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Should I buy a hybrid or keep my old car? Add to ...

THE QUESTION

We want to reduce the carbon footprint of our two cars – one for city use and one for outdoor activities. Do we go with one hybrid SUV, or keep the old one to pull our sailboat and buy a hybrid economy size for the rest?

THE ANSWER

Like all great eco-dilemmas, the right answer… depends.

If you recall high-school calculus and are into number crunching, there are ample online resources to compare mileage, greenhouse gas emissions, and price differences between hybrids and regular cars. But our level of mathematical acumen leads us to tell a story:

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Both of us learned how to drive in a 1988 Ford Probe. Marc bought it used back in his early university days, and for its era, it was sleek and sexy.

We ran that trusty car into the ground, but it kept going. We passed it along to several friends who learned to drive in it too, and along the way it had more scrapes and dents than any car should. We’re convinced that somewhere there’s still a high-school senior driving that old heap with pride.

The experts at Consumer Reports say it makes financial sense to keep an old car for its natural life before getting a new, higher-mileage one. We kept the Probe even beyond that, because we couldn’t afford anything else. When we finally saved enough to get our first new car, we went hybrid.

We’d like to say we use our hybrid Toyota Highlander for rugged manly adventures, but really it’s for shuttling health-supply shipments, educational materials and display boards all over the city and continent. Despite its big size, we were stunned to calculate that it uses about one-third less gas than the old Probe.

We chose to drive just the one larger vehicle after considering that we rarely travel without all that stuff in tow, which fits with the mantra of the eco-savvy folks at Treehugger.com: Define your needs. The online guide mentions towing boats, saying that if you only do it a few times a year, consider renting or borrowing instead of buying and maintaining a big vehicle for that purpose – we’d wrestled with that option for our needs ourselves. In your case, you could keep the old SUV if your insurance costs are not too high, but park it in the non-boating months.

The most significant fuel savings with hybrid cars come in the city, because full-stop and low-speed battery-only modes save a lot during stop-and-go traffic. If you want to get really green, you could try a fully electric vehicle such as the Mitsubishi i-Miev, with a rating of 126 miles per gallon-equivalent – 2½ times better than the best hybrid and four times better than the best gas-only car.

Whether in a gas-guzzler or an ultra-low-emission vehicle, your mileage and footprint can vary widely based on how you drive it. Keep a constant speed, coast to decelerate, keep your tires optimally inflated, remove extra cargo, reduce aerodynamic drag like roof racks, avoid excessive idling, and of course, drive less by combining trips, carpooling or finding alternative ways around town.

Hybridcars.com has even more online green driving tips for hybrid car users, such as using the energy display and finding the “sweet spot” at 65 to 75 km/h.

So we’d say go hybrid economy size in the city, get creative for your other needs, and drive smart – good for your wallet and your planet.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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