fuel efficiency of non-electrified vehicles. This is happening across the board. Many automakers are developing turbocharged engines not for high performance cars, but for fuel efficiency. Other factors being considered are weight reductions, start-stop features to shut off all or part of the engine when not needed, and more. The automakers expect to make fuel efficiency gains in non-hybrid and non-electrified vehicles over the coming years, while at the same time continuing to develop hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.

The 2012 Ford Fiesta is Ford's primary example for this strategy of highly fuel efficient non-electrified vehicles.

But wait, this isn't the only consideration we can look at. What about the side effects of car ownership? What about the environmental damage caused by a given car? What about the effect fuel efficiency has on national energy security? Neither of these have to do with the price you pay for owning a car, instead these and other factors are what Economists call "externalities". An externality is a cost you, as the owner of a car, do not pay while owning that car. The environmental damage incurred by your car ownership is not reflected in the cost of the car. Neither is the cost of the undermining of U.S. national security due importing so much oil reflected in the cost of owning a car.

The environmental damage from owning and operating a car is roughly based on the amount of fuel it burns. Because the Prius burns less fuel its use causes less environmental damage, roughly speaking. Highly fuel efficient cars can affect both the peak oil and national energy security concerns by acting to reduce the overall rate of fuel use in the vehicle fleet. Roughly speaking, the more efficient the vehicle fleet is, the less fuel will be burned to keep our cars and trucks rolling. Reducing the overall fuel consumption means the U.S. would export fewer dollars to pay for oil imports, reducing the national security effects of oil consumption.

The vehicle fleet is large and contains a lot of inefficient vehicles. For there to be a significant effect on either the environmental damage or national security concerns we just discussed, a huge number of highly fuel efficient vehicles must be purchased, to offset or replace those inefficient vehicles. This obviously will take several years to retire old vehicles and replace them with new, more efficient, ones. One purchase at a time, we choose between vehicles to buy. We have our own set of criteria for purchases, some of us focus on features or the color, others focus on the cost of ownership, and even others weigh in these external factors such as the environmental impact.

It's difficult to account for externalized costs when you, the individual, is buying a car for your own use. As we've seen the Ford Fiesta generally comes out with a lower cost of ownership than the Prius Liftback. Comparing the Fiesta against the Prius c, it is still cheaper to own, but not by as much of a difference. We can measure the cost of ownership fairly easily, and the numbers make relatively easy to compare costs of ownership while not accounting for the externalized costs. If you are one who is unswayed by the desire to minimize the externalized costs (environment, etc), the Ford Fiesta could be the car for you. On the other hand, if you are concerned about the environment and other factors, the Prius could well be the car for you, if you can swing the higher direct cost of ownership.

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ChiefMechanic (not verified)    February 27, 2012 - 9:14PM

This article is imcomplete. It does not take into account the fact that the Prius COSTS LESS IN MAINTENENCE than the Fiesta.

The Fiesta with auto transmission needs a Transmission fluid change every 30,000 miles. The Prius does not.

The Fiesta needs to have a brake job every 30,000 miles or so. The Prius uses electric regenerative braking, which means its brake pads will last past 150,000 miles easily.

The Fiesta has an alternator, starter motor, and timing belt which will eventually wear out and need replacement. The Prius has NO timing belt, NO alternator, and NO starter motor.

Add the decreased maintenance cost of the Prius to the gas savings, the Prius will actually COST LESS TO OWN than a Fiesta.

Frank Sherosky    February 27, 2012 - 9:44PM

In reply to by ChiefMechanic (not verified)

What? This Prius is NOT a full EV, yet you treat it as though it is. If it has an ICE, there must be a starter; and regen braking does not fullly replace standard brakes; albeit, the pads may last a bit longer. And since when did the Prius not have a transmission? I thought it was a CVT. So, correct me if that is wrong.

Chief Mechanic (not verified)    February 28, 2012 - 12:26AM

In reply to by Frank Sherosky

The Prius uses a Power Split Device transmission, not a belt-and-pulley CVT.

The Power Split Device is a simple planetary gearset. The center sun gear is driven by the MG1 electric motor. The planet gears is driven by the ICE (through the gear carrier), and the outer ring gear is driven by the large MG2 electric traction motor. This setup has no belts, no clutches, no torque converter, no gear-shifting wear-and-tear. That is why the transmission fluid in the Prius does not require changing.

The center sun gear MG1 is a 25hp electric motor. It is used to crank the ICE. That is why the Prius has no traditional starter motor.

And regen braking using the large MG2 traction motor for the Prius slows the car down to 7mph before the disc brakes take over. That is why the disc brake pads will last past 150,000 miles. Not a typo.

