After spending dozens of hours considering every hybrid that’s currently on sale (and driving and living with the better ones), we found the best choice for most is the standard 2015 Toyota Prius Two, which starts around $25,000 but can be bought by most for as little as $23,000. No duh, huh?
The Prius is purpose-built for fuel efficiency and achieves the country’s second-best rating of 50 miles per gallon without much effort required by the driver. And unlike many of its competitors, it doesn’t cost that much more than a comparable non-hybrid compact car, but would start saving you gas money, and lots of it, from day one.
It prefers to be driven slowly and easy to burn less gas, but the Prius also has enough power to merge, pass, and pull away from stoplights with some gusto. It’s also durable, has plenty of room for people and cargo, and boasts what no other hybrid can: a 14-year record of proven reliability and the title of World’s Most Popular Hybrid. Until a new crop of competitors arrives later this year, including an all-new Prius, this current model remains atop the hybrid heap.
2015 Toyota Prius Two
The 2015 Toyota Prius Two is the best choice for most people. At $23,000, it doesn’t cost much more than comparable non-hybrid cars and boasts fuel efficiency of 50 miles per gallon. It’s also durable, with a 14-year record of reliability and the title of World’s Most Popular Hybrid.
The Prius family includes three models: the small Prius c, the large Prius v, (we’ll talk about both later) and the standard Prius liftback. The latter is our pick, and it’s the one you’re probably most familiar with because it’s been the poster car for hybrids for over a decade. There are five trim levels of the standard Prius liftback. Some of them can cost as much as a luxury car when fully loaded, but the base model Prius Two is best for most because it’s equipped well-enough: with standard features like Bluetooth phone and audio, a rearview camera, and push-button start. Its lower starting price also means you’ll start saving money sooner.
This guide focuses on traditional parallel hybrids like the Prius, which make up the bulk of what’s for sale out there. We decided not to consider plug-in hybrids because they cost considerably more than traditional hybrids and work a little differently; they’ll get their own guide in the near future. We threw out mild hybrids too because they’re all but extinct and have always played second fiddle to full-on parallel hybrids like the Prius.
2015 Honda Accord Hybrid
The Accord Hybrid is a hybridized version of the regular Accord, but comes remarkably close to matching the Prius in fuel economy. While its unique hybrid system is great to drive, it’s still more expensive than the Prius while being less fuel efficient. It’s a good pick for going green incognito, but doesn’t quite best the Prius.
Not everyone likes the polarizing looks or social symbolism of a Prius. If that’s you, check out the 2015 Honda Accord Hybrid as a great alternative. We like the standard trim level that starts around $30,000 —most people are even paying $2,000 less than that—because it’s already equipped with a lot of nice features. Based on the gas-only Accord midsize sedan, it looks and drives more like a regular car than the Prius and has a new, very advanced hybrid powertrain that, for us, easily achieved its official combined rating of 47 mpg (2.13 gp100), which is the best rating for any hybridized version of a regular gas-powered car.
2014 Toyota Prius v Two
The Prius v is simply a larger version of the standard Prius that adds more room for people and cargo at the cost of a few mpg. The bigger back seat makes it easier to deal with car seats and the larger cargo area handles more family gear. Otherwise it acts just like a Prius.
If you’re transporting a family often, consider the 2014 Toyota Prius v that starts around $27,500. It’s a larger version of the regular Prius with a bigger back seat and much more cargo space, making it just the right size for a family with one or two kids while still being able to hit 42 mpg combined (2.38 gp100). And just like with the standard Prius, the base model Prius v Two is very well equipped.
2015 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid Reserved
The MKZ Hybrid is the least expensive and most fuel-efficient luxury hybrid you can buy, plus Lincoln offers a truly impressive collection of premium features. There aren’t many good luxury hybrids available, but Lincoln still went all out to be the best.
There are also lots of hybrid luxury cars available, but most aren’t worth the extra money compared to non-hybrid luxury cars. There are a couple of exceptions, so if you really don’t want to sacrifice the finer things for fuel efficiency, we recommend the 40-mpg (2.5 gp100) Lincoln MKZ Hybrid that starts around $36,000 as the best all-around luxury hybrid. It offers not only the best fuel efficiency for the well-heeled set but also the lowest starting price among luxury hybrids and a great selection of unique, premium features. The base model is very well-equipped, but since it’s the least expensive luxury hybrid, we recommend reaching for the top-of-the-line Hybrid Reserved model that starts a little over $41,000 and gives you access to Lincoln’s best options.
Who should get a hybrid?
If you’re looking to save money, most hybrids aren’t worth it. That’s because hybrids typically cost about 5% to 20% more than a regular car, a premium that can’t always be erased by how much money you’ll save on fuel.
