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The Prius is purpose-built for fuel efficiency, and the new 2016 Toyota Prius Two Eco achieves the best rating of any car that doesn’t plug in. While every new Prius still achieves at least 52 mpg (1.92 gallons burned per 100 miles), the new Eco trim level gets a lighter, more powerful battery that boosts its fuel economy all the way to 56 mpg (1.78 gp1003) with no particular effort required by the driver. And unlike many of its competitors, it doesn’t cost much more than a comparable non-hybrid compact car and would start saving you gas money from day one.
It prefers to be driven slowly and easy to burn less gas, but the Prius also has enough power to merge, pass, and pull away from stoplights with some gusto. The 2016 version even has a newfound penchant for carving corners. It’s also durable, has plenty of room for people and cargo, and boasts what no other hybrid can: a 16-year record of proven reliability and the title of World’s Most Popular Hybrid. Until a new crop of competitors arrives later this year, the Prius remains atop the hybrid heap.
The Prius family includes three models: the small Prius c, the large Prius v (we’ll talk about both later), and the standard Prius liftback. Our top pick is the last one, and it’s been the poster car for hybrids for over a decade. The latest version has been completely redesigned for 2016 with a more radical look, more inspired handling, a quieter interior, and even better fuel efficiency. The basic Prius liftback has five trim levels, but the second-from-the-cheapest Prius Two Eco is best for most people because it gets the best gas mileage and is equipped well enough with standard features like Bluetooth phone and audio, a rearview camera, and keyless entry on the driver’s door. Its low starting price and higher gas mileage also mean you’ll start saving money sooner.
This guide focuses on traditional parallel hybrids like the Prius that make up the bulk of what’s for sale out there. Plug-in hybrids are more complicated and require more of their owners; we have a separate guide for them. We threw out mild hybrids, too, because they’re all but extinct and have always played second fiddle to full-on hybrids like the Prius.
Not everyone likes the polarizing looks or social symbolism of a Prius. If that’s you, check out the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid as a great alternative. We like the standard trim level that starts around $27,000,4 because it’s already equipped with a lot of nice features. Based on the gas-only Sonata midsize sedan, it looks and drives more like a regular car than the Prius and has a very simple yet advanced touchscreen information and entertainment system that includes Android Auto. Still, the Sonata Hybrid, rated at 41 mpg (2.43 gp100), can’t approach even the standard Prius’s 52 mpg (1.92 gp100), so it’s not the best hybrid for most people.
Last year, we named the 2015 Honda Accord Hybrid as our runner-up, but it is currently out of production and scheduled to be re-released as a 2017 model. Another contender is the upcoming Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, which uses the powertrain from the Chevrolet Volt, our top pick among plug-in hybrids, and a smaller battery. Since neither are in dealerships at this point, you can’t buy them, so we didn’t consider them. We instead picked a great hybrid you can buy now, the Sonata Hybrid.
If you’re transporting a family often, consider the 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid that starts at about $29,500.5 A popular small SUV, the hybrid version of the RAV4 offers all the room that a small family or couple needs, plus all-wheel drive and a very good 33 mpg (3.03 gp100) overall rating. It has a big back seat and one of the largest cargo spaces of any small SUV. Toyota’s electric all-wheel drive comes standard, and the RAV4 XLE model is equipped with Bluetooth, the company’s Entune suite of smartphone apps, a moonroof, and a backup camera. It gets an impressive 34 mpg in city driving, but only 31 mpg on the highway; some other non-hybrid SUVs that cost less can actually get better gas mileage on highway trips. Though the RAV4 isn’t for everybody, it is great for small families that do a lot of city driving, have a lot of stuff to carry, and want a hybrid.
There are also lots of hybrid luxury cars available, but most aren’t worth the extra money compared to non-hybrid luxury cars. There are a couple of exceptions, so if you really don’t want to sacrifice the finer things for fuel efficiency, we recommend the 40-mpg (2.5-gp100) Lincoln MKZ Hybrid that starts around $36,0006 as the best all-around luxury hybrid. It offers not only the best fuel efficiency for the well-heeled set but also the lowest starting price among luxury hybrids and a great selection of unique, premium features.
If you’re looking to save money, many hybrids aren’t worth it. Hybrids typically cost about $3,000 to $5,000 more than a regular car, and some can cost more than $10,000 extra. That’s an awful lot of money to try to save on gas.
Some will tell you the premium you pay for a hybrid is even more, but they’re probably not comparing them to regular cars with the same level of features. For instance, the hybrid version of the Ford Fusion comes standard with many more features than the base model Fusion; you’d want to compare the hybrid version to a more-equipped Fusion to paint a more accurate picture of their price difference.
Hybrids can save you money, but only in the long run. You have to own one long enough that the pile of money you save on gas outweighs the pile of extra money you paid to get the car. It’s called the break-even point, and most hybrids—at least hybridized versions of regular cars—take more than 100,000 miles of driving to reach theirs.
Perhaps a better reason to buy a hybrid than saving money is wanting to pollute less. Hybrids release less CO² and other pollutants than regular cars by virtue of simply burning less fuel. That makes them perfect for the green crowd—people willing to spend more upfront to reduce the environmental impact of their driving.