The Prius Hybrid Synergy Drive actually makes the car mechanically simpler than a normal car. It is the control electronics that is complicated. That is why the Prius needs so much less maintenance than the Fiesta, and one of the reasons why its cost of ownership is actually LOWER than a Fiesta.

FitFan (not verified)    February 29, 2012 - 5:51AM

In reply to by ChiefMechanic (not verified)

A brake job every 30,000 miles? It sounds like you rest your foot on the gas pedal. A competent driver in a Ford Fiesta should only need new pads every 50-90,000 miles.

It's interesting that you don't count the cost to replace the Prius batteries in your more complete cost model. How long do they last? I'm guessing between 150,000 and 200,000 miles, which is well below the useful life of a car. This cost will show up as either depreciation or replacement cost for the owner.

James (not verified)    February 29, 2012 - 7:53AM

In reply to by FitFan (not verified)

Yeah, you sound like you know a lot about hybrids... do a google search on "Prius taxi", you will discover a sea of evidence to disprove your claims about the 200,000 miles battery replacement. The Taxi industry praise the Prius due to the longer lasting brake pads, lower maintenance requirements and hence cost, battery is a non-issue (over 500,000 miles in some taxi), and deliver real world fuel savings. Conventional cars generally cost must higher than the Prius or any Toyota hybrids in maintenance.

Yes, they cost more to buy, but if you consider all these factors and the engineering in the Prius, it's money well spent. Not to mention you get them back if you sell the car, so the debate of spending more is a non-argument... the whole article is a total waste of time.

Chief Mechanic (not verified)    February 29, 2012 - 10:39AM

In reply to by FitFan (not verified)

Did you even bother to read the article? The author was talking about the AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION FIESTA.

FYI, the automatic transmission Fiesta does not readily allow engine braking as does the manual one.

You will NEVER get the brake pads on an automatic Fiesta to last 90,000 miles without killing yourself.

95% of all Fiestas sold in the U.S. are AUTOMATICS. There would be a lot of deaths on the road if those who drive automatic Fiestas took your idiotic advice. 90,000 miles between brake jobs? Asinine.

And Prius battery replacement cost is $600 for a rebuilt unit. Same cost as if you buy a rebuilt transmission for a Fiesta that has 100,000 miles on it. It is a NON-ISSUE.

Groucho (not verified)    February 27, 2012 - 9:46PM

I have read articles from Chevy pushing the Cruze over a base Prius as well... And while its all very convincing based on fuel economy... Check the resale on both of those cars with 100,000 miles. Better yet... Check them at 150 or more. While the Festiva will enjoy a near zero value, the Toyota will still command money in the market.

I dont know why this is never considered on these head to heads.

Frank Sherosky    February 27, 2012 - 9:52PM

The article is correct in that the IC engines are getting far more efficient. Ford is using downsized engines with turbos to get a balance of fuel sipping efficiency and power. Just imagine what will happen when the split-cycle engine comes alive with its air-hybrid capability. And the cost of producing it will still be less than full electriifcation.

I'm shocked nobody is mentioning the potential of using nat-gas to solve that other little dirty problem - pollution. Certainly a far cleaner fuel, America has plenty of it, and the cost is cheap by comparison. And the truckers are converting, so the lack of ubiquity will soon be solved.

Samir (not verified)    February 28, 2012 - 11:00AM

In reply to by philb (not verified)

That is all true. The most significant modification to a vehicle is fuel storage-you either compress or completely liquefy natural gas. This requires a much more highly engineered tank.

The real obstacle to natural gas is infrastructure. Gas stations (whose fuel sales are already very low margin) would have to be gutted to allow for storage and dispensing of this fuel.

Frank Sherosky    February 28, 2012 - 11:52AM

In reply to by Samir (not verified)

This is no less a problem than adding all those public EV charging stations. However, the trucking industry is driving this change for CNG; and they use over 1/3 of all fuel in America. That is one area the EV industry forgets; large trucks may get electrified to some degree but never 100%. Expect CNG, split-cycle engines and hydraulic hybrids to fill that gap; and there need for CNG as a fuel will drive infrastructure.

Samir (not verified)    February 28, 2012 - 12:38PM

In reply to by Frank Sherosky

I feel they the construction of public EV stations is more to ease consumer range anxiety fears than actual functionality. Statistics show that average drivers do not drive enough to need them. Plus, they are still too cumbersome to use for long distance trips - drivers will not recharge for an hour after every two hours of driving or so.

The advantage of deploying EV structure is that everyone has electricity. There are lines everywhere, and this is not the case with gas lines. Singapore, whose government and geography is much better suited to centrally deployed infrastructure, could not tackle encouraging natural gas usage in private cars. It remains to be seen whether they can pull EV deployment. This sort of transition is way more difficult in the US.

