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Spending Smart

A guide to green autos

Hybrid buyers have more options than ever, from the classic Prius to big, beefy SUVs

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By Clifford Atiyeh
Globe Correspondent / August 9, 2009

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The Toyota Prius is America’s best-selling hybrid, but it’s certainly not the only green car around.

At a time when there’s a recession and high gas prices, buyers have more options of fuel-efficient gasoline-electric vehicles than ever.

Nearly every automaker offers a hybrid or is busy developing one (even Porsche and BMW are getting hybrid serious, but Chrysler discontinued its hybrids). As a result, the hybrid market is filling with an increasingly diverse makeup of midsize cars, luxury sedans, and sport utility vehicles with a wide range of prices, engines, and body styles, many of which look the same as their gas-only brethren.

In addition to myriad choices, there are financial incentives for hybrid buyers. The latest one is the government’s cash for clunkers program, which offers buyers up to $4,500 toward the purchase of more fuel-efficient vehicles when they trade in some older, thirstier cars. Additionally, many - but not all - hybrids still qualify for a federal income tax credit of up to $3,400, although the credit phases out as an automaker sells 60,000 eligible cars. (For more information, visit www.fueleconomy.gov.)

Hybrid sales are estimated to grow to 4.1 percent of the total US auto market this year - or about 329,000 vehicles - up from 2.6 percent in 2008, according to tracking firm IHS Global Insight of Lexington. Even with gas prices below last summer’s record highs, July hybrid sales jumped 32 percent from last year.

“The popularity’s still there, and as gas prices are continually going anywhere but down, consumers are going to look at hybrids,’’ said John Paul, a spokesman for AAA who road tests dozens of new cars each year.

The Globe tested six of the most significant hybrids on the market, priced between $23,810 and $117,330: the 2010 Toyota Prius, 2010 Honda Insight, 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid, and the 2008 Lexus LS600 hL. We drove them as regular drivers would, in downtown Boston and on highways to Vermont and Connecticut.

The Toyota, Honda, and Ford models offer fuel efficiency at moderate prices. Of those hybrids, we found that the Prius, which is among the lightest and smallest (and more popular than the others tested), is much improved for 2010; the Insight was by far the sportiest; and Ford’s two hybrids surprised us with their blend of utility, style, and overall refinement. In the luxury segment, the Escalade and LS600hL had the lowest mileage in the test group, but they did so in unmatched style, and for the Escalade, towing capacity.

In the end, we picked Fusion Hybrid as our favorite of the hybrids tested. Despite its modest premium over the standard model and lower mileage than the Prius, this Ford is a well-equipped, responsive, and attractive sedan that offers stellar economy. But when plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt arrive in the next two years, we may have a very different impression.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Powertrain 2.5 liter, 156 horsepower inline-4, 79-kilowatt electric motor, 191 net horsepower, front-wheel drive

Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy 41/36 miles per gallon city/highway

Our results 40 mpg city (not tested on highway)

Price, base (as tested) $27,995 ($31,940)

Pros Looks and drives like a regular car. The hybrid powertrain is seamless and quiet, and it’s class-leading: the claimed 47 miles per hour on electric power is true. Interior materials feel rich to the touch, and the instrument panel - which shows exactly when the gas engine will kick in - is a dream for someone who likes to try hypermiling tactics, such as slow acceleration and excessive coasting. Potential Fusion Hybrid buyers “don’t want to compromise the fun-to-drive and safety features of the car,’’ said Praveen Cherian, lead engineer on the Fusion Hybrid.

Cons The growing eco-meter leaves on the instrument panel, which grow from a “vine’’ when you’re driving efficiently, reek of overstretched marketing. And the rear seats don’t fold down.

Overall The car Congress claimed American automakers couldn’t make. It’s a well-equipped, comfortable sedan that posts big mileage numbers without the hybrid holier-than-thou attitude. Did we mention it’s made by Ford?

2010 Toyota Prius III

Powertrain 1.8 liter, 98 horsepower four-cylinder, 60-kilowatt electric motor, 134 net horsepower, continuously variable transmission, front-wheel drive

EPA rating 51/48

Our results 48 mpg (average of city/highway)

Price, base (as tested) $22,750 ($27,550)

Pros No other gas-powered car can top its miserly consumption. The 2010 model is a big improvement over the second generation - it’s quicker, roomier, quieter, nimbler, and far less plebeian. A new EV mode forces electric-only jaunts for at least a half-mile, as long as you’re light on the gas below 25 miles per hour. The regenerative braking is among the smoothest we’ve tested, and around town it’s hard to tell if the car is even running.

Cons It’s still under-powered. Toyota’s sideways T-shaped gear selector (up for “reverse,’’ a separate button for “park’’) makes little sense. And the Prius is far from dapper. “The vast majority of our buyers want bread-and-butter transportation,’’ said Wade Hoyt, a Toyota spokesman.

Overall Since debuting the Prius in the United States in 2000, Toyota has sold more than a million of them here. For the ultimate in mileage, all-around comfort, and utility, the Prius is tops at any price. Those who crave some sportiness will shop elsewhere.