So hybrids have their work cut out for them. They’ve got to be a pleasure to own and drive just like any new car you might consider buying and then balance that with amazing fuel economy for a reasonable price hike over what you’d pay for a similar (and similarly-equipped) car powered by gas alone. They should also do a good job concealing the complexity of what’s going on under their hoods. That means masking the noise and shaking of their gas engines starting up and stopping, which is happening all the time, as well as imperceptibly melding their regenerative braking (which sends energy back into their batteries) with traditional friction brakes.
I was the editor-in-chief of Autoblog.com for nearly 10 years and grew that website to become the most popular destination for automotive news, reviews, and auto show coverage on the web. While I led the site, Autoblog.com reviewed 20 new vehicles on average per month, performed comparison tests, and maintained a stable of longterm review vehicles. I exhaustively research every major purchase of my own (just ask my wife); I’m giving you the same advice I would give friends or family.
Believe it or not, more than 35 hybrids are on sale in the US, and there’s no one set kind. They come in all different shapes and sizes with prices that range from cheap to OMG. They don’t all work the same, either; there are many different takes on the fundamental principle of a gas engine and electric motor working together to move your car.
What we’re considering for this guide are parallel hybrids, what most hybrids on sale today are. They work by letting an electric motor and a gas engine operate in parallel, sometimes combining their power to move the car and sometimes having one or the other move the car by itself. Parallel hybrids are popular because they offer a good bump in fuel economy for a reasonable bump in price and have proven to be very durable.
There are about 30 parallel hybrids for sale today that include everything from small cars to midsize sedans to crossovers and wagons to luxury cars. We decided to pick an overall best hybrid as well as some good alternatives for people in different situations.
There are other kinds of hybrids you can buy besides parallel, like plug-in hybrids, but we’re leaving them out of this discussion, because they have their own guide here.
Aside from being a pleasure to own and use just like any other car, the most important factor when choosing a hybrid is fuel economy, because that’s what you’re paying extra for. The next is how easy it is to achieve that fuel economy; some hybrids have been dinged for not being able to achieve their official fuel-economy ratings from the Environmental Protection Agency in the real world. Because of this, we went beyond the EPA and also looked at independent fuel-economy numbers from places like Consumer Reports and Fuelly.com to ensure our picks perform as advertised.
After analyzing all these hybrids to find out which ones floated to the top, we met with the best in person to make sure they also functioned well doing the duties of everyday life and convincingly masked the complex partnership happening under their hoods. We spent a week driving hundreds of miles with the top contenders so we could better gauge their comfort, usability, and drivability.
We also read first drives and reviews of these hybrids from across the internet and sought out the informed opinions of green car experts Sebastian Blanco, editor-in-chief of AutoblogGreen; John Voelcker, senior editor for High Gear Media and editor-in-chief of the company’s Green Car Reports website; and Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst for smart transportation with Navigant Research.
Since we compared a lot of fuel economy numbers for this guide, we also converted every mpg figure to gp100, or gallons burned per 100 miles driven. Why? As Dan Edmunds from Edmunds.com puts it, “A single MPG has no fixed value; it isn’t a tangible thing.” In a nutshell, higher mpg numbers represent less fuel burned per mpg—the difference between 50 and 51 mpg and 15 and 16 mpg, for example, are both a single mpg, but 50 to 51 mpg equals 0.04 gallon saved every 100 miles and 15 to 16 mpg equals 0.41 gallon, a difference of more than 1,000 percent!
Why does that matter? Because we can’t compare the fuel efficiency of different cars unless we’re comparing the actual amount of fuel they burn. The old mpg standard can’t tell us that because mpgs change their value depending on where on the spectrum they land; a mpg for a truck is much more fuel burned than a mpg for a hybrid. Gallons burned per 100 miles driven, however, does what it says, telling us how much fuel any car uses over a constant distance by which they all can be compared fairly.
The good news is that converting mpg to gp100 is super easy. It’s 100 divided by the mpg number. And if you’re new-car shopping, the gp100 number is actually printed on the sticker and listed on the government’s fueleconomy.gov website. It’s in small print and they don’t include gp100 city or highway figures, just combined, but we’ll take what we can get.
We spent a week driving the all-new, redesigned 2016 Toyota Prius Two Eco and discovered what might explain why it is the most popular hybrid of all time: it’s an all-around great car that just so happens to burn very little gas and really isn’t all that expensive. This new Prius is great to live with because, despite its green credentials, its ultra-smooth ride and enthusiastic handling is great to drive, and it’s still a practical package with enough space inside for four people and lots of cargo. It’s also been reliable over the lengthy time it’s been on sale in the US, and if its battery pack eventually does go, there are many options for replacing it. The Prius is also effortless, going about its business of burning so much less gas without asking you to change the way you drive (though if you do, you’ll be rewarded). The new Prius Two Eco trim we recommend is officially rated by the EPA at a record-setting 58 mpg in the city (1.72 gp100), 53 on the highway (1.88 gp100), and 56 combined (1.78 gp100), but you can do better by following some simple tips we’ll talk about below.
