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In this report

Best hybrid cars for fuel efficiency

The 2012 Toyota Prius (Base MSRP: $24,000 to $29,805) has been experts' favorite hybrid car for years. Aside from its polished, quiet ride and hatchback practicality, it'll give you the best fuel economy this side of a plug-in car -- an EPA-estimated 50 mpg overall.

Meanwhile, experts say the Prius is just a really good car. It's safe, ultra-reliable and roomy -- more like a midsize car inside than the compact it is, with lots of cargo space under its hatch. The result? If one of our sources picks a list of favorite hybrids, the Prius makes the list every single time.

"The quintessential hybrid," Edmunds.com calls the Prius. "A wonder of technology," Motor Trend says. Car and Driver, Cars.com, ConsumerGuide.com, GreenerCars.org, Intellichoice.com and Kiplinger.com all single out the 2012 Prius in their top hybrid car lists, too.

In fact, the Prius's closest runner-up in reviews is another Prius: the new-for-2012 Toyota Prius c (Base MSRP: $18,950 to $23,230). It's smaller than a regular Prius, but still roomy enough for four adults -- with the same 50-mpg fuel economy for at least $4,000 less.

What's the catch? Well, it's slow. It's peppy enough around town and on the freeway, but the Prius c's smaller powertrain struggles on hills in test after test.

And experts can't agree on whether it's a nice car or not. Some, like Edmunds.com, complain of cheap cabin materials and a loud, rough ride that give the Prius c "a definite economy-car feel." Other testers -- including those at Edmunds Inside Line, Cars.com and The New York Times -- say it's fine.

At any rate, experts generally like the Prius c better than its archrival, the 2012 Honda Insight (Base MSRP: $18,500 to $21,965). For about the same price as a Prius c, the Insight offers worse fuel economy (42 mpg overall), tighter legroom (front and rear), and less cargo space behind the backseat. Plus, critics have always knocked the Insight for its noisy, choppy ride.

Honda's other hybrids can't crack into critics' top tier, either. The newly redesigned 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid (Base MSRP: $24,050) still can't match the Prius's gas mileage, and testers say Honda saddled it with a cheap cabin and weak brakes. The 2012 Honda CR-Z (Base MSRP: $19,695 to $21,255) is a sporty little hybrid hatch -- you can even get it with a stickshift -- but it only seats two, and it's not very fuel-efficient for a hybrid (34 to 37 mpg overall).

Hybrid family cars

Plenty of families will find the Toyota Prius roomy enough. Its backseat feels more like a midsize car than a compact, and its hatchback swallows more cargo than a family sedan's trunk.

But if you need more space -- whether you prefer a sedan or wagon -- Toyota has a hybrid for you. The new-for-2012 Toyota Prius v wagon (Base MSRP: $26,550 to $30,140) and redesigned 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid sedan (Base MSRP: $25,990 to $27,500) have both become instant critics' favorites in their very first year.

First, the Prius v wagon. It's "nothing more than a regular Prius with a station wagon butt grafted on," says About.com's Aaron Gold -- a move that adds luxury-car backseat room and SUV-like cargo space. Gold calls it "absolutely brilliant" and names the Prius v one of 2012's best new cars.

You'll lose some MPG with the heavier Prius v wagon (42 mpg, down from the regular Prius's 50 mpg) but it's still way more fuel-efficient than anything else this size. Plus, it inherits the Prius pedigree for safety and dependability.

Unfortunately, the Prius v also inherits the regular Prius's leisurely acceleration. It'll get you up hills and let you merge onto the freeway just fine, but testers say it never does feel peppy.

Enter the Toyota Camry Hybrid. It hits 60 mph in 7.4 seconds at Edmunds.com -- almost three seconds faster than the Prius v, and just two-tenths of a second behind a turbocharged, gas-powered Hyundai Sonata on Motor Trend's track.

