Buying Guide

How to buy the best hybrid

Need a little more electricity in your life, but aren't ready for an EV? You've got options.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET
Hybrids

Top picks

Best of the best: 2016 Toyota Prius

It was Toyota that brought hybrids into the mainstream and its cars continue to define the class and serve as the high water mark. The all-new 2016 Prius liftback continues this tradition with an amazing EPA-estimated 58 city mpg and 56 combined mpg. Bizarre styling aside, it's the total package.

Mid-size hybrid sedan: 2016 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

For the 2016 model year, the all-new Chevy Malibu's electrified option transforms from mild e-assist to a full hybrid system. GM has beat its very strong competitors at the fuel economy game while also bringing to the table Camaro-inspired style and a bevy of new driver aids and safety tech.

Plug-in hybrid: 2016 Chevrolet Volt

For some odd reason, GM has decided that it's better to market the Chevrolet Volt as a mediocre electric car rather than what it really is: the best plug-in hybrid on the market. Where most PHEVs boast about 10 or 20 miles of electric range, the 2016 Volt silently glides for an estimated 53 miles before its gasoline motor awakens.

Luxury hybrid: Mercedes-Benz S-Class Hybrid (S550e)

The S550e is a tech flagship that takes an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to Benz's massive arsenal of performance, driver aid and comfort tech features. More impressive is that the plug-in comes in at the same approximately $95,000 base price as the non-hybrid S550 and offers a similar level of performance. There's almost no reason to not choose the hybrid.

Hybrid crossover or SUV: Toyota Highlander Hybrid

The large, 7-passenger Highlander is a solid choice for growing families and the more efficient hybrid model is even more economical. The 28 mpg Toyota Highlander Hybrid is 40-50 percent more efficient than the non-hybrid model's combined and city mpg estimates.

Hybrids, defined

Basically, a hybrid vehicle melds a combination of two different power sources into a single powertrain -- one to provide primary motivation and a secondary system that recaptures and stores waste energy for redistribution during inefficient maneuvers. In the broadest sense, a hybrid powertrain can combine gasoline or diesel internal combustion engines (ICE) with electric, mechanical, or even hydraulic assist. However, the vast and overwhelming majority of "hybrid" cars on the road (and the primary focus of this buying guide) are gasoline-electric hybrids.

Here's how most hybrids work: An electric motor and battery pack are integrated into the powertrain, boosting torque at low, city speeds and in stop and go traffic--situations where ICEs are typically at their least efficient. When it's time to stop, that same electric motor starts to act as a generator, adding drag to the wheels and slowing the car, but instead of wasting that kinetic energy to heat like conventional friction brakes do, this "regenerative braking" is able to store some of it as electricity in the onboard battery pack. And then next time the hybrid needs to accelerate, it can draw again upon this stored energy.

    No electric motor-generator is 100% efficient, meaning you'll lose some energy on each charge and discharge cycle, so nearly all hybrid systems are also able to recharge their battery packs with surplus energy from the ICE. For example, a gasoline engine may supply more power than needed to maintain a cruising speed on the highway, so the motor-generator can engage to capture this surplus energy for use at slower speeds.

    Most hybrids can store enough energy to operate solely on electric power for short distances at limited speeds, but most of their battery packs are too small for more than a few miles at best.

    Cost versus economy

    The whole point of this additional powertrain complexity is to improve efficiency, usually measured as a boost in fuel economy. So generally speaking, the higher the MPG, the better the hybrid is at... well, hybriding.

    Many hybrids are electrified versions of conventional ICE models, which makes computing the value added fairly easy, but not exactly that simple. Let's take the Toyota Avalon and Subaru XV Crosstrek hybrids as good and poor examples. Prepare yourself for a bit of math.

    The 2015 Toyota Avalon Hybrid's 40 combined mpg is about 66% higher than the conventional Avalon's 24 mpg combined, which is a considerable jump in fuel efficiency. (The boost is even better for drivers who plan to do most of their driving in stop-and-go traffic; the Hybrid's 40 mpg city estimate is 90% better than the conventional model, all for a mere 13% bump to the sticker price.

      Doing the same math for the Subaru, we get only a 9% bump in combined efficiency for a 20% price hike.

      But we don't drive percentages; we drive miles, so let's look at the math in another, more precise, way. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the average driver will spend $750 annually filling up an Avalon Hybrid versus $1,300 annually for the standard model. (These guesses are based on 15,000 annual miles driven with a 45% highway and 55% city driving split at December 2015 fuel prices.) With a $4,185 difference in sticker price, the hybrid upgrade will take about 7.5 years to pay for itself.

