With gas prices near $4 for most of this year, hybrids are an attractive consideration for many buyers. We recently saw the introduction of the long-anticipated all-electric Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt hybrid. Both cars were included in the Edmunds.com long-term testing fleet and were extensively reviewed. But first, a snapshot of the ever-widening hybrid market.
While most buyers think of hybrids as compact fuel-sippers, this powertrain — which combines a gas engine with electric motor — can be found in a steadily growing array of vehicles. Despite all the newcomers, our top choice remains the Toyota Prius. First of all, it out-sips all the other hybrids with a fuel economy rating of 51 city/48 highway mpg. The hatchback design affords plenty of passenger space and cargo utility, plus rear-seat legroom is a pleasant surprise. Enthusiasts dislike the light-effort steering and soft handling characteristics, but these traits are actually a boon to weary commuters. And finally, the price is attractive, with little purchase premium to offset with gas savings.
Close on the heels of the Prius is the Ford Fusion Hybrid, a spacious, affordable sedan that delivers 41 city/36 highway mpg along with a host of high-tech features such as Ford's outstanding Sync multimedia voice-controlled system. The Fusion also boasts a well-appointed cabin with dual-zone automatic climate control and rear park assist. Cargo capacity suffers because of the space taken up by the battery pack, but there's still plenty of room for luggage.
Our top pick in the under-$40,000 category is the Nissan Leaf, the first affordable all-electric car since the General Motors EV1. Nissan promises a cruising range of 106 miles city/92 miles highway, but EPA tests show the real-world range is more likely to be 73 miles, depending on conditions and driving style. The five-passenger hatchback is fun to drive, with seamless and eerily quiet acceleration and surprisingly good handling due to the low center of gravity from the battery. Public charging options are limited for now, meaning that home charging is mandatory, preferably at the faster rate of 240 volts.
The Chevrolet Volt is another attractive choice for drivers looking to reduce both their gas bill and their carbon footprint. It offers an all-electric range of 40 miles and then switches to power provided by a four-cylinder gas engine. In all-electric mode the Volt has pleasingly strong torque off the line and offers an attractive high-tech look through excellent graphics, which display energy usage. Drawbacks include a high price tag (though both Leaf and Volt buyers are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit), small trunk and seating limited to four people. However, the Volt is an impressive return to GM's commitment to electric cars.
Introduced for the 2012 model year is the Infiniti M35h — our top pick of hybrid cars over $40,000 — which combines features from both the luxury and performance car segments. While delivering V8 power, the M offers a fuel economy rating of 27 city/32 highway mpg. The 3.5-liter V6 engine is combined with an electric motor for a total output of 360 horsepower. The M35h is a full hybrid, which means it can be propelled by electrical power only before the gas engine kicks in. A lithium-ion battery pack stores the power reclaimed through the regenerative braking system. Although the price tag for this is higher than for other Infiniti M sedans, it's a wonderful combination of green and go.
While sporting a price tag close to the century mark, the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid is another strong entry into the luxury and sport segment. Although its fuel economy doesn't measure up to the Infiniti, a rating of 19 city/25 highway mpg is good for a car this size. The interior design, safety features and technology found in the S400 are unrivaled, as are the power and handling of this German hybrid. The S400 Hybrid is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 coupled with a seven-speed automatic transmission, an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery for a total output of 295 hp. In our instrumented testing, the S400 accelerated from zero to 60 mph in a brisk 7.7 seconds.