Despite being the most fuel-efficient car sold in the US that doesn’t plug in, the Prius is still one of the least expensive hybrids you can buy. Only two other hybrids have a lower starting price: the smaller Prius C and the Honda CR-Z, a tiny two-seat mild hybrid that manages only 37 mpg combined (2.7 gp100). We recommend the Prius Two Eco that starts around $25,5007 because it gets a significant mileage boost over the base model (56 mpg vs 52 mpg), its price is low for a hybrid, and it already comes equipped with lots of good features.
Where the previous Prius was popular partly for being bigger than other compact cars, the new Prius is a little smaller and more efficient. It’s still perfectly comfortable for four, but five passengers are a little more of a pinch, and the car is lower, so it doesn’t feel as roomy. Still, the size and comfort of the Prius really help it sell well against larger vehicles. It may look like a small car from the outside, but it seats four people (five in a pinch) just as comfortably as most similarly priced midsize sedans. Rear-seat headroom is really the only dimension that feels a little scant, which can be blamed on the ultra aerodynamic exterior shape that peaks in height after the front seats and begins sloping downward. I’m about 5’10” and there’s an inch or two of room to spare, so six-footers are probably the max. The sacrifice is worth it, though: the Prius is among the most aerodynamic vehicles ever to be sold. Its 0.24 coefficient of drag (how they measure wind resistance) is the best in the business along with Tesla’s cars.
The Prius also looks as futuristic from the driver’s seat as it does from the sidewalk—a rarity among hybrids, since most are based on average compact and midsize sedans, hatchbacks, and crossovers. For instance, there are no gauges to stare at through the steering wheel; Toyota placed the all-digital gauges and information screens in the middle of the top of the dashboard. You’ve got your speedometer, fuel gauge, and gear up there, along with another large touchscreen sprouting from the dash that’s within arm’s reach to control the entertainment and information systems or see more detailed information about your driving efficiency. These screens wouldn’t look out of place on the bridge of Picard’s USS Enterprise, but they’re not just for effect—you’ll need their data if you want to wring the most mpg out of the Prius.
Even getting the car to move feels like taking a spaceship out for a spin. Pressing the start button will be familiar to most, but moving the “gear” selector to Reverse might be a new experience. Everything’s digital and communicated by wires, so the stick slides freely with none of the mechanical engagement you feel in a car with a traditional automatic, and then it snaps back like a joystick to its original position after touching the familiar R, N, or D. Selecting Park uses a separate, nearby button. You’ll also hear a beeping sound when backing up, just as with a moving truck, because the Prius is usually running silently on battery power in Reverse. That’s less of a safety feature and more of a gimmick, though, as it beeps only inside the car; no one can hear it outside. Fortunately, you can disable it.
While the Prius had become the butt of many jokes for its dull driving manners, none of that applies to the new 2016 version. (Mind you, none of the owners of the old car were complaining.) The new Prius rides and handles like a miniature Mercedes. The steering is precise, linear, and predictable. The car tucks into corners that the old one merely sloughed around. The engine is quiet and relaxed most of the time. And the suspension provides almost a magic-carpet ride. It’s much nicer to drive than any of the three prior generations of the Prius, and it proves there’s no reason you have to give up a good driving experience to get great gas mileage.
While driving is a lot more fun in the new Prius, you’ll still get the best mileage if you plan ahead and take it easy on the brakes and accelerator. If you floor it from a stoplight or consistently rush into intersections, you’ll see a penalty on all the car’s detailed efficiency screens.
The cargo area of the new Prius, meanwhile, scored 12 bag bottoms in our patent-pending paper bag test, which means the rear cargo floor has about the same surface area as a midsize sedan. That’s two bag bottoms fewer than the last Prius, which we attribute to the slightly different shape of its rear cargo floor. You can, however, add at least another nine bag bottoms, for a total of 21, if you fold the rear seat forward. Because of that hatchback shape, it has more vertical room behind its rear seats, and folding those seats forward creates a much larger space for bigger stuff than a trunk with a pass-through could handle.
The National Highway Traffic Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have not yet rated the new Prius, but the old model earned four out of five stars overall, and Toyota designed the 2016 model to ace the difficult small-offset crash test by the IIHS. Lastly, the Prius offers an advanced pre-collision safety system that warns of an impending collision and applies the brakes to lessen the impact or avoid it altogether. It’s an expensive option only available as part of a $4,320 Advanced Technology Package on higher-trim Prius Three and Four models and as standard equipment on Prius Three Touring and Four Touring models. It’s been shown to reduce insurance claims but not necessarily save lives. We think it’s a worthwhile addition if you don’t mind spending the money, but it isn’t really crucial.
The base model Prius Two with a starting price just over $25,0008 is configured quite nicely with popular features like an automatic climate control system (just set the temperature and it will reach and hold it), a 6.1-inch touchscreen in the dash, Bluetooth for phones and audio devices, a rearview camera, push-button start, and keyless entry on the driver’s door. But it’s not our top choice because it still uses the old-technology Prius nickel-metal hydride battery that’s bigger, 300 pounds heavier, and less powerful than the lithium-ion battery in the rest of the 2016 Prius lineup.
The cheapest way to get that updated battery is to opt for the $25,500 Prius Two Eco, which costs $500 more than the basic Prius Two. The smaller, more powerful battery boosts the Eco’s fuel economy by 4 mpg to 56 mpg overall and also opens up almost three additional feet of cargo space, although the Eco also lacks a spare tire to save weight.