      So, if you're planning on keeping your new Avalon for more than 8 years, it's probably worth grabbing the hybrid upgrade, especially if gas prices increase. Doing the same math for the Crosstrek, we estimate that it'll take 25 years to break even on the mild hybrid upgrade. Most American families keep a car for about 10 years before moving on, so it's likely not worth the extra dough.

      Of course, your mileage may (and will certainly) vary, so you'll want to do your own math. Fortunately, the EPA's fueleconomy.gov website has tools that will help you make more precise comparisons based on your personal mileage estimates and splits and local fuel prices.

      It's not all just numbers. Hybrid models sometimes offer other perks. Sport hybrids, for example, may use the electric motor to provide a performance boost, so measuring success requires different, more visceral metrics. Big luxury hybrids may use the electric motor to provide a quieter ride at civilized speeds and to even out acceleration and only have a minimal impact on efficiency. And some automakers position their hybrid models as flagships, fully-loaded variants that pack in tons of amenities, features, bells and whistles -- these models are rolling tech showcases.

      Plug it in, plug it in

      The basic formula for a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) is a simple one: take a hybrid model and add a charging port that allows the battery pack to be refilled by the power grid. In practice, most plug-in hybrids also have more battery capacity than their self-contained counterparts and significantly revised software that allows the vehicle to take better advantage of the larger electric reservoir. In some cases, the electric mot0r-generator is also upgraded to cope with its enhanced motivational role.

      Plug-in hybrids have the advantage of being able to cruise on purely electric power for longer distances and at higher speeds. They can be more cavalier with their electric assist and, as a result, often boast significantly higher fuel economy than non-plugged models. However, the addition of purely electric range does complicate things.

      For example, a Ford C-Max Energi PHEV can drive for about 20 miles on purely electric power. So, if the vast majority of your trips are around that mark or you have access to charging ports at home and work, the Energi's 88 mpge -- miles per gallon equivalent: a measure of energy efficiency relative to the gasoline standard -- is more than double the hybrid's 40 mpg! However, the C-Max Energi's estimate drops to 38 mpg beyond the initial 20 miles, so if you're the sort that takes longer trips or plugs in infrequently, there's less incentive to pay $7,600 more for the plug-in.

      In nearly all cases, the initial 10, 20 or more miles of gasoline free driving will make PHEVs more fuel efficient overall than conventional hybrids. However, with plug-ins, it's much more important that you take into account your driving and even parking habits, because not only will your mileage vary, it may vary wildly.

      Connected tech

      It's important that plug-in hybrids are plugged in regularly for maximum efficiency, so like fully electric vehicles, PHEVs usually roll off of the lot with some sort of connected tech. Most of the time, this manifests as a smartphone app that puts remote vehicle monitoring at the driver's fingertips and as an always-on data connection in the car to send that info to the cloud.

      The best PHEVs will allow the driver to remotely monitor the battery's state and capacity, so you'll get a notification if your car is prematurely unplugged. You'll also likely be able to locate charging stations at or near a destination, and affect charging behaviors remotely to, for example, schedule charging to take best advantage of utility rates. Connected PHEVs can also pull off some neat tricks when plugged in, such as scheduled cooling the cabin before your afternoon commute using plug power to reduce fuel wasted running the air conditioner on the road.

      Practical picks

      2016 Toyota Prius

      The Toyota Prius continues to set the standard for hybrid vehicles.

      Wayne Cunningham/CNET

      In many ways, Toyota perfected the idea of what a hybrid is and its cars continue to define the class and serve as the high watermark. The all-new 2016 Prius liftback and the redundantly named Prius Eco continue this tradition. The latter gets an amazing EPA-estimated 58 mpg city and 56 mpg combined thanks to its lithium-ion battery pack and is even more pleasurable to drive than the previous generation. Bizarre styling aside, it's the total package starting at a reasonable $24,200 and topping out at $30,000.

      The Prius may be the midsize hybrid king, but it may not be for much longer with the launch of the 2017 Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid. Hitting the road this year alongside the Ioniq Electric and Plug-in models, the Ioniq Hybrid received a Prius-beating 58 combined mpg estimate in its thriftiest Blue trim level. The Ioniq also boasts a lower starting price, further boosting its value. Our initial impressions have been very positive and, when we can independently confirm the economy estimates, we may be looking at a new top pick.

