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When gas prices hit four dollars a gallon in 2008, car buyers flocked to hybrids to avoid getting stung at the pumps. With the downturn of the economy and gas prices, the U.S. auto market slumped and as a consequence hybrid sales have been flat for the past few years. But the auto industry is back on its feet, and the hybrid market has turned a corner.

When you combine government incentives, rising fuel economy requirements, and automakers eagerly producing affordable new gas-electric models, all signs point to a new era of hybrid technology.

The price premium for a hybrid compared to a similar conventional car is getting whittled down, in some cases to almost nothing--making fuel efficiency and low emissions increasingly a no-compromise affair. New affordable hybrid sedans, and the wider selection of a hybrid system as an option in a mainstream vehicle, are expected to at least double hybrid market share in the next five years, from about 2.5 percent in 2011 to 15 percent or higher in the next 10 to 15 years. That means millions of new hybrids on the road and a growing number of choices for consumers. Below is the list of best selling hybrids models to consider.

Note: The calculations for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions--which includes carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants in units of in carbon dioxide equivalent--are based on the full fuel cycle which includes extraction and upstream refining for a total of 24.7 pounds of CO2-equivalent per gallon of gas.

Toyota Prius

Since the debut of the second-generation Toyota Prius in 2003, the quintessential gas-electric hybrid has risen from a niche product to become Toyota's third-best-selling model in the United States. It's the company's number one seller in California. The third edition of the Prius is bigger and more powerful than the model it replaced. The four-cylinder engine grew in displacement from 1.5 liters to 1.8 liters and, combined with a 36 kW electric motor, boosts horsepower from 110 to 134. The result is a reduction in zero-to-60 time by a full second. Additionally, the body is about four inches longer and about an inch wider.

Moving forward, Prius is no longer a single vehicle--but an entire family of Prii, ranging from the familiar hatchback, to a wagon version, compact and one that plugs into the electric grid.

Pros:

  • Highest fuel economy of all U.S. vehicles
  • Unique iconic aerodynamic design
  • Now available in various sizes

Cons:

  • Limited rear-view vision through hatchback
  • Adequate but not stellar acceleration
  • Unique design does not appeal to everyone
Show vehicle specs

Honda Insight

When the current Honda Insight was introduced in March 2009 as a 2010 model, it was hailed as the "Toyota Prius fighter." Making the best use of the most cost-effective Honda hybrid technology, the Insight was touted as a 40-MPG+ compact car for less than $20,000 -- a figure designed to undercut the least expensive Toyota Prius. Even with a price difference that now stands at about $5,000, the Insight failed to slay the mighty Prius.

In the latest version of the Insight, Honda has boosted the mileage by 1 MPG in both the city and highway--to 41 city and 44 highway.

The differences between the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius can be easily summarized: The Insight is thousands of dollars cheaper, has a crisper look, and provides a more agile and enjoyable ride. But the Insight is noticeably smaller, especially for passengers in the backseat, and the interior design is clunkier. You need to sit in both vehicles before deciding if the Insight is the right size for your passengers, not just your pocketbook. 

Pros:

  • Sub-$20,000 price tag
  • More responsive driving and handling than many other hybrids
  • Rear-seat split and hatchback provides generous cargo space

Cons:

  • Cramped rear seating
  • Engine noise and buzz during brisk acceleration
  • Affordability emphasized over maximum fuel efficiency
Show vehicle specs

Ford Fusion Hybrid (and sister vehicle Mercury Milan Hybrid)

The Ford Fusion Hybrid established a new benchmark in hybrid technology. It marries a seamless, sophisticated hybrid powertrain to the Fusion platform--positioned solidly in the middle of the mainstream market. From handling and braking through comfort and convenience, reviews indicate that it's refined and fun to drive.

