Hybrid cars generally make you pay more up front, but you'll emit less and save gas in exchange for the extra dough. And depending on the direction gas prices move in, you could even recoup that "hybrid penalty" sooner than expected. Once niche-oriented oddities, hybrid cars are now just another option shoppers have before them when they walk into dealerships. In fact, hybrid cars now occupy pretty much every imaginable price point. The 2010 model year saw a number of new hybrid models hit the marketplace (and 2011 promises to do likewise), but ultimately, professional reviewers single out two as the clear-cut best of breed.
2010 Toyota Prius still the hybrid benchmark
If you've decided to buy a hybrid car, the reviews are emphatic and nearly unanimous: the 2010 Toyota Prius (Base MSRP: $21,400 to $28,070) and the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid (Base MSRP: $27,950) tower over the rest of a growng field of competitors. Both are lauded as excellent hybrids, and great cars overall. The 2010 Prius retains its traditional appeal as an instantly-identifiable green statement. It shares its unique styling with no other vehicle in the Toyota lineup, and its EPA-estimated 50 mpg combined city/highway fuel economy rating makes it the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the country. Other compact hybrid cars like the 2010 Honda Civic Hybrid (Base MSRP: $23,800) and the 2010 Honda Insight (Base MSRP: $19,800-$21,300) are simply outclassed by the Toyota -- especially the Insight hatchback, whose styling apes the Prius's slippery kammback profile. Upon its initial release, critics had mostly nice things to say about the new Honda Insight, but time -- and the arrival of the redesigned and improved 2010 Prius -- seems to have caused that relationship to sour. In describing the Honda Insight, Motor Trend's Arthur St. Antoine minces no words, saying it's "the most disappointing Honda product I've ever driven." St. Antoine later went on to buy a 2010 Prius, a fact he shared with MT readers in one of his monthly editorials.
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid a critics' darling, and a serious family sedan
The redesigned Ford Fusion sedan wins over critics in general, but no variant of the car engenders a more enthusiastic response from reviewers than the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid. Testers say this hybrid midsize sedan, which has piled up awards, delivers the goods in terms of fuel economy (the EPA rates it at 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway) without making the same sort of "look at me" hybrid-driving statement as the Toyota Prius. It's a traditionally-shaped five-passenger family sedan that reviewers say beats its closest natural rival, the 2010 Toyota Camry Hybrid (Base MSRP: $26,400) by being more fun to drive and having a better interior with interesting technical features, like a colorful and customizable digital instrument cluster. Driven carefully (i.e. with a very light foot on the accelerator), the Fusion Hybrid can be driven in electric-only mode at speeds up to 47 mph. The Ford Fusion Hybrid sedan will get some new competition later this year in the form of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, whose arrival will further cement the mainstreaming of hybrid cars hin general.
Interestingly, both the 2010 Toyota Prius and 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid (along with its gussied-up clone, the 2010 Mercury Milan Hybrid (Base MSRP: $28,180), received recent braking software upgrades -- the Toyota via a widely-publicized recall, and the Ford via voluntary manufacturer action -- to improve their brakes' overall feel and performance. In neither case has this caused reviewers to stop recommending the cars.
Buyers of the Ford remain eligible for a federal tax credit through the end of 2010. Toyota (and Lexus) buyers are out of luck -- the credits for all its hybrid vehicles have already expired.
Luxury hybrid ranks grow, too
Toyota introduced the 2010 Lexus HS 250h (Base MSRP: $34,650 to $37,420), a new entry-level hybrid luxury sedan, but the gist of most reviews is basically that while it's certainly a nice car, why not just buy a loaded Prius instead? The 2010 Lexus GS 450h hybrid sedan (Base MSRP: $57,450) remains in the lineup, as does the six-figure flagship, the 2010 Lexus LS 600h L (Base MSRP: $108,800). Also getting into the act this year is the new 2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid (Base MSRP: $87,950), which employs a "mild" hybrid setup (it can't run solely on electric motors like the "full-hybrid" Lexus sedans), has all the same rich appointments as non-hybrid S-Class sedans, and carries a sticker price that undercuts the Lexus LS hybrid.