      Stepping up in scale, the all-new Chevy Malibu Hybrid's electrified option transforms from mild assist to a full hybrid system based on General Motors' Voltec powertrain platform. One of the newest kids on the midsize hybrid block, we're only just getting to know this Malibu, but with GM-estimated fuel ratings of 48 mpg in the city, 45 mpg on the highway and 47 mpg combined, our first impression is a very good one.

      With the 2016 Malibu, GM has managed to beat the Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion hybrids -- all very strong competitors, each recommendable -- at the fuel economy game while also bringing to the table slick Camaro-inspired style, smooth performance and a bevy of new driver aids along with safety tech.

      Plug-in picks

      2017chryslerpacificahybrid-003.jpg

      The Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid is the most fuel-efficient minivan ever.

      Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

      For some odd reason, GM has decided that it's better to market the Chevrolet Volt as a mediocre electric car rather than what it really is: the best plug-in hybrid on the market. Where most PHEVs boast about 10 or 20 miles of electric range, the 2016 Volt silently and confidently glides emissions-free for an estimated 53 miles before its gasoline motor awakens -- easily besting the 25-mile electric range of the plug-in Prius Prime.

      Compared to the first generation model, the new Volt improves its electric motor, its gasoline range extender and its battery pack's capacity. The exterior and interior design, as well as the MyLink connected cabin tech, also make quantum leaps forward for this generation.

      A honorable mention goes to the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. It's the most fuel-efficient minivan ever, but its up to 30 miles of pure electric range and 80 mpge combined economy estimates are impressive regardless of its class. And wrapped around that excellent plug-in hybrid powertrain is easily one of the best, most thoughtfully designed minivans we've tested.

      Luxury picks

      2015 BMW i8

      Luxury features don't come cheap.

      Josh Miller/CNET

      Big luxury sedans are status symbols and largely emotional (or egotistical) purchases, so prepare to toss a lot of that math we did earlier out of the window in the face of plush leather and wood. The previous front runner in this class, the Lexus LS 600h L, is the least efficient hybrid model on the market at just 20 combined mpg -- a mere 2 mpg better than the non-hybrid LS -- but it's spacious, powerful and packs in every tech trick in Toyota's bag.

      Viewed in this light, the Mercedes-Benz S550e plug-in hybrid's 14 miles of electric range and 6 combined mpg boost to bottom line looks pretty good. Like the Lexus, the S550e is a tech flagship that takes an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to Benz's massive arsenal of performance, driver aid and comfort tech features. More impressive is that the plug-in comes in at the same approximately $95,000 base price as the non-hybrid S550 and offers a similar level of performance. There's almost no reason to not choose the hybrid.

      Looking for something a bit more... exotic? BMW's i8 is unlike anything else on the road with its composite construction, futuristic design and plug-in hybrid powertrain that delivers up 15 miles of electric range and a thrilling ride beyond.

      Crossover and SUV picks

      2016volvoxc90t6-7.jpg

      There are only a handful of hybrid SUVs out there.

      Antuan Goodwin/CNET

      In the early days of hybridization, there were plenty of hybrid SUVs to choose from. But most were only able to deliver minimal efficiency gains through their expensive hybrid upgrades and quickly withdrew from the market. These days, only a handful of hybrid SUVs and CUVs remain.

      The Toyota Highlander Hybrid got our thumbs up as the top hybrid SUV pick. With space for 7, it is a solid choice for growing families and the more efficient hybrid model is even more economical. The 28 mpg hybrid is an impressive 40-50 percent more efficient than the non-hybrid model's mpg estimates, which should save the average family about $440 per year in fuel costs, which should help justify its $3,000 premium over the standard Highlander.

      Elsewhere in Toyota's family tree, the Lexus NX 300h and RX 450h are even more efficient at 35 and 31 city mpg, respectively. Though smaller than the Highlander, the Lexus models over a much higher level of luxury and amenities.

      However, the apex hybrid SUV is the 2016 Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine. Starting at just over $68,000, this Swedish 7-seater boasts a powerful 400 horsepower, plug-in hybrid powertrain that boasts 16 miles of electric range and one of the most luxurious, well-appointed cabins on the road today. The XC90 T8 so new that even the EPA hasn't gotten around to rating it yet, but expect an average of around 59 mpg when it does.

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