Cars

Finding the Right Hybrid for You

STEALTH HYBRID: Were it not for some minor visual cues, you could not tell this Accord is a hybrid.
STEALTH HYBRID: Were it not for some minor visual cues, you could not tell this Accord is a hybrid.HONDA

So you looked at the gas bill from your SUV this week and almost passed out? You realized that you don’t need a V8-powered vehicle for a daily driver? Well there are plenty of options for greener driving. Sure, there are new, small displacement engines and diesel powered cars, even electric ones, but the hybrid powertrain is the one that has carried the standard for the new green car movement.

When the hybrid car first started to arrive in great numbers, it was largely attributed to the success of the Toyota Prius, which was a small, compact dedicated hybrid. Sacrifice had to be made in terms of space to drive a Prius back then, but the Toyota Prius is now a larger, better equipped and generally more comfortable vehicle. The Prius family has grown, too. Now there is the larger Prius V, which offers a higher aft section with more cargo space. There is also the Prius C, for those who simply need a daily driver and have fewer family and cargo needs. We’re also seeing compact dedicated hybrids and alt-fuel vehicles from other brands. There is the Honda Insight and CR-Z, as well as the all-electric Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt. What makes these cars so effective as selling tools is that they were completely new models when they arrived. Their introduction as stand-alone models did wonders for notoriety and recognition.

It is a little more difficult to get the same kind of press for the hybrid version of a standard car, simply on the principal that it has to share page space with the conventionally powered version of the vehicle. Consider cars like the Toyota Camry Hybrid, Ford Fusion Hybrid, or Honda Accord Hybrid. These hybrid variations offer unique alternatives to their dedicated hybrid counterparts—but which one is best for you?

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We recently drove the Honda Accord Hybrid ($29,195), as well as the Toyota Prius C $19,000). The first thing you have to accept with a compact dedicated hybrid like the Prius C is that, while the use of space is highly efficient, it will still not be as comfortable as the cabin of a car like the Accord Hybrid. The large sedan underpinnings guarantee that it will have a better interior. Still, the sedan body style presents its own cargo limitations. The standard Prius has a cargo volume of 21.6 cubic feet, whereas the Accord Hybrid has only 12.7 cubic feet. Even the smaller Prius C still has 17.1 cubic feet of cargo space. That added space is accessed via the hatch, which is more convenient than a traditional trunk.

One might think that the stand-alone hybrids have a distinct advantage in fuel economy, but that gap has certainly closed over the years. Now only a handful of mpgs separate the two classes of vehicles. For example, the Prius C gets 53 mpg city, 46 mpg highway, while the Accord Hybrid manages 50 city, 45 highway. A car like the Fusion Hybrid gets 47 city and 47 highway, which outperforms the 41 city and 44 highway of the Insight.

Then there’s the price. Like fuel economy, one might think that the dedicated hybrids have the advantage, and like fuel economy, price is closer than you think. The Prius starts at $24,200, and the Prius V starts at $26,750. Meanwhile the Camry Hybrid starts at $29,195 and the Fusion Hybrid starts at $27,280. The main outliers at either end of this spread are actually the Prius C, at $19,080, and the Honda Accord Hybrid, which starts at $29,195. Overall, you are paying for a larger cabin for daily driving and a bit more pep in the drivetrain.

What sets the hybrid sedans apart is ride quality. Because the family sedan market is such a competitive set, driving dynamics are of the utmost importance. Even if the hybrid version has its own unique suspension, the starting block was a far better setup than that of the dedicated hybrid, which might sacrifice ride quality for price or efficiency. The smaller cars like the Insight and Prius C were also designed with city driving in mind, and thus do not have the freeway-traversing suspension of a car like the Accord Hybrid.

The common thread among the smarter brands is that they sell both dedicated hybrid models and hybrid variants of conventionally powered models. The key is choice; a time will come when choosing between gas, electric, hybrid, diesel, or even natural gas, will be as easy as deciding between manual or automatic. Production methods make it difficult now to interchangeably assemble drivetrains at the factory, but automakers like Volkswagen are building several different models off of one common set of components. It is possible for this to occur with engine types in the future, allowing buyers to have their preference in any type of vehicle.

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