Other trim levels include the Three, Three Touring, Four, and Four Touring. For the most part, each adds more features like better upholstery, larger wheels, navigation, collision-avoidance systems, and other luxuries. The most expensive Prius can cost over $33,500,9 which gives the car a huge range of pricing and features to match more budgets. That’s not the case with most hybrids that offer only one or two trims and not a true base model with a low starting price.
We tested a Prius Three Touring for a week that was loaded with SofTex (environmentally friendly leatherette) seating, larger wheels and tires, the active safety features in the Advanced Technology Package, and a premium information and entertainment system with navigation. It lists for just under $29,000.10
For a hybrid, the Prius has been around a long time, and that’s a good thing. Toyota has sold millions over the car’s 15 years on sale here in the US, and its reliability has proven to be among the best in the industry—not just among hybrids. The last-generation Prius earned the highest rating for reliability from Consumer Reports ten years in a row, or every year on which the magazine published data. Another testament to the car’s durability is how much taxicab companies like buying them. Toyota has even bragged that a Prius taxi in Vienna, Austria, has driven 1 million kilometers (about 621,504 miles).
What if something does break? Toyota gives you an industry standard pack of warranties that includes coverage lasting 3 years or 36,000 miles for the whole car and 5 years or 60,000 miles for the powertrain (engine, electric motor/generator, and transmission), along with two years of free roadside assistance. Toyota is also among the very few companies (Volkswagen is another) that includes free maintenance on vehicles in this price range: you won’t pay for oil changes, tire rotations, and the like for two years or 25,000 miles.
Then there’s the battery pack, the one major component unique to hybrids and electric vehicles. Federal regulations require that manufacturers warranty their hybrid battery packs for at least eight years or 100,000 miles, while California and about a dozen other states require 10-year/150,000-mile warranties. Hyundai, well known for its extra-long warranties, guarantees the battery pack in its Sonata Hybrid for the life of the car, as long as you’re the original owner. Toyota doesn’t go that far, but the Prius has its own advantage: age and volume.
Having been around so long and been so popular, the Prius has created an entire industry for replacing and reconditioning its battery packs. If your Prius battery pack does peter out, the most expensive option is buying a new one from Toyota for about $4,000 to $5,000. Fortunately there are lots of cheaper options that include remanufactured battery packs, salvaged battery packs, and attempting to have the original battery pack reconditioned. Check out the Autoline Garage segment in this episode of Autoline Daily for a clear explanation of all your options.
Other experts agree that the Prius remains the benchmark for hybrids. Sebastian Blanco told us, “The best standard hybrid is the Toyota Prius. It’s reliable and has been the US MPG leader for a decade now (not counting plug-ins) … Toyota has also made more hybrid vehicles than any other company on the planet, and has a lot of experience fixing any problems that come up.”
When asked for his pick of best hybrid, John Voelcker told us, “Has to be the Toyota Prius.” He summed up his feelings with, “The Prius is the quintessential hybrid, its own stereotype, the ur-hybrid, and it even had a starring role in a ‘South Park’ episode (as the ‘Pious’). It’s a remarkable exercise in extreme engineering for ultimate efficiency, and Toyota deserves enormous credit for pioneering the world’s first modern hybrid-electric vehicle (in 1997).”
Jeff Cobb at HybridCARS.com says, “The Prius is in a class by itself, and the car preparing to ultimately beat it in every respect will be its own replacement that could be here in 2015.” This all-new 2016 model is that car.
Jason Cammisa from Road & Track compared the Prius to a diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz E-Class and remarked, “it’s amazingly inexpensive given what it is, reasonably comfortable, impressively roomy, and even surprisingly lightweight. And it’s actually more than quick enough to keep up with traffic.”
At the end of the test, he concluded, “The Prius is a tremendously efficient package … with a bigger back seat than the E-Class and a usable hatchback for cargo. It’s reasonably quiet, quick, and smooth. And it returns unbeatable fuel mileage, even on the open road when the big benefits of its hybrid system are minimized.” Although he was writing about the old Prius, the same goes even more for the new model.
Christian Seabaugh, an editor at Motor Trend, pointed out the new one pierced his skepticism that a Prius could be fun. “There’s a night and day difference dynamically between the new car and the last one,” he writes. “The new chassis feels so much livelier than the old car’s… Steering is relatively precise, brake pedal feel is very good for a hybrid, and while flat-out acceleration will never be described as fast, it’s certainly good enough. Dare I say it: The new Prius really borders on fun.”
Lastly, Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst of smart transportation with Navigant Research, told us, “If all you want is maximum fuel economy, the answer is probably the old standby, the Toyota Prius.” We also liked his general assessment of the hybrid market that’s good to keep in mind when conducting your own hunt for the right hybrid: “There’s no silver bullet, and the choice really comes down to personal driving preferences and where and how far you drive on a typical day. As always, your mileage will vary.”
The Prius isn’t perfect. For one, the new car is more of a compact and less of an alternative to a midsized sedan than previous generations. This is apparent in the interior, where the front and back seats sit much lower than before. The backseat now feels tight for three, and drivers don’t have either the elbow room or the storage space that they did in the old Prius.
