Does the Prius hybrid make any cents at all?

Maybe. If everything lines up right.

The new (current generation) Prius is first of all - in my experience, at least - much more fuel-efficient in real-world driving than the earlier models. I test drove one of the first ones years ago in the same conditions - rural SW Virginia, hilly terrain, mostly higher-speed (over 50 MPH) driving and with me behind the wheel. (I do not drive in such a way as to "optimize" fuel efficiency.)

So driven, it only averaged low 30s, which I thought (and still do think) sucked. Or - to put it more seriously - wasn't good enough to justify buying the car. I said so in my review at the time. The real-world mileage of the first-gen. model was probably never going to amortize the higher up-front costs, even if you drove it for eight-plus years. Keep in mind that back then (circa 2001) unleaded regular still only cost about $1.60.

So while the original Prius may have made cents as a city car, put-putting from block to block, if you ran one regularly on the highway at speeds above 60 MPH or actually tried to keep up with traffic on secondary roads instead of being the focal point of a rolling roadblock - well, then the only thing green about it was the money it cost you.

A conventional IC compact could do about as well - maybe better, overall - for much less coin.

But the new one (which has the benefit of several key upgrades, including more efficient batteries) really did pull the advertised 50-plus MPG. And it was capable (with me driving it, here in the mountains, and not slow) of averaging low 40s.

Even the best of today's compact economy sedans only average about 30 MPG.

Also, gas now costs a lot more than it did when the first Prius came out ten years ago.

Consider:

15 gallons of fuel (a "tankful" in a current medium-ish cars) costs about $51 at current prices.

In a car like the Prius that averages say, 45 MPG, that will take you about 675 miles. (This is just for purposes of illustration; the 2012 Prius actually has a smaller-than-usual 11.9 gallon tank. A non-hybrid of about the same size as the Prius will typically have a bigger tank, closer to the 15 gallons used for purposes of discussion here - for the obvious reason that it needs more fuel to go as far. EPA rates the Prius' range on a full tank at 606 miles - which works out to 50.5 MPG, so the math in our discussion is actually a little conservative).

In a standard car that averages 30 MPG (remember, city mileage in a standard IC car is usually much lower than highway mileage; the current class-leading Ford Fiesta, for example, only rates 29 MPG city whereas the Prius rates 51 city and 48 highway ) the same 15 gallons will only take you about 450 miles.

So, the Prius gives you about 225 "extra" miles of driving per tank, relative to an IC car like the Fiesta. Which works out to a savings of about five gallons of gas (the amount of additional fuel you'd have had to buy in the standard car to cover the same distance). Or about $17 at current prices ($3.40 per gallon).

That's not chump change in today's economy.

Let's assume two fill-ups per month. You'll save about $34 a month in fuel costs relative to the 30 MPG average non-hybrid car. Times twelve, that's about $408 a year. Over a ten-year period, your at-the-pump savings would come to $4,080 (assuming today's gas prices remain about the same).

It sounds good. And it is good.

Now come the caveats.

The first one is that while the Prius has gotten better, so have non-hybrid new cars. It's not so much that they've gotten more fuel-efficient. The big thing - the thing that matters - is that they also getting cheaper. For instance, you can buy a 2012 Nissan Versa sedan for $10,990.

The Versa sedan has almost exactly the same front and rear seat head and legroom as the Prius; in fact it actually has slightly more backseat legroom (37 inches vs. 36 inches) and only a bit less trunk/cargo space (14.8 vs. 21.6 cubic feet). True, the Versa's gas mileage isn't particularly spectacular - 27 city, 36 highway (so about 30 MPG average). But its MSRP is only $10,990 vs. $22,120 for the base 2012 Prius I. Don't grab your calculator; I'll save you some work:

The difference is $11,130.

You could buy two new Versas for the cost of one new Prius. Or, you could buy (roughly) 3,200 gallons of gas at current ($3.40 per gallon) prices.

Which - assuming 30 MPG average - will take you about 106,000 miles. That would be the point at which the Prius' superior fuel economy finally catches up to the superior up-front economies of a car like the Versa.

Of course, if you drive a lot, then that 106k break-even moment may arrive sooner rather than later, in which case - viva Gorditas! - the Prius begins to make cents.

And also - gas prices could double. Not so much because there's less of it around but because there's more money around. Inflation could change the math again - and back in the Prius' favor. At $7 per gallon, the Prius begins to pull ahead, financially speaking, after about 3-4 years on the road.

The bottom line is the latest Prius can ( at last) make cents .... if the variables stack up right.

That's more than you could say about the original one.

I'd still like to see them cut the weight by about 1,00 pounds - or use a diesel instead of a gas engine for the IC side of the powertrain - which I'm betting would result in a 60-plus MPG vehicle.

Now that would make some real cents... maybe even some dollars, too!