Some will tell you the premium you pay for a hybrid is even more, but they’re probably not comparing them to regular cars with the same level of features. For instance, the hybrid version of the Ford Fusion comes standard with a lot more features than the base model Fusion. Comparing the hybrid version to a Fusion with more features that costs more, a higher trim level say, paints a more accurate picture of their price difference.
Hybrids can save you money even though they cost more, but only in the long run.
Hybrids can save you money, but only in the long run. You’ve got to own one long enough that the pile of money you save on gas becomes greater than the pile of extra money you paid to get one. It’s called the break-even point, and most hybrids—at least hybridized versions of regular cars—take more than 100,000 miles of driving to reach theirs.
Perhaps a better reason to buy a hybrid than saving money is wanting to pollute less. Hybrids release less CO2 and other pollutants than regular cars by virtue of simply burning less fuel. That makes them perfect for the green crowd—people willing to spend more upfront to reduce the environmental impact of their driving.
A better reason to buy a hybrid than saving money is wanting to pollute less.
So hybrids have their work cut out for them. They’ve got to be a pleasure to own and drive just like any new car you might consider buying, and then balance that with amazing fuel economy for a reasonable price hike over what you’d pay for a similar (and similarly-equipped) car powered by gas alone. They should also do a good job concealing the complexity of what’s going on under their hoods. That means masking the noise and shaking of their gas engines starting up and stopping, which is happening all the time, as well as imperceptibly melding their regenerative braking (which sends energy back into their batteries) with traditional friction brakes.
Why you should trust me
I was the editor-in-chief of Autoblog.com for nearly 10 years and grew that website to become the most popular destination for automotive news, reviews, and auto show coverage on the web. While I led the site, Autoblog.com reviewed 20 new vehicles on average per month, performed comparison tests, and maintained a stable of long-term review vehicles. I exhaustively research every major purchase of my own (just ask my wife) and I’m giving you the same advice I would give friends or family.
How we picked
Believe it or not, there are over 40 hybrids on sale in the U.S., and there’s no one set kind. They come in all different shapes and sizes with prices that range from cheap to OMG. They don’t all work the same, either; there are many different takes on the fundamental principle of a gas engine and electric motor working together to move your car.
What we’re considering for this guide are parallel hybrids, which is what most hybrids on sale today are. They work by letting an electric motor and a gas engine operate in parallel, sometimes combining their power to move the car and sometimes having one or the other move the car by itself. Parallel hybrids are popular because they offer a good bump in fuel economy for a reasonable bump in price, and they’ve proven to be very durable.
There are about 30 parallel hybrids for sale today that include everything from small cars to mid-size sedans to crossovers and wagons to luxury cars. We decided to pick an overall best hybrid, as well as some good alternatives for people in different situations.
There are other kinds of hybrids you can buy besides parallel, like plug-in hybrids and mild hybrids, but we’re leaving them out of this discussion. We’ll explain why in detail later; for now we’ll just say that traditional parallel hybrids are what the vast majority of hybrid buyers are choosing.
Aside from being a pleasure to own and use just like any other car, the most important factor when choosing a hybrid is fuel economy, because that’s what you’re paying extra for. The next is how easy it is to achieve that fuel economy; some hybrids have been dinged for not being able to achieve their official fuel economy ratings from the Environmental Protection Agency in the real world. Because of this, we went beyond the EPA and also looked at independant fuel economy numbers from places like Consumer Reports and Fuelly.com to ensure our picks perform as advertised, as well as tested some of them ourselves over the course of a week and hundreds of miles of driving.
We spent a week driving hundreds of miles with the top contenders so we could better gauge their comfort, usability, and drivability.
After analyzing all these hybrids to find out which ones floated to the top, we met with the best in person to make sure they also functioned well doing the duties of everyday life, as well as convincingly masked the complex partnership happening under their hoods. Some we drove at the dealership, while we spent a week driving hundreds of miles with the top contenders so we could better gauge their comfort, usability, and drivability.
We also read first drives and reviews of these hybrids from across the internet and sought out the informed opinions of green car experts Sebastian Blanco, Editor-in-Chief of AutoblogGreen; John Voelcker, Senior Editor for High Gear Media and Editor-in-Chief of the company’s Green Car Reports website; and Sam Abuelsamid, Senior Analyst for Smart Transportation with Navigant Research.