2010 Honda Insight EX

Powertrain 1.3 liter, 88 horsepower I-4, 10-kilowatt electric motor, 98 net horsepower, CVT, front-wheel drive

EPA rating 40/43

Our results 38 mpg (average of city/highway)

Price, base (as tested) $20,510 ($23,810)

Pros This car is more fun to drive than the Prius, its primary target. The paddle-shifted transmission does a good job imitating seven speeds, the engine is eager to rev, and the steering feels connected to the tires. Changing colors behind the speedometer make it easy to monitor efficiency, and the dashboard is fun to look at, if not a bit wacky.

Cons Low-rev vibrations can be felt throughout the cabin when accelerating, and occasionally the engine shakes the car hard when restarting. Stopping is jerky as the Insight transitions from regenerative braking to the conventional setup. Rear headroom is tight for anyone approaching 6 feet, and interior plastics are hard and cheap. While Chris Naughton, a Honda spokesman, said the pricier Civic Hybrid has a larger battery and more efficient valve timing, the Insight’s fold-down rear seats allow it to swallow more cargo. The interior was carefully chosen, he said, to be “appropriate for its segment.’’

Overall While it’s harsher and less efficient than the Prius, the Insight is far more engaging to the driver, and it’s the most affordable hybrid.

2008 Lexus LS600hL*

Powertrain 5.0 liter, 389 horsepower V-8, 165-kilowatt electric motor and additional generator, CVT, 438 net horsepower, all-wheel drive

EPA rating, city/highway 20/22

Our results 21 mpg (average of city/highway)

Price, base (as tested) $106,910 ($117,330)

Pros This hybrid has unbridled power and is sealed off from the elements like a bank vault, thanks to 438 horsepower and an adjustable air suspension. The cavernous back seat reclines, heats, cools, and entertains three passengers, and the 19-speaker audio system reaches arena-level volumes. The automatic parallel parking feature is the best car gimmick ever. Flipping the EV mode switch for extended time in electric mode makes the ride even quieter.

Cons Conservative styling isn’t befitting a six-figure sedan. More than 6 cubic feet of trunk space is lost to the batteries. The hybrid system hardly improves fuel economy over the standard model, the LS 460. Toyota’s Hoyt said Lexus tunes its hybrids for higher performance rather than higher efficiency. “Admittedly, that’s a niche market,’’ he said.

Overall The LS 600hL is the hybrid for those who can afford 12 cylinders, and it drives like the big, fast barge it’s supposed to be. Most buyers will grab the nonhybrid LS 460L with all-wheel-drive, which has most of the 600’s incredible pampering for $30,000 less.

*2008 model tested. 2009 model is unchanged.

2009 Ford Escape Hybrid LTD

Powertrain 2.5 liter, 153 horsepower I-4, 70-kilowatt electric motor, CVT, 177 net horsepower, four-wheel drive

EPA rating29/27

Our results 27 mpg (average of city and highway)

Price, base (as tested) $30,370 ($36,845)

Pros Sufficient low-end torque makes for easy acceleration, and it’s possible to run at 40 miles per hour on electric power for a good half-mile. Transitions between gas and electric power are barely noticeable. The Escape’s slim size and optional four-wheel-drive on our tester make it an optimal all-season city car. Chunky styling remains attractive.

Cons The Escape’s powertrain and instrument panel look dated compared with the Fusion’s. But like the Fusion, reaching higher speeds on electric power requires a careful on and off modulation with the throttle, which can get tiring. The engine buzzes loudly above 2,500 revolutions per minute, and the Escape’s price quickly escalates far above other compact SUVs. Ford’s Cherian said of buyers, “in the past, they were willing to accept the noises, the limitations, the lack of performance.’’ He said Escape’s hybrid system has undergone tweaks each year, and the 2009 model shares the Fusion Hybrid’s engine and brakes.

Overall Still a solid contender. If you need four-wheel drive or just like boxy shapes, the Escape is a good value if you skimp on options.

2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

Powertrain 6 liter, 332 horsepower V-8, two 60-kilowatt electric motors, CVT with four fixed gears, 332 net horsepower, selectable all-wheel drive (meaning it can be switched off) with two-speed transfer case

EPA rating N/A

Our results 18 mpg (average of city and highway)

Price, base (as tested) $74,085 ($75,330)

Pros GM’s hybrid system is more seamless than the Lexus, except for the hesitation during full-on throttle. Around town, the brute Caddy glides as if the road were solid glass, and the magnetic shock absorbers keep body roll sharply in check while making short work of potholes. This is an eight-passenger limousine, and the details impress: power running boards that slip under the truck, climate control fans that hush during a Bluetooth call, and parking and blind-spot sensors smart enough to switch off in a snowstorm, when these systems tend to give false readings.

Cons Cadillac stuck nine hybrid badges - including block letters spanning the entire wheelbase - on the outside of our black four-wheel-drive Escalade, an apparent ploy to justify three tons, six liters, and the 22-inch wheels of this asphalt-crunching SUV. (Like the Hummer H2, it’s too heavy to warrant an EPA rating.) During short trips around Brookline, 12 miles per gallon was all we could muster in winter months. Cadillac spokesman David Caldwell said the Escalade is a “boutique choice. It’s about expressing the new technology. If you save some fuel along the way, fantastic.’’

Overall The cheaper, 300-pound lighter Tahoe Hybrid would likely come closer to GM’s claimed 20-mile-per-gallon city rating, but there’s little justification for either. A clean diesel could have made the Escalade perform real magic.