The 2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid's 41 city / 36 highway mileage ratings are in the middle of the  pack for mid-size hybrid sedans. Ford engineers did a remarkable job of eliminating the flutter-rumble that many hybrids make when transitioning from gas engine to electric mode. In the Fusion Hybrid, the gasoline engine seamlessly starts up and shuts down with only the slightest shudder.

The only dilemma is whether or not to wait for the 2013 Fusion Hybrid, which promises sharper styling, more safety features and high-tech gear, and a potential jump to around 47 MPG in the city and 43 on the highway.  The 2013 model goes on sale in fall 2012--with a plug-in hybrid version following in early 2013.

Pros:

  • Outstanding fuel efficiency in the city
  • Smoother transitions from gas to electric and back
  • Well designed fuel economy gauge and feedback

Cons:

  • Need to wait until fall 2013 for improved version
  • Rear seats do not fold
  • Cargo storage more limited than hatchback
Show vehicle specs

Honda CR-Z

Honda says that the CR-Z combines fun, small and efficient in a sporty package. Critics say the $20,000 price tag is too much for a two-seater that lacks the size and practicality of the more affordable Honda Fit. They say the CR-Z's 122 horsepower make it anything but sporty. And worst of all, the fuel economy of such a small hybrid should be far more than its average of about 37 MPG.

The CR-Z borrows much of the hybrid system from the Honda Insight -- but its engine has 16 valves instead of the Insight's eight. This is to help increase power at higher rpm and improve efficiency at lower speeds. The Honda CR-Z's 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine -- compared to the Insight's 1.3 -- is also mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, making it the only hybrid on the market available with a manual transmission. Drivers of the CVT version, when selecting "sporty" mode can simulate stepped shifting manually by flipping paddle shifters on the steering wheel. The "normal" and "economy" modes are designed for greater efficiency.

Pros:

  • Fun to drive, according to some reports
  • Available in manual transmission
  • Sporty look

Cons:

  • Disappointing mileage for its size
  • Only seats two
  • High road noise
Show vehicle specs

Toyota Camry Hybrid

The Toyota Camry is safe, comfortable, dependable, relatively attractive and altogether predictable and has been America's top-selling passenger vehicle for nine of the past 10 years. Now Toyota offers the hybrid Camry, with an EPA combined highway/city rating of 41 miles to the gallon and around 700 miles between visits to the gas station.

The first half of the Camry Hybrid drivetrain is a new Atkinson-cycle version of the base Camry's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. (An Atkinson-cycle engine gives up a little power output in exchange for improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.) The engine produces 156 horsepower, nine more than the 2.4-liter in the 2011 Camry Hybrid.
The second half is a 105-kW electric motor and a revised 245-volt battery pack. The battery pack consists of 34 nickel-metal hydride modules, each of which contains six 1.2-volt cells. Although smaller in size, the battery pack stores and delivers more power.

Moreover, Toyota has stepped up to the Ford Fusion Hybrid in terms of making the newest Camry Hybrid just as seamless--in terms of the transition from gas engine to electric motor and back.  The drive feel of the gas and hybrid versions of the Camry are now imperceptible.  These improvements were made while dropping the price about $1,000--and boosting the city mileage from 33 MPG to a whopping 43 miles per gallon.

Pros:

  • Smooth and sedate handling
  • Hybrid system in America's best-selling model
  • Faster and more efficient than gas-powered Camry

Cons:

  • Conservative design
  • Battery reduces some trunk space
Show vehicle specs

Honda Civic Hybrid

The all-new, ninth-generation 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid, using a lithium ion battery for the first time, increases its average EPA fuel economy rating from 41 MPG to 44 MPG. The new model is rated at 44 in both city and highway driving.

The improvement in fuel economy solidifies the Civic Hybrid's second-place position for fuel economy among cars that don't plug into the grid. The 44-MPG average moves the Civic slightly closer to the Prius's 50-MPG level, and edges out the 42-MPG Lexus CT 200h. Honda makes the claim that the Civic Hybrid becomes the most fuel-efficient sedan – meaning it's not a hatchback – on U.S. roads.