Why miles per gallon doesn’t matter
Since we compared a lot of fuel economy numbers for this guide, we also converted every mpg to gp100, or gallons burned per 100 miles driven. Why? As Dan Edmunds from Edmunds.com puts it, “A single MPG has no fixed value; it isn’t a tangible thing.” In a nutshell, higher mpg numbers represent less fuel burned per mpg—the difference between 50 and 51 mpg and 15 and 16 mpg are both a single mpg, but 50 to 51 mpg equals 0.04 gallons burned every 100 miles and 15 to 16 equals 0.41 gallons, a difference of more than 1,000%!
Why does that matter? Because we can’t compare the fuel efficiency of different cars unless we’re comparing the actual amount of fuel they burn. The old mpg standard can’t tell us that because mpgs change their value depending on where on the spectrum they land; a mpg for a truck is much more fuel burned than a mpg for a hybrid. Gallons burned per 100 miles driven, however, does what it says, telling us how much fuel any car uses over a constant distance by which they all can be compared fairly.
The good news is that converting mpg to gp100 is super easy. It’s 100 divided by the mpg number. And if you’re new-car shopping, the gp100 number is actually printed on the sticker and listed on the government’s fueleconomy.gov website. It’s in small print and they don’t include gp100 city or highway figures, just combined, but we’ll take what we can get.
How much money will I save and when? How much will it cost to own?
Price is also a big consideration. We know you’re interested in more than just how much a hybrid costs, but also how much more it costs than a similar (and similarly equipped) non-hybrid car. The best hybrids pay off their premium, i.e. reach their break-even point, sooner by saving more money on gas. The Prius does well in this regard depending on what it’s compared with: similarly sized compact cars or similarly priced midsize cars. If you’re cross-shopping it with midsize cars, the break-even point might occur before you drive it off the lot.
The best hybrids pay off their premium sooner by saving more money on gas.
We calculated the break-even point for every hybrid on sale in the U.S. with a gas-only counterpart, i.e. non-purpose-built hybrids. This required a lot of extra research to make sure we were comparing each hybrid to a similarly equipped non-hybrid version, which can be tough because hybrids usually come standard with extra features that base models don’t. You can see the results in this chart.
Make, Model & Trim
Break Even Miles
Gallons of Fuel Saved
|Ford Focus 5-Door
|Honda Civic Hybrid
|Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid
|Subaru XV Crosstrek 2.0i Premium
|Honda Accord Hybrid
|Honda Accord EX
|VW Jetta Hybrid
|VW Jetta GLI SEL
|Lincoln MKZ Hybrid
|Toyota Avalon Hybrid XLE Premium
|Toyota Avalon XLE Premium
|Lexus ES 300h
|Lexus ES 350
|BMW ActiveHybrid 5
|Lexus LS 600h L
|Lexus LS 460 L AWD
Here’s an example of what can be learned by figuring out a hybrid’s break-even point. Compared to a similarly equipped non-hybrid version, the Toyota Avalon Hybrid will pay off its premium after just 44,952 miles and burn 37.5% less fuel, or about 1,949 fewer gallons, over its projected life (in this case, assuming 11.4 years of ownership and 11,400 miles driven per year). The BMW ActiveHybrid 5, on the other hand, needs 504,000 miles to reach its break-even point and will only burn about 8% less fuel or 417 fewer gallons over its projected life.
The point at which how much fuel the Prius saves makes up for its extra cost, its break-even point, is hard to figure because it’s one of the few hybrids with no gas-only counterpart to compare it with. We tried anyway. A Ford Focus hatchback is similar in shape and size; a base model Prius would break-even with a comparably equipped Focus hatchback after 109,000 miles and 38% less fuel – 1,593 gallons fewer – according to our calculation.
If you’re cross-shopping a Prius with a similarly priced, gas-only midsize sedan, you’ll find the Prius lets you pocket its fuel savings as profit immediately.
That may not sound great, but the Focus is less expensive than the Prius and fairly fuel efficient already. When you cross shop the Prius with slightly larger midsize sedans, as we think many people likely do, its break-even point shrinks substantially or vanishes altogether because they’re priced so similarly. That means if you’re cross-shopping a Prius with a similarly priced, gas-only midsize sedan, you’ll find the Prius lets you pocket its fuel savings as profit immediately. Cross-shop it with a compact hatchback like the Focus, though, and the Prius will need time to cancel its higher price with fuel savings.
Thanks mostly to lower fuel bills and less depreciation, hybrids are also often projected to cost less to own over five years than their similarly equipped gas-powered counterparts. Edmunds.com estimates a new Prius will cost $31,695 after five years of ownership, compared to $35,770 for a Honda Civic Hybrid or $36,912 for a similarly sized and shaped gas-only Ford Focus hatchback. It’s almost-but-not-quite the least expensive hybrid to own, beaten only by the less expensive Prius c and Honda Insight. Consumer Reports agrees. The magazine recently announced its Best New Car Value rankings, which take into account not only road test scores and predicted reliability but also five-year owner-cost data, and named the Prius best-in-class for compacts.
