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Hybrid Cars Buying Guide | The Hybrid Market: What's On Sale, What's Ahead.

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Hybrid Cars Buying Guide | The Hybrid Market: What's On Sale, What's Ahead.

At the end of 2010, just over a dozen passenger cars with gasoline/electric powertrains were offered. So were ten SUVs and crossovers, plus a pair of GM pickup trucks. Several more are scheduled to arrive soon, which will push the total to around 40.

With all those models available, you'd think hybrids would account for a substantial portion of the new-vehicle picture. Yet, according to Experian Automotive, hybrids make up only 0.71 percent of vehicles on the road-barely a trickle and well short of one percent.

Toyota and its Lexus luxury division lead the pack by far, with seven hybrid models. Honda produces three, including the new CR-Z sport coupe. Ford used to have four, but dropped to three for 2011 as the Mercury brand faded away-but a new Lincoln MKZ Hybrid recently arrived. Chrysler offers no hybrids anymore, after a brief flirtation with battery/gasoline crossover SUVs. Chevrolet dropped its Malibu Hybrid sedan after 2009, so the only GM hybrids are big SUVs and pickup trucks.

Top seller by far has been Toyota's Prius, with more than 125,000 reaching customers in the first 11 months of 2010-over half of total hybrid sales. Honda's Insight and the Ford Fusion Hybrid virtually tied for second place, with just over 19,300 each-far behind the leader. Only two others, the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Lexus RX 450h, topped the 13,000 mark for that 11-month period, some 3,000 ahead of Ford's Escape Hybrid. Out of 10,444,044 vehicles sold in that timeframe, according to Hybridcars.com, just over 246,000 (2.4 percent) were hybrids.

Except for several Toyota/Lexus models and the Honda Insight, which are "dedicated" hybrids, most models also are available with a conventional gasoline engine.

New Hybrid Models for 2011/2012.

Nine hybrid vehicles are new for the 2011 model year, or expected during the 2011 calendar year. Most recent hybrids have had a continuously variable transmission (CVT), but a growing number have turned to a conventional automatic transmission.

Only the Honda CR-Z has a manual-shift option. The CR-Z is a two-seater, but nearly all others hold five occupants.

Hybrids formerly used nickel metal hydride batteries. Some still do, but many have moved toward more efficient lithium-ion or lithium polymer battery packs. GM pickups used to be "mild" hybrids that could not run on battery power alone, but the parallel (dual-mode) configuration has become the norm. Some dual-mode hybrids, including the Prius and Escape, are able to travel several miles on electricity alone, under mild conditions. Others rarely function using only the battery. Several new models promise battery-only operation at speeds up to 62 mph.

Quite a few hybrids have paddle shifters that can choose simulated "gears" to boost performance. Noise used to be an issue on CVT-equipped hybrids, which tended to keep the engine running at higher-than-normal speed while accelerating. Nearly all modern hybrids are far quieter.

BMW ActiveHybrid 7 Series: Priced just over $100,000, BMW's biggest luxury sedan is becoming available with a hybrid powertrain, joining the German automaker's ActiveHybrid X6 crossover vehicle. BMW's 455-horsepower, 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 gasoline engine mates with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Standard-length (I) and extended-length (Li) sedans are available with the hybrid powertrain.

Honda CR-Z Hybrid: A brand-new dedicated hybrid joined the Honda lineup for 2011, in the form of a sporty subcompact two-passenger coupe. CR-Z can be fitted with six-speed manual shift, or with a CVT. Offered in base and EX trim, the CR-Z uses a 122-horsepower, 1.5-liter engine and costs around $20,000. Handling is the CR-Z's strong point, coupled with a fun-to-drive character.

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: The South Korean automaker's first hybrid is a battery/gasoline variant of its midsize Sonata sedan. Scheduled for sale in January 2011, the Sonata Hybrid operates seamlessly, quietly, and smoothly, delivering the same excellent ride/handling as a regular Sonata (redesigned for 2011). A 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with six-speed automatic transmission works with the electric motor and lithium polymer battery pack, promising 40-mpg highway mileage.

