When hybrid cars first appeared on U.S. roads in late 1999, they were seen as a temporary experiment. It was, after all, the SUV era, so the funky teardrop design of the Honda Insight and awkward shape of the first-generation Prius received derision—if they were noticed at all.
Twelve years and more than 2 million hybrids later, cars that run partly on gas and partly on electricity are commonplace in many markets. They have earned praise not only for their gas-sipping capabilities, but for their dependability, solid performance and attractive designs. Here are five gas-electric cars that should be put on any car shopper’s list—not just those trying to save money at the pumps or tread lightly on the planet.
The Toyota Prius is nearly synonymous with hybrid. The iconic hatchback has been the most fuel-efficient car on the market for six years running. Now, Prius is expanded from a single vehicle to an entire sub-brand—consisting of the liftback, the wagon-like Prius V, the cute Prius C compact (shown above), and a plug-in version. The Prius C is rated at a remarkable 53 miles per gallon in the city. The plug-in version takes it one step further, earning an EPA rating of 95 miles per gallon equivalent when running on electricity for the first 10 to 15 miles after a charge. Then, it reverts to a 50-mpg hybrid.
Ford Fusion Hybrid
The Ford Fusion Hybrid is credited as the smoothest hybrid on the road. The transitions from electric to gas and back are invisible to the driver. The current model is already efficient at 39 mpg in combined city/highway driving. But Ford engineers are expected to boost the 2013 model’s fuel economy to a whopping 47 mpg in the city and 44 mpg on the highway. That becomes even more impressive when considering the Fusion’s spacious mid-size sedan platform. A plug-in version is expected in late 2012.
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is 30 percent more fuel-efficient than the award-winning conventional Sonata. It stands out among other hybrids for its use of a six-speed automatic transmission—rather than a continuously variable transmission (CVT). This approach provides a feeling of gear-oriented acceleration more familiar to non-hybrid drivers. Moreover, Hyundai offers the first only lifetime guarantee on the Sonata Hybrid’s lithium ion battery pack. The Sonata Hybrid’s raked windshield, sharp creases, and enlarged grilled results in aerodynamics that match the slippery design of the Toyota Prius (at just 0.25 drag coefficient). The EPA rates it at 35 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway.
Lexus RX 450h
When Ford discontinues the Escape Hybrid later this year, the Lexus RX 450h will become the most efficient hybrid SUV on the road. It’s already been the top-selling hybrid SUV for several years. The RX hybrid has an EPA designation of 32 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway. The luxury SUV features a 3.5-liter V6 Atkinson-cycle 245-horsepower engine. Add two motor-generators for a total combined 295 horsepower rating. (A third, rear-mounted motor-generator is added on the AWD model to drive the rear wheels.) This gas-electric Lexus is loaded with sharp design features, luxury amenities and high-tech features including Remote Touch, a small touch-activated joystick to control dashboard functionality.
The small fun Honda CR-Z is the only two-seat hybrid on the market, and the only one available with a manual transmission. While not loaded with horsepower—just 122 ponies—you’d never guess that from behind the wheel of the CR-Z. The fun-to-drive quality is matched by a city-highway rating of 37 mpg. That combination provides a sporty fuel-efficient alternative to all other hybrids—or for that matter, anything else on the road.
Also: Keep an eye open for the upcoming 45-mpg 2013 Jetta Hybrid, the first gas-electric car from Volkswagen.
Check out the latest listings of Hybrid Cars at eBay’s Green Driving Center.