Hybrids/EVs

Hybrid/EV buying guide

Last updated: February 2016

Getting started

The era of the electrified car has arrived. Fluctuations in gas prices can often shift consumers' priorities to focus on operating costs, while federal regulations are requiring progressive increases fuel economy for new vehicles, encouraging the development of thrifty cars and alternative powertrains. As a result, hybrid, plug-in, and pure- electric cars are showing up in almost all vehicle categories, cutting energy costs and reducing petroleum consumption.

The wide variety of technologies they employ can make it challenging for car shoppers to understand the benefits of one model over another. In this buying guide, we'll explain how these technologies work and provide the insights necessary to choose the most efficient model that will meet your needs and environmental goals.

Why buy a hybrid or electric car?

Electric motors are about three times as efficient as gasoline engines “ that is, they use 1/3 as much energy to do the same work. But gasoline contains much more energy in a given volume, and much more cheaply than batteries or other electric storage solutions. So by combining a gasoline engine, electric motor, and battery pack, hybrids can use electricity when it's most efficient without giving up the practicality of gas engines. That can give hybrids about 30 percent better gas mileage than equivalent conventional cars. Most hybrids cost a little more, but many can make up the difference in fuel savings in just a few years, depending on gasoline prices.

Hybrid SUVs can maintain good towing and hauling capacity, and can be particularly good choices for saving fuel. Since larger vehicles burn more gas, the 30-percent reduction in fuel consumption we've seen from some hybrid SUVs amounts to many more gallons than you could save by buying a small hybrid over a conventional economy car.

If you want to avoid using gasoline at all, electric cars can dramatically reduce running costs. We've found the Nissan Leaf, the first mass-produced all-electric car on the market, costs as little as 3.5 cents a mile to run at national average electric rates. And that electricity is produced from domestic sources, reducing our national dependence on foreign oil. Most electric cars today are sold in California, a state that gives automakers incentives to sell them. There, most electricity comes from relatively clean natural gas. The federal government, California, and some other states also offer additional incentives to electric car buyers, such as direct rebates or tax credits.

What you need to know

Hybrids: Hybrid technology comes in many forms, and not all hybrids are ultra efficient. Our data show that full-hybrids (those capable of driving on electric power alone for at least short distances) yield the biggest improvements in fuel economy.

All that technology comes at a price, though. Hybrids usually cost more than comparable conventional cars, although the cost difference is often not prohibitive and in many cases the expenditure is offset by energy savings. The Toyota Prius, for example, starts at about $25,000. For the space and features it offers, it costs about $3,000 more than an average compact sedan. With a very efficient car like the Prius, and one in high demand on the resale market, you can come out ahead financially over a short ownership period.

But some other hybrids come with lots of extra luxury features and sometimes a fancy nameplate that don't contribute to fuel economy, but do add significantly to the price. If you pay more than about $5,000 above the cost of an equivalent conventional vehicle, it will be hard to save enough fuel to recoup the extra costs, even at high gas prices.

Hybrids' main competition comes from diesel, which gets similar mileage improvements at a similar cost, albeit often with costlier fuel. Note that diesel-powered Volkswagens are under investigation by the EPA for not complying with emissions regulations.

Electric cars: Electric cars are very efficient, but can travel only short distances before their battery has to be recharged, a process that can take several hours. Electric vehicles (EVs) today cost thousands more than conventional cars, although much of that expense is offset by federal and state tax rebates, and automaker incentives.

The selection is limited, and many electric cars are sold only in certain regions of the country, so where you live may well determine what type of electric car you buy. Different regions of the country are also better suited to using electric cars. Some have more services available within electric cars' short range and more favorable electric rates. And some areas have cleaner electric power generation than others. (If environmental factors are a motivator, consider that trading a gasoline-hybrid for an electric car may negate some green benefits if your local electricity is generated by coal.)

What you'll spend

The cheapest hybrid today is the Toyota Prius C. Starting at near $20,000, the Prius C has several notable compromises, including a hard ride, unresponsive acceleration, loud engine noise, and a very basic interior. Other choices exist in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, from the ultra-efficient Prius to hybrid versions of popular family sedans, such as the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, and Toyota Camry

The most expensive hybrid SUVs run from $50,000 to $65,000 and include abundant luxuries along with powerful hybrid powertrains. Ultra-luxury sedans, such as and the Lexus LS 600h and the BMW 7 Series ActiveHybrid, range from about $80,000 to more than $110,000. New hybrid and electric luxury cars are also arriving from startup automakers, including Tesla, with its all-electric Model S starting at about $68,000.