Also, the new Prius has some of the same demerits as the old car: The view through the rearview mirror isn’t that great because the rear hatch glass is split into two windows—a deeply slanted one up top and a more vertical one below. In between them is an integrated spoiler with the center brake stop light. This crossbar dominates the rearview mirror, but fortunately, Toyota has made a rearview camera standard equipment.
And as we mentioned earlier, all the main gauges are in the center, up at the base of the windshield. This leaves the space behind the steering wheel oddly empty. It’s unclear what purpose this relocation has ever served, other than saving cost and maybe reinforcing that the Prius is just different. Either way, it takes some getting used to and never quite feels normal.
Lastly, even with the new looks, there’s a potential stigma for owning a Prius. When the Prius was young, owning one was a green badge of honor. After so many years and millions sold, it has evolved, for some, into a symbol of eco smugness. As Jason Cammisa puts it, “I can’t decide what’s more annoying about the Toyota Prius: the people who buy it, or the fact that the car does such a good job of delivering ridiculous gas mileage.” It seems the mere act of owning one can make other people feel like they’re being judged, but at the end of the day, that’s their problem.
The Prius Two Eco manages a combined EPA rating of 56 mpg (1.78 gp100). That’s better than every other car sold in the US with a gas engine, hybrid or otherwise. And non-Eco Prius trim levels still get 52 mpg (1.92 gp100), which ranks them third behind another Prius, the diminutive Prius c subcompact hybrid that gets 53 mpg (1.87 gp100).
What we like about the Prius’s fuel economy is that it’s so darn easy to achieve, and it can do even better than its official numbers with just a few adjustments to your driving. We spent a week driving one in frigid New England weather and, with no real effort, achieved an average of over 50 mpg according to the trip computer.
Some Cliff’s Notes for besting the official fuel economy numbers of a Prius include accelerating slowly, braking early, and coasting as often as possible. That said, a slightly more advanced course of keeping the car on battery power as long as possible is what makes it possible to go far beyond the official fuel economy ratings.
That’s not easy to do, considering the Prius battery pack isn’t very big. It only contains about 1.6 kilowatt-hours of energy, good for a little over one mile of continuous electric driving. And as with most hybrids, there’s practically no way to accelerate from a dead stop on battery power alone; the engine will always kick on to help get you up to speed. Even if you press the optimistically-named EV mode button on the dash, the car’s computer brain remains just as eager to use the gas engine when accelerating.
You can’t use battery power alone to get away from stoplights, but you can switch back to battery power afterwards by lifting your foot off the gas pedal and reapplying it gently. This gets the car coasting with its engine off and, if you get back on the gas lightly enough just to maintain speed, the Prius will let you continue on with the engine off for a while. Again, it won’t be for long, probably about a mile if there aren’t any hills to climb, but as long as you coast whenever possible and brake early for the next stop, the battery should be ready to repeat the process. Eventually, the battery pack might deplete so far that the engine stays on or spins quicker to recharge it, but we found this strategy still worked best for keeping our average fuel economy high.
The Prius can do more to help this cause, too. Along with EV mode, there’s also a button for Eco mode that subdues the gas pedal’s response for smoother acceleration, as well as optimizes how the heater and air conditioning work for more fuel savings. We left the Prius in Eco mode for most of the time and found it livable, but the slower pace might take some getting to use for others.
Driving with a soft touch will get you the most miles per gallon, but the Prius also has a Power mode that marshals all of the hybrid system’s 121 horsepower at once. This sort of thing is common among hybrids that often default to slower, more-efficient driving modes and is great for short bursts of power. Staying in Power mode too long will crash your fuel economy, though, so we used it mainly for getting up to speed on busy highways.
For about $27,00011 the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is the no-compromises hybrid. It’s a very comfortable, quiet, traditional midsize sedan with a backseat big enough to fit three adults comfortably, all while getting a commendable 41 mpg combined (2.44 gp100). The Sonata also comes with the latest connectivity tech for your smartphone, has a bigger trunk than most hybrid sedans, and its conventional six-speed automatic transmission never leaves the engine screaming for enough power to accelerate. While it’s a good choice for people who want a hybrid that feels more like a typical car than the Prius, the Sonata Hybrid wasn’t our top pick because its combined fuel economy rating falls short of the Prius by up to 15 mpg.
Our previous runner-up recommendation, the 2015 Honda Accord Hybrid, got impressive fuel economy of 50 mpg combined (2.0 gp100), but it’s not available for 2016 while Honda moves production from Ohio to Japan. The 2016 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid was also not on sale yet, and its fuel economy had not been rated by the EPA when this update was published.
The Sonata Hybrid does come with the latest in touchscreen information and entertainment systems, including the popular Android Auto functionality that allows the greatest number of smartphones to display apps right on the car’s screen, including Google Maps and its navigation function. And whether you’re using Android Auto or Hyundai’s native stereo and navigation system, the interface is simple and intuitive to use. Want to change the radio station? Just turn the knob.
Unlike other midsized hybrid sedans, the Sonata Hybrid’s electric drive battery sits under the trunk floor, so it doesn’t encroach into useful cargo space. At 13.3 cubic feet, it has more trunk room than any other midsize hybrid sedan on the market, which makes it an easier choice to live with.
