Best Hybrids for the Money, 2011

Although hybrids usually get better gas mileage than conventional cars, they also cost more — usually a lot more. To determine if the added cost is worthwhile, we devised an efficiency-cost rating to reflect efficiency bang for your overall buck.

It's simply the combined city/highway mpg divided by the base MSRP. We then multiply that number by 1,000. This formula can be applied to any vehicle type, hybrid or not. A high mpg rating and low price yield a high efficiency-cost rating.

We don't account for equipment levels, quality judgments, cost of ownership or any inaccuracies in EPA mileage estimates. The goal here is to pay the least for the most mileage, barring other considerations.

Our results suggest that the soundest reason to buy a hybrid is to burn less fuel, not to save money in the long run, but some hybrids do this better than others. Rather than list the most miserly small hybrids, we present the highest-ranked hybrid models of their size and type, in descending order.

Because all 10 hybrids have automatic transmissions, the gas-only models cited for comparison are among the most efficient and affordable automatic versions available with two-wheel drive.

Compact Cars

2011 Honda Insight
MSRP: $18,200
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 40/43 — 41
Efficiency-cost rating: 2.25

Thanks to its price decrease for 2011 — and the Toyota Prius' increase — the Insight takes the top spot in our list. Its 2.25 rating beats that of most gas-powered cars on the market, but it bears noting that even our top-ranked hybrid isn’t far off from comparably sized gas-only cars like the Ford Fiesta (2.29), Nissan Versa sedan (2.28) and two-door Toyota Yaris (2.25). Because of its higher price, the Ford Fiesta's Super Fuel Economy version rates 2.05, underscoring that high-mileage cars, be they hybrid or not, don't necessarily save money in the long run.

2011 Toyota Prius
MSRP: $23,050
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 51/48 — 50
Efficiency-cost rating: 2.17

Though it lost the lead to Honda's Insight, the Prius is technically a midsize car, so its 2.17 efficiency-cost rating is far ahead of the compact Honda Civic Hybrid (1.71) and hybrid versions of the midsize Hyundai Sonata (1.43) and Ford Fusion (1.38). Once you factor size into the equation, the Prius remains your best bet if you hope to recoup some of your initial investment.

2011 Lexus CT 200h
MSRP: $29,120
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 43/40 — 42
Efficiency-cost rating: 1.44

With an efficiency-cost rating of 1.44, the new Lexus CT 200h is the highest-rated luxury-brand hybrid to date, thanks to its lower price and higher mileage than the company's HS 250h hybrid sedan (0.98). Critics may think the CT is too small or too modest to be considered a luxury car, but it carries a luxury brand name, and both it and the HS mark a welcome change from when luxury hybrid cars emphasized power over efficiency, as in Lexus' own GS 450h (0.40) and bottom-ranked LS 600h (0.18).

Midsize Cars

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
MSRP: $25,795
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 35/40 — 37
Efficiency-cost rating: 1.43

A newcomer on the hybrid scene, the Sonata Hybrid falls 2 mpg short of the Ford Fusion Hybrid in combined city/highway mileage, but its lower price gives it an efficiency-cost rating of 1.43 over the Ford's 1.38. For comparison, the most efficient gas-only Sonata with an automatic transmission is rated 1.27, making this hybrid one of the models that provides true gains over the car on which it's based.

2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid
MSRP: $28,340
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 41/36 — 39
Efficiency-cost rating: 1.38

The 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid has a higher efficiency-cost rating than the gas-only automatic model on which it's based: 1.38 vs. 1.26. So, like the Sonata Hybrid, it has a clear advantage. The same can't be said of the 2011 Honda Civic, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry and their hybrid versions. If choosing between the Ford and Hyundai, favor the Fusion if you drive mostly in the city and the Sonata if you travel mainly at highway speeds.

Compact SUV/Crossover

2011 Ford Escape Hybrid FWD
MSRP: $30,045
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 34/31 — 32
Efficiency-cost rating: 1.07

The Ford Escape is the most efficient SUV on the market, as it's been since it was introduced. Even with its high starting price, its 1.07 efficiency-cost rating edges out the regular Escape (1.02). However, if you check out newer, more efficient gas-only crossovers, the Escape Hybrid loses its advantage: The Chevrolet Equinox rates 1.14, the Hyundai Tucson is 1.31 and the diminutive Mitsubishi Outlander Sport is 1.35.

Midsize SUV/Crossover

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid AWD
MSRP: $37,490
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 28/28 — 28
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.75

Being the only midsize non-luxury hybrid SUV lands the Highlander Hybrid this position. Its high price shows in its 0.75 efficiency-cost rating. Although it ranks behind some gas-only midsize crossovers, including the Hyundai Santa Fe (0.99) and Ford Edge (0.80), it ranks above the regular Highlander with all-wheel drive (0.63). It doesn't quite catch the Highlander with front-wheel drive (0.80), but the hybrid is offered only with all-wheel drive.

Luxury SUV

2011 Lexus RX 450h FWD
MSRP: $43,935
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 32/28 — 30
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.68

Because of higher prices and typically lower mileage, luxury models don't rate as high in efficiency cost as non-luxury models of the same size. However, the RX 450h has a higher efficiency-cost rating than the non-hybrid RX 350 (0.55), accounting for base price and efficiency, not differences in features. The all-wheel-drive RX 450h is rated 0.64.

Pickup Truck

2011 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid RWD
MSRP: $38,340
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 20/23 — 21
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.55

As a full-size pickup truck, the Silverado Hybrid has lower mileage and a lower efficiency-cost rating than the smaller hybrids, but that doesn't change the end result: a significant improvement in efficiency over non-hybrid trucks, especially in city driving. Though the gas-only Silverado work truck's mileage is lower (15/20 — 17 mpg), it's priced below $21,000, so its efficiency for your dollar beats the hybrid with a 0.82 rating. This model is truly stripped down, however. Despite its lower mileage (14/19 — 16 mpg), the better-equipped Silverado LT still beats the hybrid handily with an efficiency-cost rating of 0.71. Ironically, the most efficient gas-only Silverado, the XFE, is priced so high that its 18 mpg in combined driving still nets only a 0.54 efficiency-cost rating.

Full-Size SUV

2011 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid RWD
MSRP: $51,145
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 20/23 — 21
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.41

Once you account for its high price, the Tahoe Hybrid RWD's efficiency-cost rating is a relatively low 0.41, but it's the lowest-priced of GM's full-size hybrid SUVs, a category that includes the GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade hybrids. Its story mirrors that of the Silverado Hybrid: It grants a substantial mileage improvement over non-hybrids, especially in city driving, but it trails the gas-only Tahoe (0.45) in efficiency cost.

© 4/1/2011