In the near future, more hybrid and electric choices are expected, in a wide range of body styles and prices.

Types

Hybrid and electric cars come in a variety of types, with differing body styles and powertrain configurations. We'll run through the most common variations here, helping you to better understand the diverse marketplace.

Hybrid cars


You can find hybrid cars in several bodystyles, including hatchbacks, family sedans, luxury sedans, and sporty coupes. They also come with a wide variety of powertrains, including mild hybrids, full hybrids, extended-range electrics, and pure-electric vehicles. The Toyota Prius is the most popular hybrid, but family sedans, such as the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid, are also efficient cars that can satisfy the needs of many drivers.

Hybrid SUVs


Hybrid SUVs can actually save more gas than hybrid economy cars, when compared to similar conventional alternatives. Even with fairly modest fuel economy numbers (25 mpg for the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, for example), their total fuel savings over traditional SUVs are greater than super-economical hybrids are over cars that are already pretty efficient. The Highlander Hybrid, for example, gets better mileage than some conventional sedans, while it seats seven, has a roomy cargo hold, and all-wheel-drive. It isn't just a good hybrid, it is one of our top-rated SUV. Hybrid SUVs are available in a wide variety, from the little Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid to the luxurious Lexus RX 450h. Hybrid SUVs suit a wide variety of family needs, including moderate towing, but they all have high purchase prices.

Hybrid technologies

Hybrids combine the power of a gasoline engine with an electric motor and batteries in a variety of ways, some more efficient than others. The hybrids with the best gas mileage tend to be full hybrids. Newer, plug-in hybrids allow you to burn even less gas by running exclusively as electric cars for some distance. There are several significant variations that we'll explain in detail.

Parallel vs. series hybrids


Most full hybrids use a parallel design in which either the gas engine or the electric motor alone can drive the wheels, or they can work in unison. Hybrids can also have a series configuration, in which primarily the electric motor drives the wheels, although the gas engine may generate electricity for the motor or provide power directly as needed.

Full hybrids vs. mild hybrids


Full hybrids can run for a limited time on electricity alone, and they use the gas engine to travel longer distances and/or at higher speeds. Examples include the Ford and Toyota systems. Mild hybrids are the opposite of series hybrids: Only the gas engine turns the wheels and the electric motor's role is limited to boosting power to take some load off the gas engine and improve fuel economy. Only full hybrids can be designed to plug in and act as full electric cars.

Plug-in hybrids

Plug-in hybrids can (and should) be charged from the wall to work as electric cars some of the time. They normally use their electric range of 15 or 40 miles up front and then switch to normal hybrid operation whether they happen to be a parallel or series hybrid design.

Plug-in hybrids allow you to recharge the batteries and maximize electricity use, running solely on electricity until the battery charge runs down. (Chevrolet would like us to call the Volt an œextended-range electric vehicle." That's accurate enough, but what it means is that the Volt fits in the category of a plug-in series hybrid, along with the Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid.) Should your trips, or commute, be within the electric-only range, plug-ins can provide the benefits of a pure electric car, while having the engine available for longer trips without worries about getting stranded.

Full electric


A new wave of pure-electric cars is charging into selected markets for the first time since the 1910s, including the Chevrolet Spark EV, Ford C-Max EV, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla S sedan. Studies show that most drivers travel less than 40 miles a day, making even a short-range electric car capable enough for most urban dwellers or families in need of a second car. Finite battery storage and long recharge times, however, limit their appeal for many. Most EVs have a real-world range of 60 to 100 miles, though the range depends heavily on driving style and speed. (Unlike gasoline cars, EVs get better range in stop-and-go traffic than on fast highway runs.) On the high end of the range, the $95,000 Tesla S P90D has an EPA-estimated 270-mile-mile range. However, lower-cost, long-range EVs may be just over the horizon: GM says its Chevrolet Bolt (not to be confused with the Volt) will have a 200-mile range and a $30,000 price tag; it will go into production in the fall of 2016.

Even long battery charge times are starting to come down, though the quickest-to-charge full electrics still need about 3-1/2 hours to recharge fully using a 240V charger. Some EVs have quick-charging capability that allows a nearly empty battery to be charged to 80 percent or so of its capacity in 30 minutes or less using a special 480-volt charger. However, this sort of charging is rough on the battery and most EV manufacturers only recommend quick charging in a pinch.

