What would stricter fuel-economy standards mean for Joe Five-Speed, the average American driver? The general consensus seems to be that vehicles will cost more, but consumers will be better off in the long run, due to savings on gasoline.

This idea is more or less borne out by a look at some of today's leading hybrids. Whether you're on the waiting list for a Toyota (NYSE:TM) Prius or you're eyeing a Ford (NYSE:F) Escape Hybrid SUV, you'll be shelling out about a $2,300 premium for the vehicle, but gas savings will help you break even in five years or less, according to a CNNMoney/Edmunds.com study.

But as Lord Keynes once quipped, in the long run, we're all dead. And in the case of the Lexus LS600h L, you'd be dead for thousands of years before your six-figure sled ever recouped its premium in fuel savings. This is an extreme case, but it demonstrates that not all hybrids are financially advantageous over time.

Other hybrids, like General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Saturn Aura Green Line and the Nissan (OTCBB: NSANY) Altima Hybrid, eventually work out to be a cheaper option than their comparable standard models. But the financial (rather than ethical or emotional) decision to buy one of these vehicles requires a rather heroic combination of foresight and patience on the consumer's part.

Therein lies the biggest challenge. Think about how hard it is just to get people to buy compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of standard incandescent bulbs. That's an infinitely smaller cash outlay for a product that pays you back much faster.

Joe Five-Speed might not take the hybrid plunge if left to his own devices. That's where the Congressional Energy Bill comes in. Ah, there's nothing like a wave of the legislative wand to make Joe better off in the long run. Never mind that the credit market massacre already threatens to send Joe's financing costs through the roof. What's another couple thousand in debt, after all?

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Fool contributor Toby Shute has a fresh high-APR used car loan, but no position in any company mentioned. Nissan is a Global Gains selection. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.