2015 Toyota Prius Two
The 2015 Toyota Prius Two is the best choice for most people. At $23,000, it doesn’t cost much more than comparable non-hybrid cars and boasts fuel efficiency of 50 miles per gallon. It’s also durable, with a 14-year record of reliability and the title of World’s Most Popular Hybrid.
We spent a week driving the Toyota Prius and discovered what might explain why it is the most popular hybrid of all time: it’s an all-around great car that just so happens to burn very little gas and really isn’t all that expensive. The Prius is great to live with because, regardless of its green credentials, it’s an ultra practical package with enough space inside for four people and lots of cargo. It’s also been rock solid reliable over the lengthy time it’s been on sale in the U.S., and when its battery pack eventually does go (as all battery packs do), there are many options for replacing it. The Prius is also effortless, going about its business of burning so much less gas without asking you to change the way you drive (though if you do, you’ll be rewarded). It’s officially rated by the EPA at 51 mpg in the city (1.96 gp100), 48 on the highway (2.08 gp100), and 50 combined (2.0 gp100), but you can do better by following some simple tips we’ll talk about below.
Despite being the second-most fuel efficient car sold in the U.S., the Prius is still one of the least expensive hybrids you can buy. There are only a few other hybrids with a lower starting price. One is the Prius c and another, the Honda Insight, is being cancelled soon. The third is the Honda CR-Z, a tiny two-seat mild hybrid that manages only 37 mpg combined (2.7 gp100). We recommend the base model Prius Two that starts around $25,00 0 because its price is on the very low end for a hybrid and it already comes equipped with lots of good standard features.
The size and comfort of the Prius really help sell it against larger vehicles. It may look like a small car from the outside, but it seats four people (five in a pinch) just as comfortably as most similarly priced midsize sedans. Rear seat headroom is the only dimension that feels scant, which can be blamed on the ultra aerodynamic exterior shape that peaks in height after the front seats and begins sloping downward. I’m about 5’10” and there’s an inch or two of room to spare, so six-footers are probably the max. The sacrifice is worth it, though: the Prius is among the most aerodynamic vehicles ever to be sold. It’s 0.25 coefficient of drag (Cd) is just a smidge behind the Tesla Model S at 0.24 Cd and it’s still got more rear seat headroom than the Honda Accord and the Subaru Legacy, our top choice among midsize sedans.
Note the gauges are missing from behind the steering wheel; don’t worry, they’ve just been moved.
The Prius also looks as futuristic from the driver’s seat as it does from the sidewalk—a rarity among hybrids since most are based on average compact and midsize sedans, hatchbacks, and crossovers. For instance, there are no gauges to stare at through the steering wheel; Toyota placed the all-digital gauges and information screens in the middle of the top of the dashboard. You’ve got your speedometer, fuel gauge and gear indicator up there, along with more screens on the right that offer detailed information about your fuel economy, the battery pack’s state of charge, and where the car’s power is coming from at any given moment. These screens wouldn’t look out of place on the bridge of Picard’s U.S.S. Enterprise, but they’re not just for effect—you’ll need their data if you want to wring the most mpg out of the Prius
Digital information displays in the dashboard show you how the Prius uses energy and how much it has been using.
Even getting the car to move feels like taking a spaceship out for a spin. Pressing the start button will be familiar to most, but moving the “gear” selector to Reverse might be a new experience. Everything’s digital and communicated by wires, so the stick slides freely with no mechanical engagement like in a car with a traditional automatic, and then it snaps back like a joystick to its original position after touching the familiar R, N, or D. You’ll also hear a beeping sound when backing up just like a moving truck because the Prius is usually running silently on battery power in Reverse. The Prius family of cars are the only hybrids we know of that come with this safety feature, though you can disable it.
As for how it drives, your car-loving friends may poke fun at how the Prius handles on the road, but I can tell you, at least anecdotally, that of the many Prius owners I know, none complain about how it drives. The criticisms more often come from car enthusiasts who like a dollop of sportiness in everything they drive, but sportiness goes against this hybrid’s raison d’être—saving gas. The Prius drives in a way that makes burning less fuel as easy as possible. That may not sound fun, but it’s a different sort of fun when you arrive where you’re going with a smile on your face because you set a new personal best for average MPG. Most hybrids are like this. They’re just not as good at the fuel-saving part as the Prius, while the ones that do elevate driving fun over fuel economy are knowingly sacrificing mpg.