Lastly, the Sonata Hybrid’s six-speed automatic transmission doesn’t have the downsides of the continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) in most hybrids. CVTs have no fixed gears, so engine speed can fluctuate up and down whenever a car’s computer deems appropriate. Often this means that when you mash the accelerator down to scamper across an intersection or to climb a hill on the highway, the engine winds up and then screams away at what sounds like maximum rpm until you let off the accelerator. Counterintuitively, this actually helps acceleration and fuel economy, but it makes the car sound and feel unresponsive and underpowered. The Sonata Hybrid’s transmission doesn’t act that way, instead behaving like a traditional stepped gear transmission from the non-hybrid cars we’ve driven all our lives.
All that said, while the Sonata Hybrid’s fuel economy is on par with other hybrid midsize sedans at 41 mpg (2.43 gp100), it still falls well short of the 2016 Prius at 52 mpg (1.92 gp100) and Prius Two Eco at 56 mpg (1.78 gp100).
If you want more utility than the Prius hatchback offers, the $29,000 RAV4 Hybrid12 offers the same basic benefits but with a lot more space and the go-anywhere traction of all-wheel drive, all for only $700 more than a comparable non-hybrid RAV4. It has comfortable space for five inside with the tall ride height and great views out of an SUV, and its cargo hold pitches a big tent. Its 34 mpg in the city is also a huge improvement of 12 mpg over the gas-powered, all-wheel-drive RAV4, while its 33 mpg combined rating (3.03 gp100) is also much better than other small, all-wheel-drive SUVs. Of course, the Prius can achieve more than 20 mpg more, so the RAV4 Hybrid couldn’t be our top pick, but it’s excellent for those who need more space and have fallen in love with the crossover SUV (which is most people).
The RAV4 Hybrid is a perfectly sized SUV for small families—not too big, not too small. Officially a small SUV, it has a spacious backseat and big cargo area with a flat floor (albeit with a slight bump behind the rear seats for the battery) that sits flush with the sill of the liftgate to make loading items easier. A flat panel that spans the front of the cargo area can also be propped up at an angle to give a flat (if not quite level) loading surface when the rear seats are folded down.
The RAV4 Hybrid also comes standard with all-wheel drive, but it’s not just any all-wheel-drive system. The RAV4 Hybrid uses the same hybrid all-wheel-drive system found in the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, with a conventional hybrid system driving the front wheels and a separate (third) electric motor driving the rear wheels. With no mechanical connection to the rear axle, it gets better fuel economy than mechanical systems do.
But while the RAV4 Hybrid is great for families who need more room than the Prius offers, it’s not the best hybrid for everybody. It’s not as smooth, quiet, and fun to drive as the Prius, and while its 33 mpg is impressive for an SUV, its highway mileage of 31 mpg merely matches some other non-hybrid small SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V and the 2016 Hyundai Tucson Eco. And the Subaru Forester’s base engine and automatic (CVT) transmission actually does one better: 32 mpg on the highway. Still, if you want a hybrid because you drive a lot in the city, or if you want a really efficient small crossover SUV and are a believer in Toyota reliability, the RAV4 Hybrid is for you.
There are many hybrid luxury cars available. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Lexus, Infiniti, and Lincoln all offer them, but very few out there are worth buying. We threw most of them out because they offered such tiny bumps in fuel economy for huge jumps in price. They may be great luxury cars, but they’re duds as hybrids. A couple stand apart, though, and we chose the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid as the best overall option because of its impressive selection of premium features, trick adaptable suspension, class-leading fuel economy, and the fact that Lincoln doesn’t charge a penny extra for picking the hybrid version.
We surprised ourselves picking a Lincoln, but the MKZ Hybrid has tons going for it. As a luxury car, it’s got all the bases covered with premium features like an continuously adaptive suspension, active noise cancelling, massaging front seats, heated steering wheel, THX-certified sound system, and even inflatable seatbelts in the backseat—yep, you can get seatbelts with airbags, a Ford/Lincoln industry exclusive. There’s even a Black Label option that offers curated designer themes, higher-end materials, and ownership privileges for a few extra bucks. Loaded up, the MKZ just nails that feeling of being nicer than what most people can get, and Lincoln deserves credit for making any familial ties this car shares with the Ford Fusion disappear from view.
From its very unique and edgy exterior design to its slick-looking interior, the MKZ feels like its own luxury car. It also drives better than the Fusion, thanks to the continuously controlled damping system that adjusts its suspension every two milliseconds to suit the road you’re driving on. There are also three drive modes—Comfort, Normal, and Sport—that alter how the suspension, steering, and throttle feel to suit your driving mood. Comfort mode seems to best compliment the type of driving that earns max mpg, and it also feels the most lux of the three.
Lincoln also deserves kudos for nailing the numbers. Among luxury hybrids, the MKZ Hybrid is the most fuel efficient and least expensive. Its official ratings of 41 mpg in the city (2.44 gp100), 39 on the highway (2.56 gp100), and 40 combined (2.5 gp100) are far better than most other luxury hybrids and just a tick ahead of its closest competition, the Lexus ES 300h.