Fuel cells


A fuel-cell car is an electric car that produces its electricity on board. Fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen (the most abundant chemical element on Earth) through an electrochemical reaction whose only major byproduct is water. But the cars require pure hydrogen, which does not occur naturally. Hydrogen is almost always bound up in minerals, hydrocarbons, or water and has to be extracted. One option is taking electricity from a nonpolluting source such as solar, wind, or hydropower and using it to split water into its hydrogen and oxygen components. The problem here is that it takes more electricity to make the hydrogen than the hydrogen generates in a fuel cell.

Another problem is that hydrogen gas carries very little energy per cubic foot, so it has to be stored in a car at very high pressures up to 10,000 psi.

Several automakers, including Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda, have rolled out fuel-cell cars to the public in California in 2015. These are essentially electric cars with a range of 200 to 300 miles per refill and relatively short refill times of five to 10 minutes. We have driven many of these cars and found them seamless and pleasant to drive, typically with punchy and silent acceleration off the line. But as nice as the cars are, widespread use of fuel cells remains a long way off. Challenges to producing and distributing hydrogen in large quantities are enormous, and no companies have yet committed to developing such a large new infrastructure nationwide.

Features


Hybrids and electric cars, for the most part, offer all the same features as other types of cars. Some offer more advanced trip computers to help drivers achieve the best efficiency. And fewer are available with sunroofs, which add weight and expend fuel. Many also forgo leather interiors in favor of more sustainable or renewable fabrics.

Engines and fuel economy

Most hybrid cars use small, four-cylinder gas engines that are more efficient than larger V6s and V8s. Some hybrid SUVs such as the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, come with a quick, smooth V6, while the Volvo XC90 T8 uses a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. And some used hybrid SUVs, such as the used Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, even have V8 engines capable of towing.

Many hybrids come with some sort of continuously variable transmission (CVT), either a conventional belt-type CVT or a planetary gear set with infinitely variable ratios in a virtually wear-free design. Other hybrids use a conventional automatic transmissions with the electric motor mounted in the transmission itself. The Honda Accord Hybrid powers its wheels primarily by electric motor using electricity from both the battery and the engine-driven generator, with the gasoline engine driving the wheels directly at steady highway speeds.

Drive wheels

Most small-car hybrids are front-wheel drive, while hybrid SUVs can be front, rear, or all-wheel drive. Unlike traditional AWD vehicles that compromise fuel economy, hybrid AWD vehicles can often avoid such a penalty by using electricity to drive those extra wheels. All-wheel-drive versions of the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX 450h, and Volvo XC90 power the rear wheels via an extra electric motor on the rear axle. This system is light, simple, and efficient, and we've found it works well enough. Other all-wheel drive hybrid SUVs, such as the Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid and used Ford Escape Hybrids, employ conventional mechanical all-wheel-drive systems.

Batteries

Conventional nickel-metal-hydride batteries are quickly being replaced by lithium-ion batteries, which are smaller and lighter for better efficiency. Lithium-ion batteries also come in several varieties. Some variations are more stable and have less power. Others have more power, but require more robust external systems to guard against fire and prolong their life. So far, the question of which systems work best in cars has not played out.

Nickel-metal-hydride batteries typically have very good reliability in our Annual Auto Survey. Lithium-ion batteries are too new to have a proven track record. Automakers are required to warranty the batteries on any hybrid as an emissions control part for eight years and 80,000 miles in most states. In 15 states, they're required to warranty them for 10 years or 150,000 miles, so the automakers have a real interest in making them durable. Outside the warranty period, nickel-metal-hydride battery replacements can run as much as $3,000, but reliable used battery packs are available for a few hundred dollars, and replacements have been relatively rare. Also, unlike in gas-powered cars, transmission replacements in many common hybrids are almost unheard of.

Electric-car chargers

Car charging consists of an on-board charger that is part of the car and an external wall charger, officially known as an EVSE (for electric vehicle supply equipment). The EVSE is an additional cost above and beyond the vehicle, and the expense varies as it usually includes some type of installation. The onboard inverter and EVSE can make a big difference in how long it takes to charge an electric car or plug-in hybrid. In our tests, we refer to EVSEs as œchargers" or œwall chargers," using familiar terminology, because that's what consumers generally call them and because the operation of the onboard inverter is hidden in the car.

