Although hybrids still make up a small part of the overall U.S. car market, concern over fuel costs and the environment are causing once-skeptical car buyers to give them a chance. The higher prices and insurance costs that hybrids often carry can't always be financially justified by their better fuel economy, but government credits and perks such as carpool lane usage help to justify the difference.
Consumers shopping for a hybrid in 2010 have many more brand and body style choices than before, including pickup trucks and luxury SUVs. In order to meet new federal fuel economy mandates, automakers are racing to develop even more hybrids that provide consumer-friendly utility and sportier driving dynamics.
The undisputed sales champion of the hybrid segment is the Toyota Prius. The fact that it's the only model on the market available solely as a hybrid gives it a certain cachet to those who want to wear their convictions on their sleeves. But this sedan's appeal goes much deeper than that. It's currently the most affordable hybrid, and the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can buy, offering 48 mpg city and 45 mpg highway. And let's not forget about its ample cargo capacity and flexible interior, which endow it with incredible utility.
Honda's answer to the Prius is the Civic Hybrid. This car offers plenty of features, but keep in mind that its acceleration trails that of the Prius, and it offers less utility. Two of America's most popular family sedans — the Toyota Camry and the Nissan Altima — are available in hybrid versions, and both are powered by Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive technology. The Camry Hybrid boasts excellent crash test scores and acceleration that rivals that of many four-cylinder, gas-powered family sedans. The Altima Hybrid is remarkably sporty, and gets top marks for being fun to drive. Unfortunately, this Altima is available only in eight states: California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.
Two others to consider are the Saturn Aura Green Line and Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. These cars are known as "mild hybrids," due to the fact that they use simpler hybrid technology that taps smaller electric motors. Both cars are good-looking inside and out, and the Malibu Hybrid is cheaper than many of its peers. But this duo comes with one big drawback: As a result of their "mild" hybrid technology, they offer only marginal fuel economy benefits.
Thanks to Lexus, there are hybrid sedans geared toward those with the finances to afford the finer things. The luxurious Lexus GS 450h summons V8 power from its V6/hybrid powertrain, going from zero to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds. The larger 600h L makes the sprint in 6 seconds. Since these hybrids are tuned more toward performance than fuel economy, gas mileage is only in the low-to-mid-20s.
Sport-utility vehicles used to be symbols of gas-guzzling excess, but today's lineup includes hybrid models that offer far better fuel economy. In the full-size segment, you'll find the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, which come equipped with General Motors' two-mode hybrid system. This technology is similar to Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, and allows these vehicles to accelerate up to 25 mph solely on electric power. City mileage in these hybrids is 50 percent better than that of gas-powered Tahoes and Yukons; rear-wheel-drive models get combined mileage of 21 mpg. One caveat to consider is that these SUVs are relatively expensive. If you don't need the towing power offered by these huge hybrids, keep in mind that there are less expensive crossovers (with regular gasoline engines), that offer comparable space with similar fuel economy.
Cadillac's Escalade Hybrid is the only luxury player in the full-size segment. With its opulent cabin, it offers a truly deluxe driving experience. Rear-wheel-drive models get 20 mpg combined. The full-size Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango hybrids, which were only recently announced, have been axed from the lineup, as the facility in which they are produced is being shut down.
One of the stars of the midsize segment is the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. This crossover SUV accommodates up to seven passengers, and delivers fuel economy in the mid-20s. Cabin design is excellent, and its interior offers a great deal of utility. Another choice is the Saturn Vue Hybrid — its relatively affordable price tag makes it an appealing pick, and mileage is 25 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. A two-mode hybrid version of the Vue (teamed with GM's excellent new direct-injected V6) will also join the Saturn lineup in 2009. Those with a yen for luxury will want to check out the Lexus RX 400h, which brims with opulence, seats five and manages gas mileage of 27 mpg city and 24 mpg highway in front-wheel-drive versions.
The three choices in the compact segment — the Ford Escape Hybrid, the Mazda Tribute Hybrid and the Mercury Mariner Hybrid — are platform siblings and share a Toyota-designed full-hybrid setup. Front-wheel-drive versions provide truly excellent mpg numbers (34 city/31 highway), and these are your best options if you need more utility than a Prius.