Its pricing is also terrific. Lincoln is the only automaker around that doesn’t charge a premium at all for ordering the hybrid version; both models have the same starting price of about $36,000,13 which is lowest in the land of luxury hybrids and a full $5,000 below the starting price of the ES 300h. We like the Lincoln’s highest trim level, the Hybrid Reserved package, which starts a little above $42,00014 and gives you access to all of the premium features mentioned above.
The MKZ Hybrid isn’t perfect. The quality of materials inside on lower trim levels doesn’t feel quite up to luxury standards in places, and you get Lincoln’s version of the oft-maligned MyFord Touch infotainment system (it’s significantly improved, though, and an all-new version is coming). Lincoln also still uses capacitive buttons on the dashboard that can be difficult to use while driving, and there’s so little wind and road noise that the engine sounds extra loud sometimes. But overall, it drives like a bonafide luxury ride and offers features, fuel economy, and pricing that no other luxury hybrid can best.
The Toyota Camry Hybrid offers the Camry’s near-ideal blend of space, comfort, efficiency, and reliability in a package slightly bigger than the Prius that still gets 41 mpg. But at $27,00015 to start, it costs more and loses the Prius’s hatchback versatility and awesome fuel economy. And it doesn’t have the refinement or comfort of our alternative pick, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.
Here are some other hybrid family sedans we considered:
Almost since hybrids debuted, buyers have been clamoring for more functional, family-size versions. Although hybrid SUVs can’t achieve the impressive fuel economy of a Prius, buying a hybrid SUV can save you significantly more gas than buying a small hybrid. Presumably, if you didn’t buy a hybrid SUV, you’d still need the space of an SUV and would buy a conventional model that would burn a lot more gas, right? But so far, hybrid SUV choices have been limited.
Toyota has long offered the midsize, three-row Highlander as a hybrid. It’s an impressive package, with a roomy interior, a smooth and powerful engine, and a sedan-like 28 mpg (3.57 gp100) overall. If we thought such a big SUV was what every hybrid buyer wanted, we could almost make it our top pick. Unfortunately, the Highlander Hybrid is also very expensive, starting at more than $48,000. You can’t buy a basic version; Toyota offers it only in the brand’s most expensive Limited trim level (and in the even higher Hybrid Limited Platinum trim). It’s a fine choice if you can afford it.
Subaru also offers a hybrid version of its small XV Crosstrek. Environmentalist Subaru buyers are a natural fit for hybrids, and the XV Crosstrek Hybrid should be in the running for the coolest car at the local trailhead. If only it were a good hybrid. Don’t get us wrong, the XV Crosstrek itself is a compelling package, but the hybrid version doesn’t up its game much. For an extra $3,000, it delivers a scant boost of two mpg to 31 mpg overall (3.2 gp100). We’ve driven lots of miles in an XV Crosstrek Hybrid, and although it’s a little quieter than a regular Crosstrek, it has to run the engine almost constantly for heat, air conditioning, and other accessories. So it isn’t a contender for the best hybrid.
Lexus also offers more luxurious versions of the RAV4 Hybrid and Highlander Hybrid, the NX 300h and RX 450h, respectively. Both have recently been introduced or redesigned, and both offer Toyota’s excellent hybrid system with a lot more luxury features, though they force you to deal with Lexus’s more complicated controls and frustrating information and entertainment system. The RX 450h seats only five, not the Highlander Hybrid’s seven passengers, but it shares the Highlander’s powerful hybrid system (with or without all-wheel drive), gets 30 mpg overall (3.33 gp100), and costs about $53,00016 to start. The NX 300h uses the RAV4’s less powerful hybrid system, again with or without all-wheel drive, and costs just over $41,000.17 It gets the same 33 mpg overall (3.03 gp100) as the RAV4 Hybrid. Both are smaller than their Toyota counterparts, and we don’t think they offer enough extra to justify their higher prices.
Audi builds a $50,50018 hybrid version of its compact Q5 luxury crossover SUV that has more space inside than the Lexus NX and an easier-to-use information and entertainment system. Its hybrid system with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine puts out a generous 245 horsepower, but its overall fuel economy of 26 mpg (3.5 gp100) isn’t so impressive.
Infiniti sells a hybrid version of its three-row crossover SUV, the QX60, but it makes very few, so they’re not easy to find. Nissan, Infiniti’s parent company, used to sell a hybrid version of the QX60’s corporate cousin, the Pathfinder, but cancelled it recently after owners reported serious reliability problems.
To get most of the utility of a hybrid SUV, you could also look at a hybrid wagon. We originally selected the $27,50019 Toyota Prius v wagon as the best hybrid family vehicle because it’s nearly as fuel efficient as the old Prius yet designed with a lot more space for people and cargo. But it’s noisy and outdated, and it’s not clear how long Toyota will keep it around, since buyers haven’t been flocking to it. So we picked the RAV4 instead. The $25,00020 Ford C-Max Hybrid is quieter, more luxurious, and sportier than the Prius v, but it doesn’t have as much cargo space or as comfortable a back seat as either the Prius v or the RAV4 Hybrid.
