They were nice while they lasted, but the tax credits available to hybrid gas-electric cars bit the dust on Dec. 31, 2010. The incentives that President George Bush signed into law, as part of The Energy Policy Act of 2005, had granted up to $3,400 as a tax credit for the most efficient hybrid cars—and $4,000 for a compressed natural gas vehicle. They are gone, with little prospects for returning.

Instead, legislators have jumped to the next technology breakthrough: tax credits for plug-in hybrids and electric cars. A combination of local and national credits—up to $7,500 at the federal level, plus a $2,000 credit for charging equipment installation, plus state-based incentives (of $5,000 in California)— represent so far the largest bundle of incentives ever for private purchasers of green electric-drive vehicles.

With hybrids remaining below 3 percent of the new car market, some green car advocates wonder if the hybrid tax credits have vanished too soon. But Mike Stanton, president and CEO of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, summed up the situation, in an interview with Detroit News. “The intent was to provide an incentive for new technology,” Stanton said. “Hybrid technology is now pretty well-known.”

Training Wheels Come Off

At this stage, the viability of steady growth of the hybrid car market—as well as so-called “clean diesel” vehicles and cars that run on compressed natural gas—will have to stand on its merits, with no assistance from federal tax credits. In fact, for the most popular hybrids, the tax incentives have been long gone—because The Energy Policy Act of 2005 called for a phase-out of tax credits when any specific automaker sold more than 60,000 hybrid or clean-tech vehicles. Toyota and Lexus hybrids became ineligible in September 2007. Honda lost its eligibility on Jan. 1, 2009, and Ford’s expired March 31, 2010.

Many observers believed the 60,000-vehicle threshold was designed to limit the advantage for Japanese automaker, such as Toyota (and some degree Honda), which dominated the hybrid market since its introduction more than 10 years ago. With American companies very much in the plug-in game, the new incentives for plug-in cars have a bigger limit of 200,000 cars.

Other perks, such as the ability for solo drivers to use carpool lanes, have also shifted from conventional hybrids to plug-in cars—although California hybrid drivers with yellow stickers had their HOV privileges extended until June 30, 2011. Then, cars with yellow stickers are out, and those with white ones—for zero emission vehicles—take their place in the carpool lanes.

California issued yellow carpool lane access stickers to 85,000 hybrids between 2004 and 2007. To alleviate concerns about highway congestion from solo green car drivers, there will be a cap of 40,000 for Enhanced AT-PZEV plug-in hybrids allowed in the HOV lanes. There is currently no limit set for the number of all-electric, or zero emission vehicles, that can receive white HOV access stickers.

Speeding Up Adoption of Electric Cars

Support for electric car incentives is apparently accelerating. There are multiple proposals to enhance the $7,500 tax credit for electric cars to an instant rebate available at the time of purchase. This would help avoid EV shoppers not being able to claim the full credit when it comes to tax time—a common problem when hybrid shoppers lost some of the value of their credits due to the Alternative Minimum Tax.

As it stands now, buyers of plug-in hybrids and electric cars benefit from a tax credit of $2,500 to $7,500, depending on the size of the battery in the car. On the low end of the spectrum, cars with 4 kWh battery packs will qualify for a $2,500 tax credit. The credit maxes out at $7,500 for cars with a 16 kWh battery pack, like the Chevy Volt. Drivers converting a car into a plug-in hybrid, or a gas-powered car into an electric vehicle, will receive a tax credit equal to 10 percent of the conversion cost. The maximum credit is $4,000 for a $40,000 conversion. The credits were provided as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the “stimulus bill.”

In late Dec. 2010, the federal government saved the tax credit for installation of home-based charging equipment that was set to expire at the end of 2010. It was a bittersweet victory, because the amount of the credit dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent. EV buyers can now claim a credit of 30 percent of the purchase and costs of the charging equipment, up to $1,000 for individuals and $30,000 for businesses. The new rules are in effect until December 31, 2011.

There is a long list of incentives for electric cars and plug-in hybrids at the state level. We will track those incentives—to the best of our available, things are changing fast—on our sister site, PluginCars.com.

