Prius & beyond: New 2012 hybrid cars
From luxury cars to SUVs — even a station wagon — the new hybrids go beyond the traditional compact car.
There are both positive and negative signs for sales of hybrid cars in the fall of 2011, but it seems clear that they are a permanent and growing niche in the automotive landscape. By 2015, there could be 50 hybrids (up from approximately 30 now) and another 20 plug-in hybrids on the market, says Michigan-based auto analyst Alan Baum.
Hybrids are hovering at 2% of the car market, which is a big improvement from 1.2% in June — a temporary slump caused largely by Japanese earthquake-related supply problems. The industry's bestseller, the Toyota Prius, is definitely in recovery mode, with 9,500 U.S. sales in August, more than double that of June.
Going forward, hybrids will gain market share, but they'll also face increasing competition from cheaper fuel-sipping gas cars, some of which will incorporate start-stop technology and become "micro-hybrids." It's worth remembering that the "hybrid" designation does not automatically mean fuel efficiency — some current hybrid version of luxury cars and big SUVs are more expensive without saving much on fuel. And the Union of Concerned Scientists has shown that, by forcing customers to pay for features that add weight and cost, many hybrid cars aren't living up to their fuel economy and price potential.
But robust sales of the Prius, Hyundai Sonata and Lexus CT 200h show that hybrids are here to stay. Some automakers, notably Toyota, are even talking about offering hybrid versions of every model in their lineup. Since there are more hybrids than ever on the market, here's a guide to what's in the showrooms for 2012:
2012 Toyota Prius
The Bottom Line: $23,520
Fuel Economy: 51 city/48 highway
The bestselling hybrid by miles, and the overall best performer. Start here, then look at everything else. An improved Prius was introduced in 2010, with a new 1.8-liter engine and hybrid system producing 134 horsepower. It's a bigger engine with better fuel economy, in part because of more relaxed highway cruising. Don't expect a sports car, but the redesigned Prius is stiffer than before, incorporating aluminum panels for lower weight — and a new zero to 60 time under 10 seconds.
2012 Toyota Prius V
The Bottom Line: (not priced yet)
Fuel Economy: 42 city/38 highway
The V (or as Toyota prefers, v) is a stretched, station wagon version of the standard Prius with 34.3 cubic feet of cargo space — and that's without the second row of seats folded. Fuel economy suffers slightly, but the tradeoff is considerable versatility.
2012 Chevy Volt
The Bottom Line: $40,280
Fuel Economy: 95 city/90 highway
The Volt is best described as a plug-in hybrid, with approximately 35 miles of all-electric travel on a t-shaped lithium-ion battery pack, followed by more than 300 additional miles when its gas engine/generator is providing electricity. It's pricey, but a great ride.
2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid
The Bottom Line: $28,600
Fuel Economy: 41 city/36 highway
Like the Prius but want your hybrid to be made in the U.S.A.? This is your best bet. The Fusion sedan was the bestselling American hybrid in August, but it placed seventh on the overall list — after six Japanese entries. The Fusion benefits from Ford's improved second-generation hybrid system. Thanks to new control logic, its 2.5-liter engine shuts off twice as often as in the early Escape Hybrid (that's a good thing). And redesigned regenerative braking captures 94% of energy that would otherwise be lost. The drivetrain produces 191 horsepower, which delivers decent performance. The Fusion can travel up to two miles on battery power, and reach 47 mph.
The Bottom Line: $25,795
Fuel Economy: 35 city/40 highway
This impressive hybrid entry is fast gaining converts, and it's not hard to see why: The Sonata is a fully equipped, smartly designed midsized fuel sipper, comparable to but cheaper than hybrid versions of the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion. Unlike the Honda Insight, the Sonata can run on electric power alone — and even reach 62 mph.
2012 Infiniti M35h
The Bottom Line: $50,000 to $55,000 (estimated)
Fuel Economy: 27 city/32 highway
Nissan abandoned its so-so Altima Hybrid, but the Infiniti division has no less than three of them. The M35's drivetrain is all new, and it's built around a 302-horsepower Atkinson Cycle V6 and 67-horsepower electric motor, with a seven-speed automatic to get it moving. It also offers an advanced lithium-ion battery pack, which is still rare among hybrids. The M35 has limited range in electric-only mode, but it can reach 62 mph on battery power.
2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid
The Bottom Line: $27,050
Fuel Economy: 31 city/35 highway
A top-notch midsized contender and a relatively early entry (introduced for the 2007 model year), the Camry lives in the Prius' shadow. Given a facelift in 2010, the Camry Hybrid steers its own course with a larger cabin than Prius and impressive performance from its 2.4-liter four, which is coupled to an Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT). "The Camry Hybrid remains one of the best hybrid deals going," said Edmunds.com.
2012 Honda Civic Hybrid
The Bottom Line: $24,050
Fuel Economy: 44 city/44 highway (preliminary)
The Civic Hybrid, which has always been a very good car that lacked pizzazz, was fully redesigned for the 2012 model year with a slight bump in fuel economy. Styling and interior design are more an evolution than a radical departure, but the list of standard equipment has gotten longer without a significant price increase. The Civic Hybrid remains a solid commuter choice, but it's not the go-to car for driving excitement.
2012 Honda Insight
The Bottom Line: $19,000 (estimated)
Fuel Economy: 40 city/43 highway
The Insight was supposed to be a Prius-killer, but it hasn't worked out that way. Although it's a leading hybrid, the Insight's sales in August were a ninth of the Prius's. The Insight offers an attractive price point, an attractive design and excellent fit and finish, but it trails the volume leader in some areas, including fuel economy, ride, rear headroom and refinement. If the Prius is out of your price range, the Insight (not the two-seater with the same name introduced in 1999) is worth considering.
The Bottom Line: $51,665
Fuel Economy: 20 city/23 highway
Just about everything is big about the Tahoe Hybrid, including the price. There's just one trim level on the car, and it comes loaded with everything from a touch-screen stereo and rear-seat entertainment system to a power sunroof. Benefiting from the "dual mode" hybrid system that GM developed with other manufacturers, the Tahoe has a six-liter, 332-horsepower V-8 with active fuel management, a two-mode transmission and a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. It's technically advanced, but quite heavy, so fuel economy isn't stellar. The sky-high price and the relatively minor fuel economy gain over the standard Tahoe is one reason this vehicle hasn't sold well — just 18 were sold in August. The GMC Yukon Hybrid and the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid are similar. If you'd prefer a pickup, check out the Chevy Silverado Hybrid.
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The point of owning a hybrid is to get good gas mileage. I look at most of the mpgs in this article and think, "These things get so-so mileage and cost how much?" If this is considered good for these cars, I shudder to think what their all-gasoline versions get! They must be worse than I'd originally thought. Wish they sold diesels in the US.
That said, Toyota seems to be the best at getting some bang for your buck.