Best Hybrids for the Money

Best Hybrids for the Money

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 do account for federal tax incentives but not 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 hybrids have automatic transmissions, the gas-only models cited for comparison are the most efficient and affordable automatic versions available.

In a Class by Itself

2010 Toyota Prius
MSRP: $21,400
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined): 51/48 — 50
Efficiency-cost rating: 2.34

The redesigned 2010 Prius improves on the previous generation, which had a slightly higher price and lower (though excellent) mileage. As a result, its efficiency-cost rating is 2.34, up from 2.09 in the 2009 model. Thus, it remains the highest of all hybrids, with a healthy lead on the 2010 Honda Insight hybrid (2.07), which is a smaller car. This year, only one gas-only car beat the Prius, with a rating of 2.50: the Nissan Versa 1.6 sedan, whose super-low price of $11,990 (including an optional automatic transmission) offsets its comparatively low 30 mpg EPA estimate. The most efficient versions of two subcompacts — the Toyota Yaris and Hyundai Accent — each rate 2.31, but the Prius is technically a midsize car, giving it the advantage in size as well as efficiency-cost.
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Compact Cars

2010 Honda Insight
MSRP: $19,800
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined): 40/43 — 41
Efficiency-cost rating: 2.07

The lowest-priced hybrid, the 2010 Insight is intended to compete with efficient non-hybrids, according to Honda. One could argue that it does, as its 2.07 rating beats that of the Kia Forte sedan (1.91), which has the best efficiency-cost rating among cars in the traditional gas-only compact class. It also beats the Honda Fit (1.97), but it bears noting that the Forte and Fit are both larger inside than the Insight — and well-appointed. The Insight's size is closer to that of the Toyota Yaris and Hyundai Accent, both of which beat it with a rating of 2.31.
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2010 Honda Civic Hybrid
MSRP: $23,800
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined): 40/45 — 42
Efficiency-cost rating: 1.76

The Civic Hybrid's place on this list is tenuous: It costs more than the Prius despite being smaller, which encapsulates why Honda's hybrid strategy has arguably failed. The cheaper Insight has comparable cabin size and more cargo space. The Civic Hybrid's efficiency-cost ranking is slightly lower than that of the regular Civic (1.78) and some other compacts. All the same, it's a proven entity and one of the most efficient cars sold, with better EPA ratings than the Insight, and has plenty of appeal for traditional hybrid buyers.
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Midsize Car

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
MSRP: $27,950
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined): 41/36 — 39
Efficiency-cost rating: 1.40

Our midsize-sedan entry, the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, comes in ahead of the 2010 Toyota Camry Hybrid, which has an efficiency-cost rating of 1.30. Because federal tax credits expired for Ford on March 31, 2010, the Fusion Hybrid's effective price is higher than it was last year at this time. On April 1, 2009, its efficiency-cost rating was 1.53. The Fusion is the only car model on the market whose hybrid ranks higher in efficiency cost than its gas-only version (roughly 1.31). The Fusion Hybrid's sibling, the Mercury Milan Hybrid, has a higher sticker price that ranks it below the Fusion Hybrid, at 1.38. Note that the Nissan Altima Hybrid ranks between the two at 1.39, but it's sold only in select states.
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Compact SUV/Crossover

2010 Ford Escape Hybrid FWD
MSRP: $29,860
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined): 34/31 — 32
Efficiency-cost rating: 1.07

The Ford Escape gets the compact SUV slot because it's priced lower than its sibling, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid (1.06). (We disqualified the Mazda Tribute Hybrid, another sibling, because it's sold only in California.) All three are the most efficient SUVs on the market, though the phasing out of federal tax credits on March 31, 2010, has driven the Escape Hybrid's efficiency-cost rating down from 1.14 last year. Now at 1.07, it beats the gas-only Escape with an automatic transmission (0.96). The gas-only Escape can beat the Hybrid — if you're OK with a stick shift, which is rated 1.14. Currently, the most efficient gas-only compact SUV, the Hyundai Tucson GLS with an optional automatic transmission, beats the Escape Hybrid handily with a 1.30 efficiency-cost rating.
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Luxury Car

2010 Lexus HS 250h
MSRP: $34,650
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 35/34 — 35
Efficiency-cost rating: 1.01

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, with an efficiency-cost rating of 1.01, the new compact HS 250h blows away last year's 2009 Lexus GS 450h (0.41). The HS is smaller and substantially cheaper than the GS, but it's actually disproportionately more efficient. Whereas luxury hybrid manufacturers — including Lexus — have historically favored acceleration over mileage, the HS goes all-out for efficiency at the expense of quick zero-to-60-mph sprints. Before the HS, a crossover gave the best mileage for your luxury dollar. Now, the HS beats any luxury model of any class, hybrid or not.
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Midsize SUV/Crossover

2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid AWD
MSRP: $34,900
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined): 27/25 — 26
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.74

Being the only midsize non-luxury hybrid SUV lands the Highlander Hybrid this position. Its size and price show in its efficiency-cost rating. Although it ranks behind some gas-only midsize crossovers, starting with the Dodge Journey (1.02), it ranks above the regular Highlander with all-wheel drive (0.65). It doesn't quite catch the Highlander with front-wheel drive (0.85), but the hybrid is offered only with all-wheel drive. If you must have a hybrid and all-wheel drive, the Ford Escape 4x4 is rated 0.92.
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Luxury SUV

2010 Lexus RX 450h FWD
MSRP: $42,685
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined): 32/28 — 30
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.70

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 (0.51), accounting for base price and efficiency, not differences in features. Despite a price increase of around $600 over the previous-generation RX hybrid — last sold as the 2008 RX 400h — the redesigned 2010 RX 450h has added 5 mpg to the EPA-estimated mileage, so its efficiency-cost rating jumps from 0.59 to 0.70 with front-wheel drive. That's pretty close to the Toyota Highlander Hybrid (0.74) on which it's based, though the Toyota comes only with all-wheel drive. The all-wheel-drive RX 450h is rated 0.65.
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Pickup Truck

2010 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid RWD
MSRP: $38,340 - $2,200 federal tax credit = $36,140
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined): 21/22 — 22
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.61

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. While federal tax credits have expired for most hybrid manufacturers, GM hybrids still enjoy the assist, which drives up their efficiency-cost ratings. The gas-only Silverado LT RWD's lower price and accompanying lower mileage (14/19 — 16 mpg) put it just shy of the hybrid in efficiency for your dollar, with a 0.60 rating. The Silverado work truck is more efficient than the LT (15/20 — 17 mpg), which combines with its low price for a 0.82 rating, but it's truly stripped-down. The Silverado Hybrid is well-equipped and capable of work; it can still haul and tow. 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.
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Full-Size SUV

2010 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid RWD
MSRP: $50,720 - $2,200 federal tax credit = $48,520
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined): 21/22 — 22
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.45

Once you account for its high price, even with a tax credit, the Tahoe Hybrid RWD's efficiency-cost rating is a relatively low 0.45, 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 LS (0.46) ever so slightly in efficiency cost.
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© 3/30/10