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.
The Bottom Line: $61,110
Fuel Economy: 20 city/24 highway
There's a lot of Audi in this hybrid SUV, including the three-liter, 333-horsepower supercharged V6 from the S4 sedan. In the Touareg, it's paired to a 47-horsepower electric motor for a whopping 380 horsepower. So this is another big and expensive European hybrid that emphasizes performance over fuel economy. But it's definitely a road rocket. According to CNET, "With the transmission in Sport mode and a lead foot on the gas pedal, every bit of that power is felt as the Touareg rockets forward." A Prius won't do that, but a Prius will also deliver a combined fuel economy of 50 mpg.
The Bottom Line: $38,140
Fuel Economy: 28 city/28 highway
Redesigned for 2011, the new Highlander Hybrid offers more power (280 horsepower vs. 270 in the outgoing model) and four-wheel-drive on all versions. Those changes don't hurt fuel economy; in fact, the new version bests the previous version by a couple mpg. The Highlander Hybrid isn't a cheap choice, but it offers SUV utility with compact fuel economy.
2012 Ford Escape Hybrid
The Bottom Line: $32,320
Fuel Economy: 34 city/31 highway
The Escape was the first hybrid SUV from an American manufacturer (introduced in 2004), and it remains an excellent choice if you want the most fuel efficient SUV on the market. The Escape combines a 2.5-liter four with two electric motors and an electronically controlled CVT transmission that acts like an automatic. The Mazda Tribute Hybrid is based on the Escape.
The Bottom Line: $67,700
Fuel Economy: 20 city/24 highway
At this price, and with the Porsche name emblazoned on its hood, the Cayenne Hybrid should be great fun to drive. But Automobile magazine complains that the 380-horsepower 2012 model "suffers from the same leaden feeling that plagued the previous car." Controls are heavy, though off-the-line acceleration is predictably rapid. The cabin is richly appointed, as you might expect — think of this as a Range Rover for people with a green conscience.
2012 Porsche Panamera S Hybrid
The Bottom Line: $95,000
Fuel Economy: 18 city/27 highway
Here's the Porsche that sips fuel (on the highway at least) like a Honda. The drivetrain is the same as in the Cayenne, but the Panamera offers nimble handling to go along with the great straight-line acceleration. With four doors, this is probably the most practical Porsche, though not everyone likes the exterior styling.
2012 Lexus CT 200h
The Bottom Line: $29,120
Fuel Economy: 43 city/40 highway
Americans have really taken to this sexy entry-level hatchback. It's a have-your-cake-and-eat-it car, because it's relatively affordable, offers European-inspired flair and drivability, Lexus luxury, and great mileage, too. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) helps with fuel economy, but it's one reason the 200h's acceleration (almost 10 seconds to 60 mph) isn't better.
2012 Lexus GS 450h
The Bottom Line: $58,950
Fuel Economy: 22 city/25 highway
This is a luxury sports sedan, using V-6 hybrid drive to deliver power comparable to the V-8-equipped GS 460. The tradeoff is non-exceptional fuel economy. The GS 450h is very expensive, but it does come loaded.
2012 Lexus HS 250h
The Bottom Line: $36,330
Fuel Economy: 35 city/34 highway
This is the mid-pack Lexus hybrid sedan, and its fuel economy suffers only in comparison to stablemates like the Prius. But the tradeoff is a twin-cam four-valves-per-cylinder engine that makes 187 horsepower when the hybrid drive motor is factored in. You can select between "Normal," "Power," "Eco" and "EV" modes that changes performance characteristics. "Eco" gives a short drive on batteries alone. But floor this car and 60 mph comes up in 8.4 seconds. Some reviewers complain that the back seat is too small, and the interface controls too complex.
The Bottom Line: $91,000
Fuel Economy: 19 city/26 highway
Mercedes' big hybrid is very similar in conception to BMW's ActiveHybrid 7, though the BMW trumps it when it comes to off-the-line performance. It's based on Benz' top-of-the-line model, and luxury dominates. Mercedes has said that it may eventually offer its S-Class cars as hybrids only, which would be an industry first.
The Bottom Line: $55,790 (2011)
Fuel Economy: 16 city/20 highway
The M-Class is all new for 2012, and that includes the ML450 Hybrid, with details forthcoming. A diesel version of the hybrid car is reportedly under consideration. In the 2011 model, a 3.5-liter V6 joined with a pair of electric motors and a continuously variable transmission to deliver an impressive 335 horsepower — and a zero to 60 time of 7.8 seconds. But with all that power in a heavy vehicle, fuel economy suffered.
2012 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid
The Bottom Line: $34,645
Fuel Economy: 41 city/36 highway
The Lincoln adds a dollop of sophistication and luxury to the Ford Fusion package, with identical fuel economy. U.S. News and World Report praised the "library-like ambience" of its upscale interior, and the software was tweaked for some performance enhancements. It's your move if that's worth an extra $6,000.
The Bottom Line: $97,000 to $101,000 (estimated)
Fuel Economy: 17 city/24 highway
The ActiveHybrid 7 claims to be the fastest hybrid on the market, and that's not likely to change even as the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid enters the market. The Karma takes 5.8 seconds to get to 60, and the BMW just 4.7. In a recent test drive, it took off like a rocket. But the Karma also gets a claimed 69 mpg, while the ActiveHybrid is stuck in big SUV territory. The cabin in this car is the last word in luxury appointments, including rear seat video — but BMW's iDrive controls have always been a challenge for American drivers. The price will be a barrier to all but the most well-heeled conservationists.
There is also a hybrid version of the big X6 crossover vehicle, incorporating a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8, and that one is pricey, too, at $89,775. Fuel economy suffers at 17 mpg city/19 highway.
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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.