Infiniti M Hybrid: Scheduled for sale during 2011 as a 2012 model, the first hybrid from Nissan's luxury division uses a one-motor, two-clutch powertrain system. In the M35h, a 3.5-liter V-6 works with a 50-kW electric motor, lithium-ion battery pack, and seven-speed automatic transmission. Nissan claims the M35h can travel up to 62 mph on battery power alone.

Lexus CT 200h: Affordability is a selling point of the latest Lexus hybrid, which will sticker for $29,120 (plus $875 destination charge) when sales begin in March 2011. Equipped with a sport-tuned suspension, sporty Eco mode, and switchable EV mode, the CT 200h holds a 1.8-liter gasoline engine and CVT. A distinctive wraparound back window helps differentiate the CT from Toyota's Prius, which has a similar powertrain.

Lincoln MKZ Hybrid: Similar to the Ford Fusion Hybrid and its now-defunct Mercury Milan counterpart, the new MKZ Hybrid holds a 191-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, driving a CVT. Priced identically to a gasoline-engine MKZ at just above $35,000, the Hybrid operates with easygoing smoothness, befitting a near-luxury sedan, with a helpful display of the powertrain's functioning.

Kia Optima Hybrid: Introduced at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2010, Kia's first hybrid is an offshoot of its newly redesigned Optima midsize sedan. A 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission work with the electric motor and lithium polymer battery pack, promising full-electric operation to 62 mph.

Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid: Even the king of German sports car makers has joined the hybrid race, with a battery/gasoline version of its sport-utility vehicle. With a 3.0-liter V-6 gasoline engine and eight-speed automatic transmission, the Cayenne S Hybrid is expected to start near $68,000.

Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid: Another German-made SUV gets the hybrid treatment during 2011. Volkswagen's battery/gasoline Touareg, also offered with gasoline or diesel power, will be priced around $50,000 when it reaches dealerships.

Established Hybrid Models.

BMW ActiveHybrid X6: Introduced for 2010, the hybrid version of BMW's midsize crossover wagon gets an EPA estimate of 17 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway-among the least frugal of the hybrids. A 400-horsepower, twin-turbo gasoline V-8 engine, coupled with the electric-motor system, drives a seven-speed Steptronic automatic transmission.

Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra Hybrid pickup: General Motors is the only automaker to offer hybrid-powertrain variants of pickup trucks. Both full-size pickups offer the option of a 6.0-liter V-8 and a "continuous electric ratio" transmission with four fixed gears, combined with an electric motor. GM claims 33 percent greater city gas mileage, with an EPA estimate of 20-mpg city/23-mpg highway and all-electric driving at up to 30 mph.

Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon/Cadillac Escalade Hybrid: Three GM full-size sport-utility vehicles may be equipped with hybrid powertrains as an alternative to the regular gasoline V-8 engine. The hybrid powertrain is similar to that used in GM pickups (above). With either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, highway fuel economy beats a comparable gas SUV by 5 mpg.

Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute: In addition to the Ford Escape, which has been offered in Hybrid form since 2005, two corporate cousins have been available. The Mercury Mariner now is extinct, with the disappearance of that brand; but the Mazda Tribute Hybrid remains on sale. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine works with a continuously variable transmission. Escapes can start off easily on battery alone, by keeping a light foot on the pedal then switching effortlessly to the gas engine when necessary.

Ford Fusion Hybrid: Introduced for 2010, the midsize Ford sedan gets a fuel-economy estimate from the EPA of 41 mpg in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway. Ford's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, rated at 156 horsepower, drives a CVT. Starting near $29,000, this easy-to-drive Fusion yields surprisingly spirited acceleration, smoothly and quietly, riding and handling like any midsize family sedan.

Honda Civic Hybrid: One of the old-timers in the hybrid community, the Civic Hybrid first went on sale in 2003. With its 110-horsepower, 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine and CVT, the Civic Hybrid earns an EPA estimate of 40/43 mpg (city/highway)-same as the Insight hatchback. Pricing begins below $25,000. Easy to drive and refined overall, if a bit short on power, the hybrid Civic has approached 40 mpg in real-world urban driving.

Honda Insight: Introduced for 2010, the five-passenger Insight took its name from Honda's first hybrid model-a two-seater marketed in 2000-06. The current Insight is a midsize family hatchback sedan with a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine and CVT, yielding an EPA estimate identical to Honda's smaller Civic Hybrid. Performing a tad better than average, Insight drives easily with a fair degree of agility, though like the Prius, it has a horizontal bar across the back window that impedes visibility. A new entry-level model, priced at $18,200 (plus destination charge) joins for 2011.

