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Cheap Hybrid Cars Buying Guide

When we originally researched this category, in 2009, one of our top picks was the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which now starts at $28,775. This time around, we found a long list of hybrid cars for less than $26,000; the very cheapest come in under $20,000.

That allowed us to lower our price ceiling by $2,000. The 2012 models we chose comfortably seat five and offer all the amenities of a conventional gas guzzler.

Both of the best cheap hybrid cars on our list come from Toyota, maker of the well-known and well-regarded Prius. The cheapest model in the line, the Toyota Prius C (starting at $18,950), is also the cheapest and by far the most fuel-efficient model among our top picks. For consumers seeking more room and power, the Toyota Camry Hybrid (starting at $25,990) is our favorite midsize sedan. We're also very impressed with the Kia Optima Hybrid sedan (starting at $25,700), which narrowly missed a top spot; its fuel economy simply doesn't measure up. The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid sedan (starting at $25,850) rounds out our top four. A couple of small cars from Honda don't fare as well in reviews. We found no compelling reason to choose the Honda Insight (starting at $18,500) over the similarly sized and priced yet far more efficient Prius C. The Honda CR-Z (starting at $19,695) is a so-called sport hybrid with room for only two passengers. Some drivers might find the tight interior a worthy tradeoff for better fuel economy, but this is the least efficient model on our list.

Honda also makes a hybrid version of its popular Civic (starting at $24,200), which seems to bore expert reviewers with lackluster performance, although they can't argue with fuel efficiency of 44 miles per gallon. Other hybrid manufacturers include Ford and Chevrolet, which has come out with the hyper-efficient Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid (starting at $31,645). Even Cadillac offers a hybrid version of its luxury SUV, the Escalade (starting at $73,850). In the case of hybrids, more money doesn't necessarily buy you better fuel efficiency or lower emissions. The Escalade Hybrid, for example, claims just 23 mpg on the highway and 20 mpg in the city. The bigger price tag translates to a bigger engine with more horsepower and, generally, a more comfortable ride, as well as more expensive interior materials.

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Cheap hybrid cars aren't known for being speed demons on the road, and to some extent that's by design. High-horsepower engines simply do not get good gas mileage. Hybrid cars tend to have smaller, low-horsepower engines that use fuel efficiently. They may be a little on the sluggish side, but most have enough zip to get around just fine, both in the city and on the highway. Cheap hybrid cars typically offer adequate room in the front but may be a little cramped for rear-seat passengers.

What many cheap hybrid cars lack are fancy features such as backup cameras and all-wheel drive. Many offer more standard options at the base trim level than their conventional counterparts, including remote keyless entry, power windows and locks, and respectable audio systems with Bluetooth and iPod support. Cheap hybrid cars are subjected to the same safety testing as regular cars and come with many of the same safety features, including air bags, antilock brakes, crumple panels, and steel reinforced frames. The 2012 version of each model we researched has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The U.S. government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also handed down five-star safety ratings for our top picks, with the exception of the Prius C, which hasn't been rated yet; the regular Prius was awarded five stars.

Be sure to test drive any cheap hybrid before you buy, and ask the dealer for service records and information about extended warranties -- especially guarantees that cover the battery, which is expensive to replace.

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