Like other new Civic models – there are now five different versions, including the HF high fuel-efficiency non-hybrid model – the 2012 Civic Hybrid gains a reworked exterior, a redesigned interior and new features.

The Civic Hybrid will satisfy shoppers who value the Honda Civic for its reliability and contemporary look, but really want a hybrid. And, if the Prius design is not your cup of tea, and you can live with a compact rather than a mid-size sedan, then the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid is worth a strong consideration.

Pros:

  • Fuel efficiency second only to Prius
  • Sporty look
  • Trunk allows safer storage than hatchback

Cons:

  • Back seats do not fold
  • Small engine delivers adequate but not stellar performance
  • Seating is not exceptionally comfortable
Show vehicle specs

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (and sister car Kia Optima Hybrid)

The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is the South Korean company's first hybrid in the U.S. market. Apparently, Hyundai took its time, scrutinized the hybrid competition, and attempted to outdo it in every respect. The result? Hyundai has produced a mainstream mid-size hybrid sedan that provides real competition for fuel economy. The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is rated at 35 miles per gallon in the city and 40 MPG on the highway.

Hyundai decided not to copy the unique aerodynamic look of the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. Moreover, Hyundai went its own direction on technology -- by developing an original proprietary hybrid architecture to reduce cost, weight and to improve highway fuel economy.

Unlike hybrid systems from Ford and Toyota, the Hyundai system does not use a continuously variable transmission. Instead, Hyundai is using its new six-speed automatic transmission with an electric motor that takes the place of the torque converter. What's the difference? It means that Hyundai is trying to address the common complaint that hybrids provide great mileage for city driving conditions, but not so much for highway driving. Also, some Prius drivers complain of a motorboat or rubber band feel to the CVTs. With the Sonata Hybrid, you feel the gear changes, which feels "normal" to many drivers.

The Sonata Hybrid stacks up very well against the award-winning Fusion Hybrid: 206 net horsepower compared to the Fusion's 191 hp; a very slippery 0.25 drag of coefficient is superior to the Fusion's 0.33; and the use of lightweight lithium batteries allows the Sonata to weigh 263 pounds less than the Fusion.

Pros:

  • More natural transmission feel
  • Attractive "fluid dynamic" design
  • Great overall value for the level of efficiency

Cons:

  • Gaping front grille design might not appeal to everyone
  • Mileage still far less than the Prius
Show vehicle specs

Lexus HS 250h

The HS 250h is the Lexus brand's first dedicated hybrid, just as the Prius was for its parent brand Toyota. Previous Lexus hybrids were adaptations of existing vehicles, but the HS is sold just as a hybrid, with no gasoline-only version.

The comparison to the Prius is apt, since the two cars share the same basic platform. They both ride on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, though the Lexus HS 250h is 2 inches wider, half an inch higher, and a full 9 inches longer than its hatchback relative. The HS also has a larger 2.4-liter engine -- similar to the one in the Toyota Camry Hybrid -- against the 1.8-liter engine used by the Prius. The complete hybrid system in the Lexus is fully 40 percent more powerful than that of the Prius: 187 horsepower compared to 134.

So while the two cars have different bodies, different engine sizes, and certainly different personas, you can view the HS 250h as a new Prius with a trunk, a raft of luxury accoutrements, and a different tradeoff between fuel economy and features.

Lexus buyers expect luxury, reliability, and features, and the HS 250h delivers those in spades. Perhaps the biggest drawback with the HS 250h is that Lexus introduced the CT 200h, a hybrid that offers better fuel efficiency and styling--although the rear end swaps back a hatch for a trunk.

