Chances are you know that hybrids are hot even if you don't have a subscription to the industry mag Automotive News. Whether your cause is stopping global warming or stopping the dependence on foreign oil, this collection of fuel-efficient vehicles promises to make a difference for our planet, our country and our wallets. However, not all hybrids are created equal. They now come in a variety of body styles, and different manufacturers employ different methods for achieving the marriage between a gasoline engine and one or more electric motors.
Of course, the king of all hybrids is the Toyota Prius. This is the only model on the market that comes exclusively as a hybrid, and it has transformed this segment from environmentalist oddity to mainstream vehicle. It is now one of the 10 best-selling cars in the country, thanks largely to outstanding sales in California. That's despite the fact that the most populous state is no longer handing out carpool lane stickers that allow Prius drivers to cruise solo in the diamond lanes. This year, the Prius gets a lower base price to become the cheapest hybrid, and its mix of driving comfort, utility and high feature content make it as desirable as ever.
The Prius' closest competitor is the Honda Civic Hybrid. This four-door compact sedan is more fun to drive and generally feels more like a normal car than Toyota's hit hybrid, but the Civic is slower and doesn't provide the same amount of interior versatility. Note that Honda's slow-selling Accord Hybrid has been discontinued.
Hybrid powertrains have also migrated to America's favorite type of car -- the family sedan. Both the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima hybrids utilize Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive technology to create incredibly fuel-efficient vehicles with more traditional sedan body styles. The Altima Hybrid in particular is the first we've found to be actually fun to drive. If there is one major drawback to the hybrid versions versus their regular counterparts, it's that their battery packs shrink trunk size. In addition, the Altima Hybrid is only for sale in California, New York, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont.
Two other hybrid family sedans are the Saturn Aura Green Line and Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. These are considered "mild hybrids," utilizing a simpler design and much smaller electric motors. This equates to a vehicle that can barely travel on electric power alone (unlike Toyota's system) or give much of a boost to the gasoline engine. As a result, these hybrids are slower and offer a negligible fuel economy benefit versus the regular-gasoline four-cylinder Aura and Malibu.
SUVs are also now part of the hybrid fray. The Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon are the first vehicles to be equipped with General Motors' new two-mode hybrid system. Working like Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, these full-size sport-utilities have the ability to operate in electric mode up to around 20 mph. This contributes to fuel economy of 21 mpg for both the city and highway. By comparison, a four-wheel-drive Tahoe with a conventional 5.3-liter V8 gets 14 mpg city and 19 mpg highway.
The redesigned Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a family crossover SUV with room for seven passengers and fuel economy in the mid 20s. It is a tad pricey, however. Also deserving of that description is the Lexus RX 400h, which seats only five. Although certainly more fuel-efficient than its regular gasoline counterpart, the hybrid RX's price premium is apt to be off-putting for all but the most ardent green buyers. This same criticism can be leveled at the Lexus GS 450h and Lexus LS 600h L luxury sedans, but their emphasis on performance makes them questionable choices even for the greens.
The rest of the hybrid SUV segment consists of compacts. Most are related to the Ford Escape Hybrid, including the Mercury Mariner Hybrid and Mazda Tribute HEV. All three utilize a Toyota-designed full hybrid setup and subsequently get the best gas mileage one can currently achieve with an SUV at 34 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. Each was substantially revised last year (the Tribute HEV is a new offering), and these SUVs feature improved interiors and updated styling. If you want a hybrid with real fuel-efficiency, but need more utility than a Prius can provide, these are your best options.
The Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid is similar in size to the Escape triplets, but like the Aura Green Line, it's a mild hybrid. While it boasts a 27 percent fuel-economy improvement over the gasoline four-cylinder Vue, these gains are largely dependent on the type of driving you do. The Vue Green Line's 25 mpg city rating falls 9 mpg short of the Escape Hybrid, yet at 32 mpg, it gets the best highway mileage of any SUV.