In fact, Motor Trend says, "If you didn't know it was a hybrid, the Camry would lead you to believe it was a deftly executed gas-only sedan with some extra pop under the hood." Add an ample and comfortable backseat, strong crash scores and solid reliability -- plus 41 mpg overall fuel economy, which "blows way anything not called 'Prius,'" ConsumerReports.org says -- and more than one expert agrees that the Camry Hybrid is an outstanding family car.

The Camry faces off against the all-new 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid, which is just arriving on the scene and has received extremely favorable initial "first drive" reviews from auto journalists. As of this writing, however, it hasn't been comprehensively reviewed enough to be included in our ratings.

A clunky hybrid powertrain relegates the 2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (Base MSRP: $25,850) and its mechanical twin, the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid (Base MSRP: $25,700) to last place in this class. Both are stylish and have long warranties, but they're just not as slick to drive. "In low-speed driving or quickly changing traffic conditions, the hybrid shudders and lurches while deciding which gear it wants," Edmunds.com says. Other testers notice it, too, and recommend the smooth Toyotas over the Hyundai/Kia hybrids.

Hybrid luxury cars

Hybrid luxury cars usually come in two flavors: leisurely fuel-sippers with really nice interiors, or astronomically priced racers that use hybrid batteries to boost power -- not fuel economy.

But the 2012 Infiniti M35h (Base MSRP: $53,700) nails both assignments. Testers say it's addictively fast -- about five seconds to 60 mph, twice as fast as a Prius -- and it sips as little gas as the average four-cylinder econocar (an estimated 29 mpg overall). It's quicker, more fuel-efficient and $7,000 cheaper than its main hybrid rival, the 2012 BMW ActiveHybrid 5 (Base MSRP: $60,950).

"The M35h's electrically enhanced potency is irresistible," says Jason Kavanagh at Edmunds Inside Line, where it beats the diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz E350 Bluetec (Base MSRP: $51,690) in a battle of the luxury fuel-sippers. It's a top hybrid pick at Cars.com, Kiplinger.com and CNET and Edmunds.com, too, which calls the M35h "a wonderful combination of green and go." It matches the V8-powered 2012 Infiniti M56 (Base MSRP: $58,450) for speed at a lower price, plus 10 extra mpg. However, the Infiniti M35h comes equipped like the V6-powered 2012 Infiniti M37 (Base MSRP: $47,700), which experts calculate makes more financial sense than the hybrid.

Experts recommend the Infiniti M35h more often and more enthusiastically than any other luxury hybrid -- and it costs about half as much as some of its rivals. Models like the 2012 BMW ActiveHybrid 7 (Base MSRP: $97,000 to $101,000), the 2012 Porsche Panamera S Hybrid (Base MSRP: $95,000), the 2012 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid (Base MSRP: $91,850) and the 2012 Lexus LS 600h L (Base MSRP: $112,750) are all flagship hybrid super-sedans with price tags to match. These hybrid cars are meant to appeal to the money-is-no-object crowd, so their hybrid powertrains strive for extra power, not fuel economy.

Entry-lux hybrids aren't nearly as lavish or sporty -- or pricey. The 2012 Lexus CT 200h (Base MSRP: $29,120 to $31,750) is critics' favorite entry-lux hybrid. It packs the miserly, reliable Toyota Prius powertrain into a compact premium hatchback with a plush cabin. It handles  sportier than a Prius, although just as slow, and not as fuel-efficient (42 mpg versus 50 mpg for the Prius) -- but it "helps that it's the cheapest way to park an L-badge in your driveway," Autoblog.com's Chris Paukert says.

Reviews say Lincoln's entry-luxury hybrid sedan, the 2012 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid (Base MSRP: $34,755), is basically just a rebadged Ford Fusion Hybrid with a slightly nicer cabin and a much steeper sticker, and they don't recommend it. Like the Fusion, an all-new MKZ Hybrid arrives for 2013.

Because of the higher prices of luxury hybrids, they don't represent the best options for consumers looking to save money with hybrid ownership. In many cases, though, they do get better mileage and pollute less, making them a good option for those planning to buy a luxury car while also minimizing their environmental impact.

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