Pros:

  • First high-mileage dedicated luxury hybrid
  • Trunk instead of a hatchback
  • Lots of optional electronic gadgetry

Cons:

  • Tradeoff of max fuel efficiency for luxury features
  • Interior features not as luxurious as other Lexus models
  • Exterior design is somewhat nondescript
Show vehicle specs

Toyota Prius V

Prius is by far the best-selling and most trusted brand in hybrids. Toyota expanded on that foundation by introducing Prius into an entire line of vehicles that the company expects will eventually outsell all other Toyota models. The Prius expansion began in late 2011 with the introduction of the Prius V--a version of the classic gas-electric model with almost 60 percent more cargo room (while keeping its seating configuration for five passengers).

The Prius V is Toyota's direct response to customer feedback. “Consumers have told Toyota that they love the idea of the Prius--high fuel-efficiency, low emissions, advanced technology--but the vehicle selling today doesn't fit their lifestyle and needs,” Doug Coleman, Toyota's Prius product manager, told HybridCars.com. Toyota's answer is a hybrid with all the versatility and comfort of a family hauler, according to early reports, while delivering city mileage of 44 MPG and highway economy of 40 MPG. Add a panoramic moonroof and Toyota's new Entune multimedia system to the attractive mix.

Pros:

  • Trusted third-generation Toyota hybrid system
  • 60 percent more room for passengers and stuff
  • New features like panaromic moonroof

Cons:

  • More cargo space but no additional seating
  • 10-MPG less than established Prius model
Show vehicle specs

Infiniti M35h

Nissan continues to trumpet pure electric cars as the ultimate answer to sustainable mobility--but will make gas-electric drivetrains the solution to efficient luxury. The Infiniti M35h Hybrid, which arrived spring 2011, allows luxury buyers to keep all the desired horsepower and high-end features, but no longer guzzle gas.

The Infiniti M35h powertrain features a 3.5-liter Atkinson-cycle V6 engine that works with a single electric motor and two clutches. Whether powered by the engine, electric motor or both, the energy is directed to the rear wheels and controlled by a seven-speed automatic transmission. Infiniti has not released official fuel economy numbers but on several occasions stated the system will deliver fuel mileage comparable to the Nissan Versa's 1.8-liter four-- 27 MPG city/ 32 highway.

That's just the beginning of Infiniti hybrids. Larry Dominque, Nissan North America's vice president of product planning for the Americas, says the M hybrid system was designed to fit all of Infiniti's rear-wheel-drive models, including the G sedan and coupe and the EX and FX crossovers.

Pros:

  • Tons of style and refinement
  • Abundant horsepower
  • Impressive aerodynamics

Cons:

  • Nissan’s unproven home-grown hybrid system
  • Power from V6 engine comes with efficiency penalty
Show vehicle specs

Hybrid SUVS and CUVs

For drivers that need more room than a standard sedan, SUVs and crossover utility vehicles (CUVs) have become their vehicles of choice. For the most part used as tall station wagons, CUVs are lighter and more fuel efficient than standard, truck-based SUVs, though neither hybrid SUVs or CUVs reach the level of fuel efficiency of hybrid cars.

Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid

Volkswagen chairman Martin Winterkorn recently said that hybrid and electric vehicles will account for three percent of the German carmaker's global sales by 2018. VW made its first foray into the hybrid market with a gas-electric version of the Touareg SUV.

Volkswagen offers combined fuel economy of 22-MPG for Touareg Hybrid , while allowing zero-to-60 times of 6.5 seconds, and a top speed of 150 miles per hour. Towing capacity will be more than 7,700 pounds. The Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid powerplant marries an Audi-built, supercharged 3-liter V6 and an eight-speed automatic with a disc-shaped electric motor mounted internally. Electric energy is stored in 155 pounds worth of nickel metal hydride battery pack stored under the rear cargo floor.

Hybrid purists might not be impressed with real-world mileage around 20 MPG, but keep in mind that Touareg has definitely gone on a diet. The hybrid drive replaces the previous V8 gasoline engines in Europe and America. And the V10 TDI and V12 engine versions of the previous model were discontinued.

