A version of this story appears in the Sunday Globe's Business section. See the story and car-by-car comparisons here.
Queue the rolling green hills, fresh air, and people in flower costumes blooming on command. Enter a Toyota Prius, towing a cartoonish sun through rural farmland, again played by people pretending to be corn stalks. For 30 precious television seconds, it's a friendly Wizard of Oz reminder from the feel-good marketing folks of America's best-selling hybrid: gas prices may be down, but we're still saving the world.
Since its 2000 debut outside Japan, Toyota has sold more than one million Priuses in the US. But whether or not you believe their hybrid hype, the Prius is no longer the only efficient gas-electric car. The term "hybrid," for better or worse, is now under every new car buyer's skin, and prompts lots of questions. Should I pay more for better mileage? Do I want to be labeled as "green"? Is this car boring and slow?
Today's hybrids span a wide range of prices, engines, and body styles, many of which look exactly the same as their gas-only brethren. The Globe tested six of the latest hybrids, priced between $23,810 and $117,330, and pitted them all head-to-head: the 2010 Toyota Prius, 2010 Honda Insight, 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid, and the 2008 Lexus LS600 hL (the 2009 model is the same).
Except for the Fusion, which was available for a briefer period, we drove each car for at least 350 miles in downtown Boston and beyond, including highway stretches to Vermont and Connecticut. We drove as regular drivers would, with minimal throttle feathering or "hypermiling" tactics.
While Escalade and Prius buyers aren't likely to cross-shop, they're both choosing from an increasingly diverse makeup of midsize sedans, all-wheel-drive SUVs, and full-size luxury sedans.
Cadillac's SUV seats eight and can tow 5,600 pounds, yet can also shut off half of its cylinders, which makes for steady 20-plus mile-per-gallon cruising on the highway. While our average 18 miles per gallon was the group's lowest, the Escalade Hybrid returns significantly better economy than the standard model, but with all the chrome jewelry and limousine pampering.
Lexus was first to the hybrid luxury sedan market in 2008 with its flagship LS 600hL, a six-figure executive perk designed to run against Germany's V-12-powered sedans. (They've noticed: BMW is currently testing a hybrid 7 Series, while Mercedes plans to sell its lithium-ion S400 h later this year.) The big Lexus drives like a bank vault; it even parks itself and seals all four doors automatically should one be left ajar. The fact that it delivered 21 miles per gallon while thrusting to 60 miles per hour in 5.5 seconds and playing a James Bond DVD for backseat passengers is impressive.
Toyota's much lighter, smaller, and more popular hybrid, the Prius, is much improved for 2010. The ubiquitous silhouette is more aerodynamic but remains very similar, except for an optional solar panel roof that powers cabin fans when the car is parked. Inside, Toyota gave the Prius a sorely-needed upgrade, with finer materials, an improved navigation display, and better sound insulation. It's quicker and almost hit an incredible 50 miles per gallon.
Honda's Insight, while looking much like the Prius, is brand-new for 2010. It replaces the original three-cylinder, two-door Insight of 1999, which sold in few numbers. While the Insight is noisier and uses lesser quality materials than the rest of our hybrids, it was by far the sportiest of the bunch, with an eager-revving engine, paddle shifters, and accurate steering. It's also the most affordable.
Ford's two hybrids, the Escape compact SUV and all-new Fusion sedan, surprised us with their blend of utility, style, and powertrain refinement. Both vehicles can travel at least a half-mile on electric-only power at 40 miles per hour (47 for the Fusion), and transitions between their gas and electric motors were more seamless than the Lexus. And while they're sipping fuel, they don't make any kind of environmental statement like the Prius or Insight, which should attract buyers who never would have considered a hybrid.
That's part of why the Fusion Hybrid is our winner. Despite its modest premium over the standard model and lower mileage than the Prius, this Ford is a well-equipped, responsive, and attractive sedan that offers stellar economy. When plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt arrive in the next two years, we may have a very different impression.
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About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee