Cheap Hybrid Cars
- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
Many folks who might consider buying a hip, environmentally friendly hybrid car are put off by the price, and understandably so: Even cheap hybrid cars cost thousands more than their standard counterparts. However, thanks to hybrids' superior fuel economy and other factors such as depreciation, drivers can recoup the added cost in as little as a year, according to an analysis by Consumer Reports. Carmakers are also churning out more models with lower price tags.
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.
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.
Consumers posting hybrid reviews and comments online generally seem loyal to their cars. When it comes to performance, gas mileage is king, with drivers proudly relating their highest mpg. Experts, however, can't help but point out most hybrids' lack of acceleration and power relative to conventional cars. Consumers, too, prefer a car that can get up and go when they press the accelerator, handles well, and runs smoothly. Some experts note that the switch between gas and electric power can be a bit of a jolt, and some cars are quieter on the road than others.
For example, in a hybrid review at Hybrid Cars, an expert praises the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (starting at $25,850) for its quiet ride and responsive steering, but the reviewer notes that the car lurches when switching from electric power to gas at low speeds. The experts at Edmunds also noticed the Sonata's hard transition from electric to gas power but found that the car drives smoothly overall, feels nimble on the road, and accelerates more quickly than most hybrids. Hybrid reviews by Edmunds and Hybrid Cars rave about the ride and performance of the Toyota Camry Hybrid (starting at $25,990). Edmunds declares the Camry's acceleration easily the best among hybrid sedans, taking a mere 7.4 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph. The Hybrid Cars expert ventures that drivers won't be able to tell if they're driving a hybrid or normal car. He found the Camry highly responsive and says it shifts smoothly between gas and electric power. The Kia Optima Hybrid (starting at $25,700) takes a little criticism for its relatively slow acceleration in a hybrid review by The Wall Street Journal, but the reviewer still declares the Optima his top choice for commuters looking to spend less than $35,000, citing the car's value and overall design. An expert from The Car Connection notes that the Optima does shudder a bit when switching between gas and electric power.
The Toyota Prius C (starting at $18,950), with its superior fuel efficiency and super-low price, doesn't especially impress on the performance front. Experts from Car and Driver and Edmunds agree that the car accelerates pretty slowly, according to hybrid reviews, although Edmunds notes that the Prius C handles very well. The Honda Insight (starting at $18,500) also delivers good, responsive handling, hybrid reviews say, although an expert at Hybrid Cars complains that the Insight labors when trying to pass other cars on the highway. A reviewer from Car and Driver points to the engine, which simply isn't very powerful. The Honda CR-Z (starting at $19,695) is supposed to be a "sporty" hybrid, but an expert at Hybrid Cars concludes that it succeeds neither as a hybrid nor as a sports car. Although the car is fun to drive, according to the reviewer, it's pretty slow off the line. A hybrid review from Motor Trend describes the car's performance as modest, noting that a manual transmission does make the CR-Z a little peppier than a typical hybrid.
Hybrid Car Design.Customers' taste in cars can be as varied as their taste in clothes, but the looks of some affordable hybrid cars appeal to a wider audience than others. The Kia Optima Hybrid earns high marks in hybrid reviews for its stylish design -- the best in its class, The Wall Street Journal proclaims. An expert from The Car Connection contrasts the appealingly sporty Optima with the boxier appearance of other hybrid sedans. The design of the much smaller, sportier Honda CR-Z is perhaps its greatest asset, winning praise in hybrid reviews from both Hybrid Cars and Motor Trend.
A reviewer at Car and Driver notes that the 2012 Honda Insight features some new styling such as a grille with a blue stripe to identify it as a hybrid. The Honda Civic Hybrid (starting at $24,200) doesn't win any style points from MotorWeek in a hybrid review, however. An expert declares the car's appearance dated and its interior too heavy on the plastic.
The Toyota Prius C resembles Toyota's Yaris hatchback more than it does other Prius models. It's a small car that should easily creep into parking spots too tight for hybrid sedans. The Toyota Camry Hybrid looks, for the most part, like a typical family sedan. Edmunds points out the 2012 model's new, more aggressive grille design and more angular lines toward the back. An expert from Hybrid Cars notes in a hybrid review that Toyota has ditched the Camry's plastic, cheap-looking interior in favor of better materials that improve the cabin's look. A hybrid review from Edmunds likewise compliments the look of the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid sedan, both inside and out.
Hybrid Technology, Plug-In Hybrid
A typical gas-electric hybrid combines a conventional gasoline engine with an electric motor and rechargeable batteries to achieve an optimal combination of fuel efficiency and power. An onboard computer switches between the two power sources. Hybrid technology varies from brand to brand, so the circumstances under which a car uses gas or electric power can vary from one model to another. For instance, a hybrid may use electric power to move from a dead stop but switch to gas at around 15 or 20 mph.
Hybrid technology has some drawbacks, as we saw in our analysis of reviews on the previous page. Some hybrid cars have a tendency to stutter and lurch a little as they switch from one power source to the other. They also tend to be sluggish when they take off from a dead stop.
Plug-in hybrid cars such as the Chevrolet Volt (starting at $31,645) have larger battery packs than regular gas-electric hybrids and use electric power as their primary source of energy, with gasoline as the backup. Once the electric charge is depleted, the gas engine takes over and simultaneously recharges the battery; alternatively, you can plug in the battery to an electrical outlet. Plug-in hybrids are significantly more fuel-efficient than regular hybrids. The Chevy Volt is the most popular plug-in hybrid at the moment, but the Toyota Prius line now includes a plug-in hybrid as well (starting at $32,000). The rival Nissan Leaf (starting at $27,700) has no gas engine, relying exclusively on electric power.
Hybrid Fuel Economy.While hybrid cars -- even budget models -- generally cost more than comparable gasoline-only cars, drivers ultimately recoup some or all of that extra expense in savings on fuel. Fueleconomy.gov offers an online tool for calculating the annual fuel cost of a hybrid car vs. a traditional vehicle. How much you save on gas depends not only on the hybrid's fuel economy and the price of gas but also on your own driving habits. Lead-footed drivers don't see the savings realized by so-called "hypermilers" who take pride in maxing out their fuel efficiency, monitoring the miles per gallon on the car's display. (Visit Popular Mechanics for some tips from a hypermiler.)
A typical hybrid car can manage about 35 to 40 mpg in the city and about 40 mpg on the highway, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ratings. Manufacturers put their own vehicles through standardized tests and report the numbers to the EPA. The car with by far the best fuel efficiency among our picks is the Toyota Prius C, with 53 mpg city/46 mpg highway. The Toyota Camry Hybrid also boasts impressive fuel economy -- 43 mpg city/41 mpg highway -- as does the Honda Insight, with 41/44. The Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata claim 35 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway, while the Honda CR-Z trails slightly behind, at 35/39.
Plugging those numbers into the Fueleconomy.gov calculator helps put them in context. The Prius C can save consumers $175 to more than $350 a year on fuel compared with the other hybrids on our list (based on the combined mpg and assuming a fuel cost of $3.49 and 15,000 miles annually, the calculator's default numbers). Still, even the Prius C can't match the amazing fuel efficiency of plug-in hybrids such as the Chevy Volt, which gets the equivalent of 95 mpg city/93 mpg highway.
Note that the EPA ratings seem to be somewhat generous compared with what drivers experience under "real-world" conditions. For example, the Honda Civic Hybrid claims 44 mpg all around, but a MotorWeek reviewer found that the Civic's true numbers were closer to 40 mpg. A reviewer from Edmunds reports that the Kia Optima Hybrid reached 33 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway in its testing vs. an advertised 35 mpg city/40 mpg highway. Then again, USA Today reports that two hypermilers coaxed an average of 64.5 mpg out of a Kia Optima Hybrid when driving through all 48 states in the contiguous U.S. -- a Guinness World Record.
Hybrid-Electric Vehicle Comfort, Features
A car is no fun to drive or ride in if you feel cramped and uncomfortable. Fortunately most hybrid-electric vehicles tend to have comfortable seats and, in most cases, offer passengers a smooth ride in a fairly quiet cabin. Mid-size sedans such as the Toyota Camry, Kia Optima, and Hyundai Sonata in particular offer a respectable amount of leg and headroom for drivers and passengers alike.
The roomiest hybrid-electric vehicle among our picks is the five-passenger Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, which offers a stretch-friendly 103.8 cubic feet of passenger room. Experts at Edmunds praise the Sonata for its comfortable front seats and also rave about how roomy the car's back seats are. An expert reviewing the Sonata for Hybrid Cars calls it a quiet vehicle and notes the ample headroom in the back. The Kia Optima Hybrid also has plenty of room for five passengers, with 102.17 cubic feet of space. A reviewer from The Wall Street Journal says the car's front legroom is excellent. According to an expert from The Car Connection, the Optima boasts a spacious back seat as well, in addition to a quiet cabin and a comfortable, smooth ride. The five-passenger Toyota Camry Hybrid, with 102.7 cubic feet of interior room, also delivers a comfortable ride, according to a reviewer at Hybrid Cars, with seats you can sit in all day.
The Toyota Prius C is a smaller, less spacious hybrid-electric vehicle than the three sedans on our list, with only 87.4 cubic feet of room for five passengers. A reviewer from Car and Driver likes the supportive front seats in the Prius C, but Edmunds pans the hard plastic interior and a glove box that cuts in on the front passenger's legroom. The Honda Insight has an even smaller interior, at only 85 cubic feet for five passengers. A Car Connection reviewer reports that the front seats are comfortable and give passengers plenty of headroom, but space in the back seat is lacking. An expert from Hybrid Cars says the Insight feels more spacious than it actually is, however.
The Honda CR-Z is a two-seater with only 49.1 cubic feet inside. A reviewer from Hybrid Cars says the CR-Z has plenty of headroom for a pair of occupants and very comfortable seats.
If you plan to use a hybrid-electric vehicle as your primary family car, don't be shy about installing a child's car seat or loading the trunk with your essentials to see how they all fit when visiting the showroom.
Extra Features.The lists of available features on cheap hybrid-electric vehicles are as long as you typically find on conventional cars. Depending on the brand and model, some of the features are standard and some cost extra. Examples of standard features include in-dash CD players; audio controls on the steering wheel; automatic climate control; remote keyless entry; power locks, windows, and mirrors; and Bluetooth and iPod support. One feature unique to hybrids is a digital display that keeps drivers informed of their fuel economy. These computer systems give visual (and often color-coded) cues drivers can use to fine-tune their driving habits for optimum fuel efficiency.
As you'd expect, standard options can vary quite a bit from one hybrid to the next, and the lists run pretty long, so we won't go over every standard feature on every model we picked. Instead we'll highlight a few nice extras on the top hybrid-electric vehicles: The Toyota Camry, Kia Optima, and Hyundai Sonata boast dual-zone climate control and cruise control. Heated mirrors come standard on the Kia and Hyundai hybrid sedans.
Like conventional cars, most hybrid models are available in several trim levels or offer optional upgrade packages. For example, the Toyota Prius C is available in four configurations and the Kia Optima presents options for 17-inch wheels, auto-leveling headlights, a navigation system, a sunroof, and leather seat trim. Naturally, each step up sucks more money out of your bank account.