The $60,000-plus price tag has been impediment to sales, and when combined with low productions numbers, it might be difficult to locate a Touareg Hybrid

Pros:

  • No shortage of power or towing capacity
  • Decent fuel economy for size and luxury category
  • Can travel in all-electric mode up to around 40 mph

Cons:

  • Pricey compared to other hybrid SUVs
  • Less than stellar fuel economy
  • Volkswagen is untested as a hybrid manufacturer
Show vehicle specs

Toyota Highlander Hybrid

For the 2011 model year, the Highlander Hybrid was overhauled--outside, inside and under the hood. It has no real competition in its class--an SUV suited to "large families who love hybrids."  There were no significant changes in the 2012 model.

The gas-electric Highlander is outfitted with a brand-new 3.5-liter V6 engine, replacing the 3.3-liter six of its predecessors. The dual-overhead cam Atkinson-cycle engine is rated at 231-horsepower, an increase of 22-hp over the 2010 edition. In addition, two electric motors join this powertrain, one in the front and one in the rear, boosting the overall horsepower to a very respectable 280.

For even greater emphasis on efficiency, Toyota outfitted the Highlander Hybrid with both "EV" and "Econ" driving modes. In EV, this hybrid functions solely on electric power, but only at low speeds and distances up to one mile. The more practical “Econ” mode works to limit throttle response in order to promote greater fuel economy. In other words, it restrains the engine's ability to operate at its full potential. The ideal time to use this function is during stop-and-go traffic.

The result of this electronic wizardry when combined with the new V6 is an EPA fuel mileage rating of 28 miles per gallon city and highway. That's up from the previous year's numbers of 27 MPG and 25 MPG respectively. It's only available as a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Pros:

  • Only hybrid with convenient seating for seven
  • Plenty of power wrapped in smooth hybrid system
  • Newly added "EV" and "Econ" modes with 2011 model

Cons:

  • Gas mileage improvement not that impressive
  • Third-row seating only for small people
  • Interior materials feel somewhat cheap
Show vehicle specs

Lexus RX 450h

Since the introduction of the Lexus RX hybrid in 2005, a significant number of Lexus SUV buyers have opted for the "hybrid upgrade. " It's the best-selling hybrid SUV for the past three years.

What's the significance of the recent shift in the vehicle's name-number from 400h to 450h? In the gas-powered versions, the number is a code for the engine displacement--so the RX 350 means the vehicle carries a 3.5-liter engine. Lexus nudges those numbers up on the hybrids, because RX 450h's combination of a 3.5-liter V6 engine and rear-mounted electric motor-generator gives it the performance of a 4.5-liter engine.

The RX 450h boasts the latest incarnation of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, which works in tandem with a new and improved gas engine. Two new fuel-saving strategies have been implemented in the hybrid system. One is an exhaust-heat recovery system that reduces the time it takes for the engine to warm up. This allows the idle-stop feature--which shuts down a hybrid's engine and allows the electric motor to take over--to engage more frequently and for longer durations, improving fuel economy and reducing emissions. The other innovation is a cooled exhaust-gas recirculation system. This feature boosts fuel economy by reducing engine pumping losses.

Combined, this larger powerplant produces 295 horsepower--27 horses more than did the RX 400h. But despite the added power and the fact that the vehicle is slightly larger than its predecessor, the 450h actually nets 5 MPG more in fuel economy--making it the most fuel-efficient all-wheel drive SUV on the North American market.

Pros:

  • Lots of horespower
  • Refinement and comfort

Cons:

  • Pricey for relatively little gain in MPG
  • No off-road capabilities; feels lightweight
  • Significant trade-off of fuel efficiency for luxury features
Show vehicle specs

Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid

The Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid uses a direct injected, supercharged Audi 3.0-liter V6 engine rated at 333 horsepower, paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Between the two is mounted a 38-kilowatt (52-hp) electric motor that puts out 221 lb-ft of torque, a full two-thirds as much as the engine itself does.

