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In this report

Sizing up reviews for hybrid and electric cars

Hybrid cars come in all shapes and sizes, including everything from two-seat sporty hatchbacks to full-size hybrid SUVs. This ConsumerSearch report covers hybrid hatchbacks and sedans, while a separate report covers hybrid SUVs and crossovers. Hybrid pickups are covered in our report on pickup trucks.

Green cars are getting greener, with a bunch of plug-in cars hitting the streets this year. The 2012 Nissan Leaf (Base MSRP: $35,200 to $37,250) is no longer the only all-electric game in town, now that the 2012 Ford Focus Electric (Base MSRP: $39,200) and 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV (Base MSRP: $29,125 to $31,125) have arrived in dealerships. The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in (Base MSRP: $32,000 to $39,525) packs both a plug-in battery and a regular hybrid gas engine, so you get the best of both worlds -- similar to the 2012 Chevrolet Volt (Base MSRP: $39,145), which hit the market last year. (How does electricity from power plants stack up against gas engines, pollution-wise? See our Plug-in Cars page for the answer.)

On the regular-hybrid front, two more new Priuses are the big news. The 2012 Toyota Prius v (Base MSRP: $26,550 to $30,140)) loads the lauded Prius powertrain into a useful wagon body, and the 2012 Toyota Prius c (Base MSRP: $18,950 to $23,230) offers a smaller (and cheaper) version of the traditional Prius hatchback. Meanwhile, Toyota has so improved its Camry Hybrid (Base MSRP: $25,990 to $27,500) that it outclasses rival family-sedan hybrids.

Of course, not every rookie gets a standing ovation. ConsumerReports.org bought a $108,000 2012 Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid (Base MSRP: $102,000 to $116,000) -- and immediately, a saga of snafus started.

"With less than 200 miles on the odometer, the car had to be towed to the dealer because it wouldn't go into gear," ConsumerReports.org reported.

Battery problem, Fisker said. Batteries built in a certain Michigan factory are the culprit. Although Fisker says only 1 percent of 2012 Karmas have had the same problem, the battery supplier is replacing all of the batteries built in that same factory.

"But our car isn't trouble-free, even after the repairs," ConsumerReports.org says. "The ESC, ABS, and brake warning lights came on at start-up earlier this week and stayed on for a 15-minute drive; they went away the next day. There is also an intermittent warning tone and light indicating an overheating situation; this warning lamp illuminates, then instantly goes out, signaling that something is amiss." After ConsumerReports.org published its findings, plenty of other owners came forward saying they've had bad Karma, too -- the car wouldn't start, wouldn't go into gear, etc. One said the Karma shut itself off while driving at 35 mpg, leaving the driver with no brakes and impaired steering. Read more about the Fisker Karma in our Plug-in Cars section.

We found plenty of thorough, critical hybrid and electric vehicle (EV) tests by respected sources. Edmunds.com and ConsumerReports.org -- the most revered sources for automotive reviews -- publish detailed reviews of the latest models. ConsumerReports.org also has data that is hard to find elsewhere, including reliability history and owner satisfaction. Both of these sources publish short lists of their top recommended hybrids and EVs.

Enthusiast magazines and websites also post helpful reviews of the latest hybrid cars and EVs, sometimes pitting them against each other head-to-head. Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Autoblog.com, TheTruthAboutCars.com and Edmunds Inside Line are good examples. Inside Line has a long-term car log which has tested several hybrids and EVs for extended periods, showing just how reliable, livable and fuel-efficient they are in the real world. Many sources annually give awards to their favorites, like Cars.com, About.com and ConsumerGuide.com. Sites like Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds.com also have cost-of-ownership information, which can be particularly useful for hybrid-car shoppers trying to determine how much money they'll save in the long run. (See our How To Buy a Hybrid Car page for a section titled "How long does it take to recoup the extra cost of a hybrid car?")

Crash-test scores from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) are crucial to consider as well. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a useful source, too, as it rates the fuel economy of all new cars.

As of this writing, there are no longer any federal tax incentives for buying hybrid vehicles, but plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles do qualify for thousands of dollars' worth of federal and state tax credits. See our Plug-in Cars section for more information.

Hybrid and electric power: the technology and alternatives

The popularity of hybrid and electric cars rises and falls with the price of gasoline, but some people are turning to hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs) as a way to boost fuel economy, cut emissions and demonstrate their respect for the environment. More automakers are developing new hybrid cars and EVs to meet current and future demand. Technology varies and evolves, but the term "hybrid" refers to a vehicle that supplements a gas engine with an electric motor. EVs run on electricity alone.

Hybrid cars burn less gas and emit less pollution than gas-only cars. They use battery packs to store electrical power to ease the load on the gas-burning engine. Three types of hybrid cars are now available: full hybrids, mild hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Full hybrid drivetrains can power a car solely on electrical power, while mild hybrids must always use the gas engine to propel the vehicle. Mild hybrids aren't quite as fuel-efficient as full hybrids, but they are cheaper to produce and can be cheaper to buy. Plug-in hybrids allow you to plug the vehicle in to recharge the battery while the car is parked, allowing for more miles of electricity-powered driving (and better fuel economy).

All hybrid cars will automatically shut off the gas engine under certain conditions, such as when the vehicle comes to a stop.

Plug-in hybrids include the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in and 2012 Chevrolet Volt. Counting both the electricity and gas they burn, plug-ins get better fuel economy than regular hybrids -- for example, the Prius Plug-in gets the equivalent of 95 mpg, if you combine the electricity and gas it uses to drive 100 miles. Full hybrids include all Ford hybrids, the 2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (Base MSRP: $25,850), 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid (Base MSRP: $25,700) and all Toyota/Lexus hybrids -- including the top-selling hybrid car on the market, the Toyota Prius, which delivers an EPA-estimated 50 mpg overall. Mild hybrids include all Honda hybrids and the 2012 Mercedes-Benz S400 (Base MSRP: $91,850).

Electric cars run solely on electricity. To refuel an EV, you have to plug it into an electrical socket. This is the most fuel-efficient choice of all -- the 2012 Nissan Leaf gets the equivalent of 99 mpg, for example -- but public car-charging stations don't yet exist in most places, so you probably won't be able to journey too far from home in an electric car (the Leaf can go about 73 miles on a single charge, the EPA says). The 2012 Ford Focus Electric and 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV likewise run on electricity alone.

Hybrid and electric cars are not the only fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles available, and options for nonhybrid vehicles are better than ever. The newest crop of economy cars, like the 2013 Hyundai Elantra (Base MSRP: $16,695 to $20,945), 2012 Ford Fiesta (Base MSRP: $13,200 to $14,100) and 2012 Hyundai Accent (Base MSRP: $12,545 to $15,895), can't quite match hybrids' mpgs, but they do cost thousands less. Diesel-powered cars deliver smooth power plus excellent gas mileage, but they cost extra, too.

For instance, the 2012 Hyundai Elantra, the Best Reviewed economy car, gets an EPA-estimated 33 mpg overall. The 2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI (Base MSRP: $24,235 to $28,340), a top-rated diesel-powered hatchback, gets an estimated 34 mpg overall. The Fiesta and Accent land in the same ballpark. That's nowhere near the 50-mpg Toyota Prius, but it's not too far off the 37-mpg Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Kia Optima Hybrid.

Still, hybrid and plug-in cars usually pay back their steeper stickers pretty quickly, by saving you money on fuel, depreciation and more. See our Buying Guide section to find out which hybrid and electric cars save the most money over their gas counterparts.

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