The first wave of modern electric cars used a 3.3-kW inverter that could fully charge an electric car in about eight hours with a 240-volt EVSE. Newer models come with a 6.6-kW inverter that can cut that time in half. Be sure to check the specs: The entry-level Nissan Leaf, for example, comes with a 3.3-kW inverter, while higher-spec models get a 6.6-kW inverter. Most EVs can be plugged into a 120-volt household electrical outlet using a supplied extension cord. But on a standard outlet, it will take at least 16 hours to fully charge a pure-electric car.

Plugged into ownership

Buyers of an electric car will definitely want to purchase an EVSE (also known as a Level 2 charging station) that can supply 240 volts of power to the car for faster charging. The EVSE ensures power is cut off to the plug when it's not connected and will prevent the in-car charger from overheating, and it will shut off once the batteries are full. More advanced models can connect to the Internet, allowing owners to monitor how much electricity has flowed into the car and receive notice when the battery is full or the car has stopped charging. EVSEs cost between $500 and $2,000, depending on their amperage, extra features, and whether or not they have their own wall plug. We recommend models that have a separate plug to connect to a 230-volt household clothes dryer or oven outlet, as they can be moved more easily than a hardwired unit. Installation of either a hardwired EVSE or a 230-volt outlet requires a licensed electrician and usually a permit. Installation costs can run up to $2,000, depending on whether your house has enough power and how far the unit needs to be from your electrical panel. Some states, municipalities, and power companies have incentive programs to offset the cost of buying and installing an EVSE.

Plug-in hybrid owners may be able to fully charge their cars in a little over eight hours even on a standard household outlet. But installing a 240-volt EVSE can cut their charge times in half, too.

Many EVs offer quick charging using 480-volt Level 3 charging stations, which can charge a nearly-drained battery to about 80 percent of its capacity in around half an hour. EV manufacturers only recommend occasional quick charging, as it can potentially shorten battery life. Unlike Level 2 charging stations, there is no standard for Level 3 plugs; most Asian EVs use the CHAdeMO connector while German and American EVs use the SAE Combo plug, and Tesla has its own proprietary Level 3 connector. Level 3 charging stations are most commonly found at dealerships and public parking lots, and they are generally available on a pay-per-use basis. In Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power has set up a network of free CHAdeMO stations.

Apps

Several manufacturers of electric and plug-in cars have developed smart-phone applications that allow you to do everything from locating your car and unlocking the doors to preprogramming charge times and monitoring the batteries' state of charge. You can even play games via social media to compete for who can use the least electricity. Preprogramming charge times is helpful in areas where utilities offer discounted electric rates during œoff-peak" times, such as late at night. Most EV apps will also allow you to turn set a time for the car to begin heating or cooling the cabin, before you arrive to unplug it. That way, the car can run the climate control system off household electricity, so you won't waste battery power getting the cabin comfortable, which our tests show can severely reduce range.

Cargo space

Hybrid batteries and their attendant cooling systems often compromise cargo space in smaller hybrids and electrics. Some hybrid trunks sacrifice space to the back, cargo floor, and even around the sides. Many hybrid sedans don't have folding rear seats or a pass-through for longer items, even if the conventional sedans they're based on do. Hatchbacks and SUVs can have higher cargo floors than other non-hybrids, and many have no spare tire, depending instead on run-flats or tire inflation kits to make space for the batteries.

Towing

Towing is not hybrids' forte. Towing capacities are usually less than equivalent conventional models. Car-based hybrid SUVs can generally tow up to 3,500 pounds “ plenty for a small boat or a very small camper. Some used large hybrid SUVs and pickups can tow 6,000 pounds, or enough for a medium-sized boat, largish camper, or large utility trailer.

Safety features

As with any car, all hybrids now have head-protecting side-curtain air bags and electronic stability control, two of the most important modern safety advances. These air bags are designed to keep passengers inside during a rollover.

Rearview cameras have become commonplace, supplementing parking alert systems, which warn the driver with an audible signal and visual cue when the rear bumper is near a solid object, such as a parked car or a signpost. That's a good thing, because some popular hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda CR-Z have horizontal bars bisecting the rear windows, which makes it tough to see out the back. The CR-Z has significant blind zones to the rear corners, too. Consumer Reports has found in testing that backup cameras work much better than audible backup sensors for detecting people walking or moving behind the car.

Many hybrids also offer the latest active safety systems, such as forward collision warning and braking, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert as optional equipment.

Consumer Reports' safety ratings include assessments of crash-avoidance capabilities and crash-test results, based on tests performed by the federal government and insurance industry. Further, road tests detail issues regarding child seat installation and the adequacy of front and rear head restraints. (Learn more about car safety.)

