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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 Toyota Prius is still the king of the road, and the most fuel-efficient, offering 51 mpg city and 48 mpg EPA highway estimates. The long-awaited redesign for 2010 retains the Prius' cutting-edge technology, generous cargo capacity and flexible interior.
But it's Honda that won the price battle this year with its all-new Insight, a smaller cousin to the Civic Hybrid and now the most affordable hybrid on the road. This reincarnation of the original Insight as a four-door hatchback starts under $20,000 and gets 41 mpg combined. Though it may not be the "Prius killer" Honda hoped for, it's worth a good look for eco- and budget-conscious shoppers.
The new Ford Fusion Hybrid and its twin, the Mercury Milan Hybrid, have also taken the hybrid world by storm, offering a spacious interior and outstanding driving dynamics and fuel economy — 39 mpg combined city/highway. Tech aficionados will especially enjoy Ford's Sync, an easy-to-use, voice-activated connectivity system that ties together music, cell phone and even text communication functions.
Perennial best-sellers, the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima, are still available in hybrid versions for 2010. Both are powered by Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, can seat five comfortably and have great crash test scores. The Camry Hybrid makes more financial sense than most hybrids, as it's only slightly more expensive than the gas-only version. The Altima Hybrid is surprisingly sporty and fun to drive, but is available only in nine states: California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.
One of the less expensive candidates in the hybrid category is the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. Dubbed a "mild hybrid" because its simpler hybrid technology uses smaller electric motors, its fuel economy is only slightly better than the gas-only Malibu.
This year, the luxury hybrid market began to sizzle in earnest. The brand-new Lexus HS 250h, which starts at a comparatively modest $34,200, offers all the fine appointments you'd expect from Lexus, and its 35-mpg combined EPA rating is the highest of any luxury-branded hybrid vehicle. Also from Lexus, the plush GS 450h and its powerful V6/hybrid powertrain manage a 0-60-mph time of just 5.5 seconds. The larger 600h L, with a six-figure price fully loaded, takes a half-second more. But be warned: To achieve these fast times, Lexus had to sacrifice some fuel economy, which is in the low-to-mid-20s.
Mercedes-Benz also entered the field in 2010 with its S400 BlueHybrid, the latest addition to its S-Class flagship lineup. This mild hybrid's 3.5-liter V6 engine and electric motor are linked to a 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission. The S400 makes 299 horsepower with average fuel consumption just shy of 30 mpg.
Those who need the cargo or hauling abilities of sport-utility vehicles can now hold their heads high, as today's hybrid SUVs eliminate the "gas-guzzling" stigma.
The Ford Escape Hybrid, the Mazda Tribute Hybrid and the Mercury Mariner Hybrid — triplets under the skin — share a Toyota-designed full-hybrid setup. Front-wheel-drive versions of these compact SUVs provide outstanding fuel economy (34 city/31 highway), making them a good choice for those who need more cargo space than a Prius or want a more traditional look.
But it took a midsize hybrid SUV — the Toyota Highlander Hybrid — to combine seven-passenger capacity with first-rate interior design and storage space for under $35,000. The Highlander's mid-20s fuel economy, while not earth-shattering, makes it a winning formula for families or road-trippers.
Those who want to go upscale can opt for the Lexus RX 450h. Though it only seats five, this major redesign of the quick and smooth-riding 400h comes in FWD and AWD versions and has the best fuel economy in the midsize luxury SUV class.
The Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon are the largest of the hybrid SUVs and feature General Motors' two-mode hybrid system, which allows acceleration up to 25 mph solely on electric power. These hybrids' city mileage rates a whopping 50 percent better than that of gas-powered Tahoes and Yukons, though that's still only 21 mpg on rear-wheel-drive models. If you don't truly need the towing power, some regular gas-powered crossovers are less expensive and offer similar fuel economy and space.
Cadillac's Escalade Hybrid is the big granddaddy — a true luxury full-size hybrid SUV. With an MSRP starting at $73,425 MSRP, it offers a sumptuous interior and equally deluxe driving experience. Rear-wheel-drive models get 20 mpg combined.
Pickup trucks, with heavy frames and poor aerodynamics, are notoriously thirsty; therefore, the hybrid powertrain options for two popular domestic trucks may be welcome offerings for contractors or workmen looking to cut their fuel bills. The 2010 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Hybrid and its twin, the 2010 GMC Sierra 1500 Hybrid, claim 379 hp, are offered in rear- and all-wheel drive and get a combined city/highway rating of 21 mpg. Both trucks can drive up to 29 mph in all-electric mode before triggering the gas engine, a benefit for frequent stops and starts at a job site. New for 2010 is E85 compatibility. Like the Tahoe and Yukon hybrids, though, their overall value proposition is questionable compared to gas-only versions.