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May 2008
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Guide to today’s hybrid cars & SUVs
Recent spikes in gasoline prices have fueled a growing interest in gas-electric hybrid vehicles, which combine most of the environmental benefits of electric cars with no loss of the practicality, size, and performance of conventional, gasoline-powered vehicles.

Hybrids are a byproduct of the intensive push for electric vehicles (EVs) that peaked in the 1990s. Because of a zero-emission mandate by the California Air Resources Board, billions of dollars have been poured into EV technology. Several major automakers released EV models but, while they emitted no emissions, they had limited driving range and needed hours-long recharging. These drawbacks prevented electric cars from gaining widespread consumer acceptance, and all of those models have since been discontinued. Being able to run on gasoline allows hybrids to overcome those limitations.


THE LATEST HYBRID MODELS

Different hybrids are designed to emphasize different performance aspects. Models like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid are tuned for fuel economy, achieving an excellent 44 and 37 mpg overall, respectively, in our tests. The Toyota Camry Hybrid also impresses, with 34 mpg overall, relatively quick acceleration, roomy interior, and luxury amenities. Other models--including the Lexus RX 400h and Toyota Highlander Hybrid--are designed to provide quicker acceleration with only a moderate increase in fuel economy, compared with conventional versions of the same models.

Although hybrids accounted for only 1.26 percent of auto sales in the U.S. last year, it is a growing niche with nearly a dozen more models expected to be introduced in the next few years.

The following hybrid models have been tested by Consumer Reports and are available for purchase. (Road tests are available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers only.)


Small cars


Honda Civic
The Civic is tops in our small sedans category. In our testing the hybrid returned 37 mpg overall. Handling is responsive and secure, and the ride is steady and compliant. Road noise is pronounced, however.



Toyota Prius
The Prius couples a 1.5-liter gasoline engine with an electric motor and automatically switches between them or runs on both as needed. The engine shuts off at idle and runs on electric power at low speeds. We got an excellent 44 mpg overall in our tests.



Family sedans

Chevrolet Malibu
Chevrolet Malibu
The midsized Malibu sedan is offered with a hybrid powertrain that uses the same technology as that in the Saturn Vue Green Line SUV: a compact electric motor coupled to a 170-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. (See Saturn Vue Green Line SUV below.) The hybrid's nickel-metal-hydride battery (NiMH) is recharged by the engine and by regenerative braking. The electric motor provides extra power when accelerating from a standstill, passing, and climbing hills. The engine shuts off when the car is at idle and automatically restarts when the brake pedal is released and the accelerator depressed. EPA ratings are 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway.

This hybrid has not yet been tested by Consumer Reports, but it is available.



Lexus GS450h
The GS450h luxury sedan is the second hybrid model from Lexus and the first rear-wheel-drive hybrid sedan to reach the market. The GS450h emphasizes performance and power rather than fuel economy.. A full hybrid, the GS450h uses a 3.5-liter V6 and single electric motor to generate 339 horsepower. We found the GS hybrid to be disappointing in our tests. Fuel economy is 23 mpg, which is only 1mpg better than the equally fast non-hybrid BMW 535i.



Lexus LS 600h L
Redesigned for 2007, the new Lexus flagship sedan will later be available in hybrid form, teaming a 5.0-liter V8 and two electric motors to produce a combined 430 horsepower. The company claims 0-60 mph acceleration in just five seconds from the new dual-stage hybrid system tuned more for performance than fuel economy. The LS 600h L is also a technology powerhouse, packing optional active steering that can automatically parallel park the car and speed up the power steering ratio in emergency maneuvers.

This hybrid has not yet been tested by Consumer Reports, but it is available.



Nissan Altima
Rather than developing an entirely new hybrid technology, Nissan has licensed Toyota's full-hybrid system to power a hybrid version of its redesigned Altima midsized sedan. The hybrid system is joined with Nissan's 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. Nissan claims that the system is biased toward driving performance rather than maximum fuel economy.



Toyota Camry
The new Camry hybrid is a highly refined family sedan. It has a comfortable and quiet ride. In our testing the Camry returned 34 mpg overall, accelerated to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, and provided luxury amenities at a similar price of a Camry V6.



SUVs


Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon
The full-sized Tahoe and Yukon use a "two-mode" hybrid system that GM co-developed with BMW and DaimlerChrysler. For the large SUVs, the system combines a powerful 300-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and a couple electric motors together with a V8 drivetrain. The two smallish electric motors are easier to package in a vehicle than a single large motor, and the powertrain can call on just one or both motors as needed.

Like all full-hybrid systems, GM's two-mode system can propel an SUV on the battery alone for limited periods at low speeds. As demand for power increases, the gasoline engine either takes over or works in conjunction with the electric drive. To save additional fuel, the engine shuts down when stopped, and it deactivates half the cylinders when their power isn't needed, such as while cruising on a level highway. GM figures the hybrids will raise combined city/highway fuel economy by 25 percent.

This model is being tested by Consumer Reports and it is available.



Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute/Mercury Mariner
The Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner are siblings of the Ford Escape. In our tests we found the Escape hybrid noisy on the highway but quiet when running on electric power at low speeds. We got 26 mpg overall, compared with 18 mpg for the V6. The previous Escape tipped-up in the government rollover test, but stability control in the 2008 model has fixed the problem.



Lexus RX 400h
The RX 400h hybrid combines electric motors and a battery system with a 3.3-liter V6 engine. It returned 23 mpg overall in our tests, compared with 18 mpg for the non-hybrid model. However, the small gain in fuel economy brings a price premium of $8,000 more than the standard RX, as this variant includes several upscale features.



Saturn Vue Green Line
The Saturn Vue Green Line uses a hybrid system that adds less than $2,000 to the sticker price. It's priced at about $23,000, making it the least-expensive SUV hybrid available. The Green Line has a fairly small electric motor mounted to a conventional 170-hp, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is 24 mpg in our tests. Its nearest competitor is the Ford Escape Hybrid at 26 mpg, though the Escape is priced thousands more than the Vue Green Line.



Toyota Highlander
The well-rounded Highlander Hybrid is quiet and refined, and it offers an optional third-row seat. In our tests the Highlander returned 24 mpg overall but costs $4,000 more than the V6 model that got 18 mpg in our tests.