Previous Incentives

Here’s a handy-dandy reference of tax credit amounts for clean vehicles that might have been purchased in 2010—that you’ll want to claim at tax time in April 2011.

See a summary of the hybrid and clean deisel tax credits for all years, and the appropriate forms. The exact amount of your credit may vary. Please consult a tax professional.

Current Models
Make Model Tax Credit
Audi A3 TDI (Clean Diesel) $1,300
Audi Q7 TDI (Clean Diesel) $1,150
BMW 335d (Clean Diesel) $900
BMW X5 xDrive35d (Clean Diesel) $1,800
Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid $1,300
Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid $2,200
Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid $2,200
Ford Escape Hybrid (2wd) $3,000*
Ford Escape Hybrid (4wd) $2,200*
Ford Fusion Hybrid $3,400*
GMC Sierra Hybrid $2,200
GMC Yukon Hybrid $2,200
Honda Civic Hybrid $2,100*
Honda 2005 Civic Hybrid (auto) $1,700*
Lexus GS 450h $1,550*
Lexus LS 600hL $450*
Lexus RX 400h $2,200*
Mazda Tribute Hybrid (2wd) $3,000*
Mazda Tribute Hybrid (4wd) $2,200
Mercedes GL 320 Bluetec (Clean Diesel) $1,800
Mercedes R320 Bluetec (Clean Diesel) $1,550
Mercedes ML 320 Bluetec (Clean Diesel) $900
Mercedes S400 Hybrid $1,150
Mercury Mariner Hybrid (2wd) $3,000
Mercury Mariner Hybrid (4wd) $2,200
Mercury Milan Hybrid $3,400
Nissan Altima $2,350
Toyota Camry Hybrid $2,600*
Toyota Highlander Hybrid $2,600*
Toyota Prius $3,150*
Volkswagen Jetta TDI (Clean Diesel) $1,300
Volkswagen Touareg TDI (Clean Diesel) $1,150

* Credits for Toyota and Honda hybrids no longer qualify at all for tax credits. Ford hybrids were cut in half from amounts listed above starting April 1, 2009. In October 2009, the credits were cut in half again, and completely ended on April 1, 2010.

The basic rules:

  • The vehicle must be placed in service after 12/31/05 and purchased on or before 12/31/10.
  • The original use of the vehicle must begin with the taxpayer claiming the credit. The credit may only be claimed by the original owner of a new, qualifying, hybrid vehicle and does not apply to a used hybrid vehicle.
  • The vehicle must be acquired for use or lease by the taxpayer claiming the credit. The credit is only available to the original purchaser of a qualifying hybrid vehicle. If a qualifying vehicle is leased to a consumer, the leasing company may claim the credit. For qualifying vehicles used by a tax-exempt entity, the person who sold the qualifying vehicle to the person or entity using the vehicle is eligible to claim the credit, but only if the seller clearly discloses in a document to the tax-exempt entity the amount of credit.
  • The vehicle must be used predominantly within the United States.

These rules are relatively straight-forward. But there’s more and these are more foggy:

  • The credit amount is based on the purchase date of the vehicle.
  • The new law for the hybrid tax credit might require taxpayers to recapture their hybrid tax credit if they re-sell their hybrid car or truck.

Surprisingly, for taxpayers who take a lot of deductions or use the Alternative Minimum Tax, the previous tax deduction (which bit the dust in 2005) was more valuable. Details:

  • The credit will not reduce your alternative minimum tax, if that applies to you. As stated in Toyota’s statement about the new tax credits: "The benefit of the hybrid vehicle tax credit will also be substantially reduced or eliminated if the individual purchaser is subject to the federal alternative minimum tax."
  • The credit will reduce your regular income tax liability, but not below zero.
  • If you are eligible for multiple tax credits, the hybrid tax credit is taken last after all the other credits (e.g., child care tax credit, mortgage credit, retirement savings credit) have been taken. Any tax liability left over by these reductions will be the maximum dollar limit of your hybrid tax credit. If your hybrid tax credit exceeds your maximum dollar limit, the excess is not refundable, and is lost forever.
  • The excess cannot be carried over to another year, or given away to another person.

As you might guess, it’s a good idea to get advice from a tax professional before filing.