A few years ago, picking which hybrid or electric vehicle to buy was fairly simple—there weren’t many to choose from. But the 2013 model year features more than 50 hybrid and electric options, everything from tiny hatchbacks with list prices around $19,000 to high-end luxury cars with sticker prices well above $100,000. Although many hybrids don’t provide enough fuel efficiency and/or quality to justify their somewhat steep prices—and purely electric cars like the Nissan Leaf have too limited a driving range for most drivers—if you shop carefully, you can find one that pays off big in both fuel savings and driving satisfaction.
Why now is an especially good time to shop: Hybrids have been on the road long enough that buyers can feel confident about their durability and resale value. Gas prices have eased slightly of late, temporarily lessening the demand for hybrids and increasing the odds of getting attractive deals on them. Charging stations are becoming more common for plug-in hybrid and electric cars in certain areas (especially around Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon). And there’s a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 for buyers of many (but not all) new electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. Some states offer their own tax incentives, too.
Among the top 2013-model-year hybrid vehicles…
Best for those who want it to be a lot like an ordinary car: Camry Hybrid. Driving this car is pretty much like driving any other well-built, midsize car. It isn’t small or stripped down to save weight and increase fuel efficiency. It doesn’t have limited range the way pure electric vehicles do. It looks like other Camrys, so it won’t brand you as someone trying to make a political statement with your car choice, the way a Prius might. It does cost more than the conventional Camry—the $26,785 sticker price is about $3,400 above the price of a similarly equipped (but nonhybrid) Camry LE.
There is slightly less space in the trunk than in the standard Camry. The Camry Hybrid gets 43 city/39 highway miles per gallon (mpg), compared with 25/35 for the nonhybrid Camry.*
Best for a tight budget: Toyota Prius c. Most hybrid and electric vehicles save drivers money at the pump only after costing them a bundle at the dealership. The Prius c is economical every step of the way. It costs a few thousand more than nonhybrid economy cars of comparable quality but still starts at a $19,875 sticker price. And the Prius c offers excellent mileage even by hybrid standards—53 city/46 highway. It’s somewhat sporty and fun to drive, too, for an economy car. Just don’t expect much in terms of size. It will feel small to car buyers not used to subcompacts.
Alternative: If you want a bit more size, opt for the standard Toyota Prius. It starts at $24,995—roughly $5,100 more than the Prius c—but provides a roomier feel without sacrificing fuel economy (51 city/48 highway).
Best for avoiding gas pumps without electric-car range concerns: Chevrolet Volt. The Volt is a plug-in hybrid electric—it can run purely on electricity for around 38 miles. But unlike all-electric vehicles, it also has an internal combustion engine that takes over when its battery runs down, so Volt drivers never need to worry that they’ll be stranded by their battery. If there’s a charging station at your workplace, you could use the Volt for a 30-mile commute each way every day without ever paying for gas—and the electricity will cost you less than the gas would have. The Volt also accelerates briskly and is very smooth and quiet in electric mode. The catch with the Volt is that its price starts at about $32,500 after that $7,500 federal tax credit—a high price for a small Chevy with few luxury features.
Alternative: The new Cadillac ELR for the 2014 model year. It will be built on the Volt’s drivetrain but will be a sporty two-door coupe with Cadillac-level luxury. The high price of a plug-in hybrid might be a bit more palatable in that higher-end car for those who are willing to wait a year.
Best affordable hybrid for fun driving: Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid. The new hybrid Jetta is the only car to combine the efficiency of a hybrid with the power of a turbocharged engine. The result is a vehicle with excellent fuel economy —42 city/48 highway—yet plenty under the hood for confident high-speed travel. It’s an engaging but pleasantly quiet car to drive, all for a very reasonable price—it starts at just $25,790.
Alternative: The Ford Fusion Hybrid is another affordable and fun-to-drive hybrid, providing balanced handling and responsive steering for a sticker price starting at $27,995. But while Ford has claimed it can deliver gas mileage of 47 city/47 highway, those figures have been questioned by some drivers and reviewers who report mileage below 40 mpg. The EPA was investigating the situation as of late December.
Best luxury hybrid vehicle: Infiniti M35h. This Infiniti offers the leather, wood and overall quality that luxury-car buyers expect. It’s also a lot of fun to drive, with quick acceleration and excellent handling through the corners for a car this size. (Some luxury-car shoppers might find it a bit too sporty for their tastes—the ride isn’t as smooth as in many other luxury sedans.) Its mileage—27 city/32 highway—isn’t as stellar as that of some of the cars on this list, but it’s very good for a luxury sedan. The M35h starts at $55,545, around $6,000 more than the nonhybrid base-model M.
Alternative: If you find the Infiniti too sporty or its price tag a bit steep, consider the Buick LaCrosse eAssist. It is elegant, comfortable, quiet and well-made, with a sticker price starting at $32,555. And it delivers 25 city/36 highway, compared with 17 city/27 highway or worse for a nonhybrid LaCrosse. But unlike the other hybrids, this is a mild hybrid—it incorporates hybrid technology but can’t drive purely on electric power.
Best hybrid SUV: Lexus RX 450h.The RX 450h’s ride is quiet and smooth, its interior comfortable and well-appointed. The model’s track record speaks to its reliability and overall quality. The hybrid RX delivers 32 mpg city/28 highway—well above the nonhybrid RX’s 18 city/25 highway. Prices start at $47,205, a premium of around $6,600 above the nonhybrid RX.
*All mileage figures are EPA estimates unless otherwise noted. Your actual mileage may vary.
Source: Karl Brauer, founder of TotalCarScore.com, a Web site that combines a wide range of authoritative car reviews into a single score. He previously served as editor in chief of the leading automotive Web site Edmunds.com. www.TotalCarScore.com