The system's unique feature is a hydraulic clutch between the engine and motor that disengages the engine so it can shut down under light loads. The electric motor then takes up the load until the engine restarts. Porsche engineers call the result "sailing"--for the quiet sensation of speed using only electric power.

As for on-road performance, the company claims 0 to 62 mph in 6.8 seconds with both the electric motor and the boosted engine providing power.

Even with this level of performance, the mileage rating of 20 city and 24 highway is a marked improvement over the 2010 Cayenne S figures of 13 city and 19 highway MPG (with a much larger 4.8-liter V8).

Pros:

  • Big powerful engine
  • Cool "sailing" features at high speeds
  • Decent jump in fuel efficiency compared to conventional model

Cons:

  • Very pricey for its class
  • Hybrid weighs nearly 400 more pounds than V8 version
Show vehicle specs

Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid

For drivers that absolutely need a full-size SUV with considerable towing and payload capacity, the Tahoe Hybrid is a way to soften the blow of these vehicles' gas guzzling ways. Overall, the popularity of full-size SUVs has taken a huge tumble since their heyday as many drivers realized they don't need such a large vehicle for their daily driving needs.

For those that need such a vehicle, consider the math: Improving the efficiency of the sizable Tahoe from 16 MPG to 21 MPG--assuming 15,000 miles a year--saves 223 gallons. At today's fuel prices, that's close to $700 a year.  Also note that the base MSRP of the Tahoe Hybrid dropped by $2,000 in the 2012 model.

The crux of the Tahoe Hybrid's powertrain is GM's 6-liter Vortec V8 with cylinder deactivation technology. In other words, this engine can shut down four of its eight cylinders when the additional power is not needed. That saves fuel. Beyond the engine, there's a 300-volt battery that hides below the second-row seats. The vehicle's two electric motors are housed within the transmission.

For low-speed, low-impact driving, the powertrain works just like other hybrids; it stops the V8 engine whenever possible so that it may draw power from one or both of the electric motors. The second mode is mostly for highway driving, at which time one or both electric motors can run concurrently along with the V8 engine in order to provide a power boost. The two-mode transmission is the key to the whole system, which attempts to keep the engine running at the optimum rpm for low fuel consumption. Essentially, it manages a balancing act between the V8 engine and the electric motors. It is also responsible for making the transitions between the two modes practically seamless.

Pros:

  • A capable work vehicle, with lots of towing power and 4WD
  • An abundance of space and amenities for families
  • Decent fuel economy for such a large vehicle

Cons:

  • $13,000 jump compared to conventional version
  • Hardly a gas-sipping vehicle
Show vehicle specs

Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

Let's be clear: the Cadillac Escalade 4WD Hybrid is 17 feet long, weighs almost 3 tons, costs $73,000, and gets about 20 miles per gallon. That's not what most people think of when they hear "hybrid."

But this is the hybrid for you if you need a vehicle that can tow 5,800 pounds, seat 7 people, and still maximize your mileage at 20 city / 23 highway. Those aren't Toyota Prius numbers, but the city mileage is 50 percent better than a non-hybrid Escalade. You also get far more luxury than in the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid (and its twin the GMC Yukon Hybrid). All three are essentially the same vehicle, underneath various levels of fancy dress.

Launched in August 2008, the Escalade Hybrid is unquestionably the world's blingiest hybrid. GM's characteristic hybrid-logo-with-green-leaf is rendered in large, garish chrome letters in a fender vent the size of your fist--which sits at chest level to a standard-issue human being.

Pros:

  • Only full-size luxury SUV on the market
  • 5,800 pounds of towing capacity
  • Lots of standard amenities, plus options

Cons:

  • Criticized for powertrain with "surging" feel
  • Third row only suitable for kids, and not much cargo
  • Bigger, heavier and a gaudier than a hybrid logically should be
Show vehicle specs

last revised 2/14/2011

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