Lexus also offers a small luxury hatchback—perhaps an oxymoron in some people’s minds, but a logical choice for a commuter who may spend a lot of time in the car and needs great gas mileage. It’s called the CT 200h, and it delivers on features and fuel economy, returning 42 mpg (2.4 gp100) in mixed driving. But it’s so small that it’s cramped, and its anemic 134 hp leaves the engine roaring when you demand more power—hardly a luxury experience for around $32,000.21
To get a real luxury experience, you could look at the Lexus ES 300h or Toyota Avalon Hybrid instead of the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid that we recommend. Both use the same hybrid system from the Toyota Camry Hybrid and get 40 mpg overall (2.5 gp100), but the Avalon is a little cheaper at about $39,00023 to start, while the Lexus offers more luxury features and less room for about $42,000.24 We don’t think either one offers the responsive, luxurious driving experience or the sumptuous interior of the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid.
Sportier midsize luxury hybrid cars include the $61,00025 RLX Sport Hybrid from Acura, the $63,00026 ActiveHybrid5 from BMW, the $57,00027 Q70 Hybrid from Infiniti, and the $65,00028 GS 450h from Lexus. We wouldn’t recommend any of these models if you’re interested in a hybrid for higher fuel economy. None of them get very good fuel economy, all of them are expensive, and none of them are as nice to drive as their sportier, gas-powered counterparts. Infiniti also produces its smaller Q50h sports sedan as a hybrid for about $45,000,29 but again, that version isn’t very rewarding to drive, and it doesn’t get the fuel economy that buyers expect from a hybrid. At least the Acura RLX and Infiniti Q50 offer all-wheel drive.
For well over $100,00030 you can choose limo-like luxury with the Lexus LS 600h L or make the ultimate sports-car entrance in the million-dollar-plus Ferrari LaFerrari hybrid supercar. Both come with powerful engines (a V8 and a V12, respectively) and burn slightly less gas than similar non-hybrid competitors, but we have a feeling that anyone interested in either of these cars, especially the Ferrari, isn’t looking for buying advice on the Web.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs, were not considered for this guide, though not because they’re not as good as traditional hybrids—they’re just different enough to deserve their own guide. PHEVs should be plugged in each night to recharge their larger battery packs, just like full electric vehicles, and they’re most efficient when driven within their limited electric range (anywhere from 14 miles to about 50 miles). So why aren’t we including them in this guide? Well, their bigger batteries also make them considerably more expensive than traditional hybrids. That said, PHEVs are great for early adopters who anxiously await the arrival of longer-range electric cars and who have the deeper pockets to afford their higher prices.
We’re also not considering series hybrids for this guide because they’re a subset of PHEVs. These are like electric vehicles that have an on-board gas engine to produce electricity when you’ve exhausted their battery pack’s range. They are all PHEVs by virtue of the fact they plug in to charge, so we’re saving them for that guide. The lone exception was the 2015 Accord Hybrid, which is a new type of hybrid invented by Honda that operates like a series hybrid much of the time. But it’s not included here because Honda isn’t selling it for 2016 while it moves production to Japan. The company says the model will return later in 2016 as a 2017 model.
Mild hybrids were also kicked to the curb because they don’t offer big enough fuel savings for the extra cost and complexity they add. Their real achilles heel is not being able to run on electricity alone at all because their electric motors and battery packs are so small. Fortunately, there aren’t many left on the market these days; only Buick and Honda still make them, and Honda’s getting out of the mild hybrid business entirely soon.
A hybrid version of the new 2016 Chevrolet Malibu is due out later in 2016 that uses a version of the drive system from the Chevrolet Volt, but without the big battery that plugs in. It’s a promising model with a big backseat, a well-finished interior, and a particularly advanced hybrid system.
Honda has indicated that it will put its new i-MMD hybrid system, like that in the suspended Accord Hybrid, into other products as well. Who knows which ones, but the company could make a purpose-built hybrid to compete with the Prius directly or add some form of i-MMD to other cars it makes. Its luxury brand, Acura, recently revived the storied NSX as a $170,00031 hybrid supercar.
Other automakers are looking to take on the Toyota Prius with new purpose-built hybrids, too. Hyundai has unveiled the Ioniq, which will include hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric powertrains, and Kia has shown a small SUV/wagon hybrid called the Niro, which is due to debut in 2017. It will use a turbocharged, 160-hp four-cylinder engine to drive the front wheels and an additional 45-hp electric motor to drive the rear wheels.
Nissan is also expected to release a new version of the Altima Hybrid that will use its own new full-hybrid system similar to that in the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.
Look for an updated Kia Optima Hybrid next fall to match the new Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and the new gas Optima.
Ford is rumored to be developing an all-new hybrid platform that will be ready by 2018.
As the cost of batteries continues to come down, traditional hybrids will come under even heavier competition from plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. The new 2017 Chevrolet Volt has a longer all-electric range, better fuel efficiency, and more utility, while General Motors has also previewed the Bolt, an all-electric, four-door hatchback with a 200-mile range that it hopes to sell for $30,000.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of just looking at fuel-economy numbers when shopping for hybrids. It just so happens that a hybrid with some of the highest numbers out there is also the best one overall. The 2016 Toyota Prius Two Eco gives you those elite green car credentials for a very reasonable price in a car that’s incredibly easy to live with and proven reliable. Until another automaker can do that better, it will remain the once and future king of hybrids.
Originally published: March 9, 2016