Emerging safety technologies

The latest automotive safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an air bag deploys, forward collision intervention systems that apply the brakes before a crash if the driver isn't paying attention, lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, rearview cameras to prevent back-over accidents, and blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear of you. These are available in several hybrid luxury cars and SUVs, as well as some more prosaic hybrids. (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and convenience

Most hybrids come with the latest mobile electronics that enable cars to deliver cell-phone connectivity, along with navigation guidance. These include:

Bluetooth cell-phone connections, which enable smartphones to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient hands-free phone operation, as well as playback of music stored on the phone. Many infotainment systems can stream Internet-sourced audio to the car using apps such as Aha and Pandora.

In-car navigation systems are a great feature if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for $750 to $1,500 when offered alone, but nav systems are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system, that can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens mounted in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and most systems use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus. Most respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a subscription fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But small portable GPS units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigators.)

Satellite radio, a subscription-only service that offers a selection of channels that cater to a variety of musical and information interests, much like cable TV. Most vehicles offer satellite radio readiness in some audio systems. There is also a wide range of information and entertainment features available from the factory and through the aftermarket.

Telematics systems, such as GM's OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, additional concierge services can provide directions or summon emergency aid based on your vehicle's location.

Brands


New vs. Used

If you're considering whether to buy a new or used hybrid, there are several factors to consider. The most important may be obsolescence. Hybrid technology is moving at almost personal-electronics speed. New hybrids have better batteries that offer a bigger fuel economy benefit. They also typically have the latest cutting-edge navigation systems, audio, and phone technology, because hybrid buyers tend to be early adopters who want the latest, greatest tech. That may make older hybrids a harder sell, especially when gas prices plummet.

With a new hybrid, you know what you're getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don't have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback with buying new is rapid depreciation. Even when hybrids have lower average depreciation rates than most conventional cars (as they historically have, especially when gas prices are high), depreciation can account for almost half the car's value in five years. If you have only made a low down payment, you can easily find yourself upside down on the loan, where you owe more than the car is worth.

Reliable used hybrids can be a welcome alternative

The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there's plenty of choice out there. One of the best strategies is to find a hybrid you like that's only a couple of years old. Such a hybrid has already taken its biggest depreciation hit, which works to your advantage, but it should still have most of its useful life ahead of it. Modern hybrids, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer.

The key to selecting a good used hybrid is to focus on reliability, even when a prospect is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for a hybrid that's done well in our Reliability ratings. Ford, Lexus, and Toyota hybrids have been stars in our reliability ratings for several years.

Many consumers considering a used hybrid may be concerned about the durability of the cars' expensive battery packs, especially in used models. In our Annual Auto Survey, readers told us that hybrid batteries have had very good reliability. So that shouldn't necessarily put you off of buying a used hybrid. But some have been more reliable than others.

Most hybrids today use proven nickel-metal-hydride batteries, which have very good durability in our survey. Automakers are required to warranty the batteries as an emissions control part in most states for eight years and 80,000 miles. In 15 states, they're required to warranty them for 10 years or 150,000 miles. Outside the warranty period, new nickel-metal-hydride battery replacements can run about $3,000, although used battery packs are readily available for a few hundred dollars.

When it comes to pure electric cars, the benefits of buying new are similar to hybrids, particularly with regards to getting the latest battery and charger technology. Buying a new EV entitles you to significant tax benefits, including a Federal tax credit of up to $7,500, that are not available to buyers of used EVs. But don't rule out buying used: The rapid depreciation of EVs will likely more than make up for the potential tax savings. And unlike hybrids, EVs are extraordinarily simple from a mechanical perspective, which means there's little to go wrong. The primary area of concern is the battery.

As with hybrid batteries, EV batteries do lose charge capacity over time, and since the battery is the sole source of propulsion power, this is a more significant concern with EVs than with hybrids. How much battery degradation can you expect? Nissan's warranty dictates replacement of the Leaf's battery if it loses more than 25 percent of its charge capacity before 5 years or 60,000 miles, which means that its range would be allowed to drop as low as 55 miles. Mitsubishi guarantees the i-MiEV's battery to retain 70 percent of its capacity for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Replacing the battery on a Nissan Leaf costs approximately $6,000 to $6,500 including parts and labor (significantly lower than other EVs, where the battery alone can cost over $10,000), and upgrades the car to the latest battery technology. That said, we have not seen significant battery problems in our survey.

Learn more in our new and used car buying guides.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

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