The era of hybrids has arrived, and more than two dozen models in the U.S. auto market use a combination of a battery pack and a gasoline engine for propulsion. As the hybrid market matures, technological advancements — including further mileage gains — have become only incremental, and some new offerings are disappointing "me-toos." This makes careful shopping important.
Traditionally, hybrid cars have been classified by powertrain: mild, single-mode and two-mode. Mild hybrids deliver the smallest boosts in mileage, usually up to 20 percent. Single-mode hybrids are best for lower-speed driving, where they can increase mileage by up to 40 percent. Two-mode hybrids are known for fuel economy gains at all speeds, plus providing enough juice for the needs of larger vehicles.
But you wouldn't purchase a hybrid vehicle for its label alone. You're interested in how it performs and serves you. With that in mind, here's a more practical way to think of hybrid cars, with highlights of some of the leading entries in each segment.
Real Fuel Sippers 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid, $29,645 This SUV is what passes for an oldie but goodie in the hybrid business. Ford introduced the first hybrid SUV in 2005, and the latest version of the hybrid Escape is still the mileage champ in the segment, at 34 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. The Escape boasts a slightly larger engine than in the previous model and relies on 20 more horsepower. Braking also offers an improved transition between electric- and gasoline-powered modes.
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, $27,270 (Base MSRP)Ford is taking it to the imports again with its newest hybrid, a smooth-driving, nicely equipped entry (along with its Mercury Milan cousin) that comes in at the top of the mileage charts in its segment. At 41/36 mpg (city/highway) compared with 23/34 for the entry-level gasoline-only model, the hybrid Fusion also handily bests its main midsize competitor, the Toyota Camry Hybrid. The Fusion Hybrid features the nifty SmartGauge with EcoGuide, an onboard computer that coaches drivers in how to command the vehicle in the most fuel-efficient way.
2010 Honda Insight, $19,800 Back in the mid-'90s, only true envirofreaks drove the Insight, the original two-seater hybrid in the U.S. market. But now, Honda is bidding for leadership in the category once again with a completely new Insight, this time a four-door hatchback version that will post 40 mpg in city driving and 43 mpg on the highway. It highly resembles a Prius, but with prices beginning under $20,000, Honda said it will be the lowest-priced hybrid on the market.
2010 Toyota Prius, $23,500 (est.)The car that defined the category is back in bigger and better form in its third generation. The hybrid sales champion — which emerged over the last couple of years as a metaphor for the entire segment — is growing slightly in size and somewhat significantly in mileage, with a new combined performance of 50 mpg, versus 46 mpg for the current model. The gas engine is slightly bigger and more powerful; the Prius' exterior is more aerodynamic; and there are now a host of options including a solar roof that powers the ventilation system.
Power Players 2009 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, $50,455 Perhaps the truest expression of GM's ambiguity about its hybrid strategy, this vehicle (and the sibling GMC Yukon) offers huge fuel savings over the gas-powered versions — but only at a purchase premium of nearly $10,000. Its city mileage is about 50 percent better than that of the conventional Tahoe — yet it's not much better than many gas-powered crossovers. The two-mode system ensures that you lose practically nothing in terms of power and performance. Yet, with at least 10 decals or other logos inside or outside of the car that say "Hybrid," it will be difficult to forget why you bought this version.
2009 GMC Sierra 1500 Hybrid, $38,390 The American pickup-truck segment is the last remaining outpost of nonchalance about hybrids. The Dodge Ram won't be available in hybrid form until sometime in 2010, and Ford decided to forego any hybrid version of its brand-new F-150 line. So that leaves only the GMC Sierra — and the closely related Chevrolet Silverado — for hybrid-pickup buyers. The vehicle features GM's new two-mode powertrain, including a 6.0-liter V8 gasoline engine.
2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid, $26,650 This midsize sedan handles nicely and goes from zero to 60 in 7.5 seconds, the fastest of the mainstream hybrid sedans. Because it's spacious and fun to drive, it's frustrating that Nissan restricts its availability to California and seven East Coast states.
2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, $34,700 The hybrid version of this full-size SUV asks buyers to plunk down a remarkable $10,000 premium over its gas-powered stablemate, which could take up to 18 years to recoup in gasoline-purchase savings. But its ample size and 27/25 mpg rating make it worth consideration if you have SUV needs. Maximum cargo capacity is a substantial 94 cubic feet.
Luxury Labels 2010 BMW X6 Hybrid, $67,000 (est.)This vehicle will be representative of the first wave of German luxury hybrids that will begin arriving in the U.S. market in 2009. At the same time, the German brands are bringing over clean-diesel models to compete with hybrids. BMW is estimating a 20 percent mileage improvement compared with its standard X6. Within the next two years, also expect to see the BMW 7 Series ActiveHybrid and the Audi Q5 Hybrid.
2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, $73,135 This vehicle could serve as poster child for the reasons that Congress and the American people have been holding their noses about bailing out GM. It's a self-indulgent vehicle — also plastered heavily with the word "Hybrid" — featuring touches such as power running boards that certainly make it a Cadillac. But why does it bother being a hybrid? The two-wheel-drive model's 20-mpg combined fuel economy rating is tied for the worst mileage of any hybrid vehicle rated by the EPA.
2009 Lexus LS 600h L, $105,885 These economically depressed days may not be the best times for Toyota's luxury division to sell a flagship hybrid. But if you're still, somehow, in the market for a $100K-plus vehicle that costs about $30,000 more than the most loaded version of its gas-powered counterpart, you could do a lot worse. The LS 600h L features Lexus' usual exquisite craftsmanship and seamless, taut ride. And it mates a powerful V8 engine with two electric motors to deliver 12-cylinder performance reminiscent of European rivals — without devouring all that gasoline. Yet the 600h's combined 21 mpg is only marginally better than the LS 460's 19 mpg, meaning that payback could take a century. Those who buy this hybrid are likely unconcerned about payback — and more likely wish to make a statement, or two.
Limited Impact Hybrids 2009 Chrysler Aspen Limited HEV, $45,570 The hybrid version of the regular Aspen is disappointingly dull. But that won't be a concern of consumers much longer, because as part of its survival mode, the company announced that it has discontinued the Aspen and its sibling Dodge Durango, and their hybrids, altogether.
2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, $25,555 The conventional version of the Malibu has been a great success for GM from the time it launched less than two years ago. But the hybrid is a half-hearted offshoot, employing a mild-hybrid powertrain that (like its Saturn Aura sibling) generates only a 4-mpg improvement compared with the standard four-cylinder powertrain.