Lexus GS 450h: Toyota's luxury division launched the sport-luxury GS 450h for 2006. Fitted with a 292-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine and CVT, the sport sedan costs some $12,000 more than a regular GS with V-6 power. GS is the sportiest of Lexus's sedans, and the hybrid edition behaves no less impressively.

Lexus HS 250h: Lexus debuted the HS for 2010 as a dedicated hybrid, with no gasoline equivalent available. Offered in base or premium trim, starting near $36,000, the HS 250h uses a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 147 horsepower, driving a CVT. More conventional in appearance than a Prius, the HS feels-and is-a lot heavier, and controls are somewhat complex.

Lexus LS 600h L: Priced even higher than BMW's ActiveHybrid 7 Series, the hybrid version of Lexus's full-size premium luxury sedan gets an EPA estimate of 19 mpg in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway. With its 389-horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8 and CVT, the hybrid LS is quick, quiet, effortless, polished-and packed with technology.

Lexus RX 450h: Running on premium gasoline, the 3.5-liter V-6 engine in Lexus's smaller crossover SUV mates with a CVT. With two-wheel drive, the RX gets an EPA estimate of 32-mpg city/28 mpg highway. Toyota's luxury division has offered a hybrid-powertrain RX since 2006. Like Toyota's Highlander, this near-luxury SUV promises a satisfying road experience, if at a higher initial cost.

Mercedes-Benz ML450h: A 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine works with a CVT and 4Matic all-wheel drive in the German automaker's hybrid-powertrain crossover SUV. Launched as a 2010 model, the hybrid earns an EPA estimate of 20-mpg city/24-mpg highway.

Mercedes-Benz S400h: Launched in the 2010 model year, the hybrid edition of Mercedes' top luxury sedan uses a 295-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine and a seven-speed automatic transmission. The EPA gives the S400h a fuel-economy estimate of 19-mpg city/25 mpg highway. Priced near $92,000, the S400h feels just about like a conventional S-Class, with a comparable level of luxury accommodations and impressive performance.

Nissan Altima Hybrid: Nissan's rival to the Camry Hybrid holds a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated 158 horsepower, mated to a CVT. Fuel economy, according to the EPA, is an estimated 35 mpg in the city and 33 mpg for highway driving. Pricing starts above $27,000.

Toyota Camry Hybrid: Toyota's conventional midsize family sedan comes with a gasoline engine or a hybrid powertrain. A 2.4-liter, 147-horsepower four-cylinder engine with CVT works with the electric-motor system in the Camry Hybrid. A gasoline-engine Camry can be purchased for under $22,000, but the Hybrid starts above $27,000.

Toyota Highlander Hybrid: Toyota's midsize crossover SUV has been available with a hybrid powertrain since 2005. In the current version, a 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine mates with a continuously variable transmission and all-wheel drive. According to the EPA, the hybrid Highlander warrants a 28-mpg fuel-economy rating, whether in the city or on the road.

Toyota Prius: Essentially the dowager of hybrid powertrains, the popular Prius has been around since 2000, though redesigned completely for 2004. Another, less dramatic redesign came for 2010. Unlike the Camry Hybrid, the Prius comes only with a hybrid powertrain. Prius wins the EPA fuel-economy race with an estimate of 51 mpg in city driving and 48 mpg on the highway. Its carbon footprint is the lowest, by far, of any hybrid. Toyota's 1.8-liter engine works with a CVT. Except for limited rearward visibility past a thick horizontal bar, the Prius delivers an appealing road experience, handling better than the prior generation, with a light overall feel but a touch of steering deadness in turns.

Looking Ahead.
Several automakers have additional hybrids in the works, including a gasoline/electric version of the Audi Q5, which could appear in 2011. BMW is rumored to be readying a hybrid-powertrain variant of its 5 Series sedan in the same timeframe. Volkswagen might launch hybrid versions of three models by 2010: the Jetta, Golf, and Passat. No doubt, more hybrid models will emerge in 2011 and beyond.

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