Many consumers relish the thrill of driving right by the gas station. Who can blame them, as it might be the greatest luxury of them all. While enhanced fuel economy has come to vehicles in every market segment these days, hybrids and EVs still have strong appeal to some consumers. Hybrids represent an entry-level solution that minimizes the impact of their conventional gasoline engine on mpg in city driving. Plug-in hybrids offer extended electric range before the conventional gasoline engine comes to life. And the electric vehicle takes gasoline out of the equation altogether. The smart shopper does the purchase calculus based on affordability and practical range as well as pure fuel-efficiency.
While the selection of hybrid powertrains grows each year, we've been consistent in picking the Toyota Prius as our top choice in the under $40,000 category. But now we're breaking that pattern and going with the 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid. The redesigned Fusion Hybrid is slightly larger, sportier and more upscale-looking. It has a well-furnished cabin and loads of high-tech features. Most important, it boasts a new engine, and while smaller than last year's, it combines with Ford's smooth electric-drive system to deliver more power and much-improved fuel economy of 47 mpg city and highway, an impressive 20 percent better than the 2012 version.
There's still a Prius among our picks for 2013, but instead of the standard model we went for the smaller and less-expensive Toyota Prius C as our second choice. The subcompact C is slightly sportier-looking than its big brother, and its downsize propulsion system makes for sluggish acceleration. But the C delivers an EPA-rated 50 mpg combined fuel economy. While the ride can be a bit harsh and the interior has an overabundance of hard plastics, the fuel economy combines with budget-friendly pricing and a plethora of safety equipment to make this member of the Prius family a winner.
Another Ford rounds out our top hybrid picks for under $40K. The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is a well-built, fun-to-drive alternative to the small SUV. It offers plenty of passenger space but is short of the competition on cargo space, and it has that finicky MyFord Touch infotainment system. But these shortcomings are erased by pluses that start with a refined gas-electric drive system that's not only the most powerful in its class but also delivers 47 mpg fuel economy, both city and highway. The base SE model is loaded with standard features and has plenty of options as well.
Our top pick in the under-$40,000 EV category is the Chevrolet Volt, which is a great way to wean yourself off gasoline and reduce your carbon footprint. It offers an all-electric range of 40 miles and then fires up its four-cylinder gas engine. In all-electric mode the Volt quietly provides great torque off the line. Within the cabin, the gauge cluster and video screen offer attractive high-tech graphics. The drawbacks include a high price tag (though both Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf buyers are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit), small trunk and seating for only four. However, the Volt is an impressive return to GM's commitment to electric cars.
The Nissan Leaf proves to be a highly refined and affordable all-electric car. Nissan promises a range of 106 miles city/92 miles highway, but EPA tests put the real-world range at 73 miles, depending on conditions and driving style. The five-passenger hatchback is fun to drive, eerily quiet, ultra-responsive and also delivers surprisingly good handling. Public charging stations are appearing slowly, so home charging is still mandatory, preferably at the faster rate of 240 volts. Lease payments for the Leaf are reasonable and the cost of electricity versus gas will definitely win you over.
The Ford C-Max Energi is another outstanding gas sipper to consider. This plug-in electric hybrid wagon, the first from Ford, delivers an impressive 47 mpg while providing an amazing 500 miles of driving range between fill-ups, plus lively handling. The lithium-ion battery pack recharges from a standard 120-volt electric outlet. Priced at $32,950, the roomy C-Max features a high roof design, seats five passengers and has 43.4 cubic feet of cargo space.
Price is little or no object in this category, so the top choice is a no-brainer: the 2013 Tesla Model S EV. With its sleek all-aluminum body, five-passenger luxury interior and powerful battery-electric drive system, the Tesla simply has no competition. Its only downside is that as a battery-electric car it has limited range, although it goes a lot farther per charge than other EVs. Tesla also offers two upsized battery options — $10,000 each — that can extend the range from the base model's estimated 160 miles to an EPA-certified 265 miles. A $7,500 federal tax credit doesn't hurt.
Second place in the deep pockets class is the 2013 Infiniti M35h, a luxury hybrid sedan with a serious touch of road racer in its DNA. Don't expect Prius-like fuel efficiency, since Infiniti has packed a highly tuned 3.5-liter V6 under the hood. Coupled with the electric-drive system it produces a tire-spinning 360 horsepower, good for 0-60 mph in just 5.2 seconds. Still, the hybrid system and seven-speed automatic transmission help at the pump. The M35h delivers 29 mpg combined. It is basically unchanged from the inaugural 2012 model, so it also handles well and has a nicely appointed, roomy interior and enough options to compete with the best of the Europeans.
Speaking of Europeans, the best of them at the top end of the scale is the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid. With its peerless interior design, plenty of safety and technology features, and sleek sedan body, you'd never guess that this car is a legitimate hybrid. It delivers 21 mpg combined, some 11 percent better than the 19 mpg achieved by the base model of the S-Class. Actually the Mercedes-Benz S350 Bluetec diesel beats the hybrid in fuel economy with 25 mpg overall, but for many consumers the easy availability of gasoline over diesel, plus the quiet hybrid drive, make a difference.