Aaron Turpen    February 27, 2012 - 11:13PM

From a driver's perspective, having driven both a Fiesta and a Prius c, the c is a way better drive. It's quieter, sportier, and has a tighter feel. The fiesta has more power, likely because the extra weight in hybrid components isn't there and the engine is (I believe) slightly larger, but overall, the Prius c has a better road presence from the driver's seat.

J (not verified)    February 28, 2012 - 6:21AM

The article contains a mistake about the mpg rating of the Fiesta. The author states that "Toyota Prius, with 51 miles/gallon fuel efficiency burns 196 gallons per 10,000 miles driven, while the Fiesta burns 250 gallons over the same distance."
However, if the Fiesta consumes 250 gallons over 10,000 miles, that is equivalent to 40 mpg (just divide 10,000 miles by 250 gallons).
The combined mpg rating of the Fiesta is 33mpg (automatic or manual transmission) as listed for instance at the government's official website

J (not verified)    February 29, 2012 - 10:16AM

In reply to by David Herron

Hi David, thanks for your reply.
After seeing your link, I wanted to remark that I agree that it makes sense to compare the Prius c one to the Fiesta SE Hatchback automatic with the SFE package, for then the equipment on both models is the same. They both have automatic transmissions, keyless entry, and power windows and doors. The biggest differences are that the Prius c one lacks 60/40 split rear seats and the Fiesta lacks automatic climate control.

However, this raised another question for me. I was looking at the Ford website via the link you posted, and there the MSRP of the Fiesta SE Hatchback (automatic, SFE package) is $17,160 ($16,910 including incentives). Why use the figure $15,670 (the MSRP for the manual transmission Fiesta SE Hatchback which gets 29 city / 38 highway / 33 combined) for the calculations in this article?

Best regards,

Anonymous (not verified)    February 28, 2012 - 7:56AM

Wait till Ford puts the 3 cylinder Ecoboost engine in the Fiesta (and Focus) next year. It will get over 50 mpg on the highway. Ford has just launched the engine in Europe in the Focus and the auto journalists are raving about it. And the Focus/Fiesta looks a lot cooler then a Prius, and has SYNCH.

Mike B (not verified)    February 28, 2012 - 10:32AM

What about the battery in a Prius doesn't it need to be changed after 100K miles at a significant expense in the thousands of dollars. This would change the dynamics quickly especially for trade-in value on a car with 90K miles.

Anonymous (not verified)    February 28, 2012 - 11:41AM

In reply to by Mike B (not verified)

If you are going to go with What-Ifs... I would say your odds are better that a major engine/tranny problem would happen on the Ford vs a Prius battery problem, and thus, it would be a wash.

I dont want to come off as a jerk to the writer... But this whole article comes off as a Ford dealer sales piece. I would verify some of the other items on the comments thread and re-write it. Then, use this kind of information on future reports.

Just a thought.

Chief Mechanic (not verified)    February 28, 2012 - 2:10PM

In reply to by Mike B (not verified)

The Prius battery is a non-issue.

All the Prius taxi cabs in service in cities like New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, etc. have routinely exceeded 200,000 miles with zero warranty-covered battery problems (i.e. HV batteries that died on their own and not as a result of accidents or user abuse).

Not to mention the battery warranty in the Prius is 150,000 miles / 10 years in the states that have CARB emissions regulations.

Besides, nobody in their right mind would buy a brand-new $2000 HV battery to put in a Prius that already has 100,000+ miles on it. The Prius battery is essentially part of the electric power split device transmission. If you have a regular car which had a transmission failure after 100,000 miles, do you spend thousands to put in a brand-new transmission? Heck no-- You buy a rebuilt transmission for cheap.

Same applies to the Prius-- a good-condition battery salvaged from a Prius that has been totaled in an accident costs $600. And it will give that high-mileage Prius another 4-5 years of good service. No need to spend thousands for a brand-new traction battery.

Consumer (not verified)    February 28, 2012 - 11:31AM

The Prius is a Midsize car. The article incorrectly labels both cars as compacts. The author's statement in the middle of the article that the Prius c is a better comparison is correct. Still, I agree with the overall point that it takes a long time to recover cost premiums with fuel savings.

James (not verified)    February 29, 2012 - 7:40AM

Why would anyone consider turbo'ing a little engine is a great idea is beyond me after reading an article about countless VW blown engines... just read the feedbacks by the owners... atrocious!

Just google for "vw golf blown engine"

Good luck getting a Ford's one as I have already lost faith with them after years of terrible ownership experience in Australia...