Piloting the Prius is most similar to how a luxury car drives in that accelerating, braking, and turning are designed to be smooth and calm affairs. In a hybrid, that type of driving creates more MPGs. If you floor it from a stoplight or take a turn too fast, this car will, not surprisingly, let you down, but driven with a smidge of patience and purpose, it’s as relaxing as a Lexus.
The cargo area of the Prius, meanwhile, scored 14 bag bottoms in our patent-pending paper bag test, which means the rear cargo floor has about the same surface area as a midsize sedan (our top pick Subaru Legacy scored 15 bag bottoms). Because of that hatchback shape, though, it has more vertical room behind its rear seats, and folding those seats forward creates a much larger space for bigger stuff than a trunk with a pass-through could handle. Toyota also squeezed in a big storage cubby beneath the floating center console, which makes a useful catch-all for the stuff of life that inevitably gets left behind in our cars.
Lastly, the Prius scores well on safety too, earning four out of five stars in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s battery of tests and a coveted Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It achieves that hard-to-get “plus” rating for offering a pre-collision safety system that warns of an impending collision and applies the brakes to lessen the impact or avoid it altogether. Like with most cars, it’s an expensive option only available as part of a $4,320 Advanced Technology Package on the most expensive Prius Five model, but at least it’s offered.
What trim level should I get?
The base model Prius Two with a starting price of about $25,000 is configured quite nicely with popular features like an automatic climate control system (just set the temperature and it will reach and hold it), a 6.1-inch touchscreen in the dash, Bluetooth for phones and audio devices, a rearview camera, push button start, and what Toyota calls Smart Key, a feature that lets you open the driver’s door without removing the key from your pocket or purse. It’s our top choice because it comes with these great features without having to spend a penny above the asking price.
Toyota offers four additional trim levels of the Prius: the Prius Three, Four, Five, and Persona Series, each of which adds more features like better upholstery, larger wheels, navigation, collision-avoidance systems, and other luxuries. The most expensive Priuscan cost over $35,000, which gives it a huge range of pricing and features to match more budgets. That’s not the case with most hybrids that offer only one or two trims and not a true base model with a low starting price.
We tested a Prius Four for a week that was loaded to the tune of $35,760, but a standard Prius Four with SofTex seating (Toyota’s version of synthetic leather that’s lighter, vegan, and more eco-friendly to manufacture) and a premium infotainment system with navigation that can be had for under $30,000.
Prius Trim Levels
But it’s slow and no fun to drive
There’s actually something you can do about that won’t void Toyota’s warranty or cost you any mpg. Toyota offers a PLUS Performance Package for $3,800 that adds a rear sway bar, lowered suspension, lighter wheels, and a ground effects aero package. Because the wheels are lighter and the ground effects actually improve the car’s already excellent aerodynamics, this sharper handling will only cost you extra dollars, not mpg.
The PLUS Performance Package combines the same fuel efficiency with being more fun to drive.
Not many automakers offer performance upgrades for their hybrids; Honda began offering factory-certified performance parts, including a supercharger, for its soon-to-be-cancelled, two-seater CR-Z hybrid, but the parts alone cost $6,500 and fuel economy took a hit. Toyota apparently sees value in at least offering performance options as long as it doesn’t impact efficiency. It’s even now offering a couple of sport-tuned trim levels for the newly updated 2015 Camry Hybrid.
Toyota, however, won’t tinker with its hybrid powertrain to make more power like Honda with the CR-Z hybrid, most likely because doing so would make the Prius less fuel efficient.
What’s the deal with batteries, reliability, and warranties in the long-term?
The Prius is old for a hybrid, which is a good thing. Millions have been sold over the car’s 14 years on sale here in the U.S. and its reliability has proven to be among the industry’s best. The current generation Prius has earned the highest rating for reliability from Consumer Reports four years in a row. Another testament to their durability is how much taxi cab companies like buying them. Toyota even recently bragged that a Prius taxi in Vienna, Austria had hit the 1 million kilometer (about 621,504 miles) mark.
What if something does break? Toyota gives you an industry standard pack of warranties that includes coverage lasting 3 years or 36,000 miles for the whole car and 5 years or 60,000 miles for the powertrain (engine, electric motor/generator, and transmission), along with 2 years of free roadside assistance. Toyota is also among the very few companies (Volkswagen is another) that includes free maintenance on vehicles in this price range: you won’t pay for oil changes, tire rotations, and the like for 2 years or 25,000 miles.
Federal regulations require that manufacturers warranty their hybrid battery packs for at least 8 years or 100,000 miles.
Then there’s the battery pack, the one major component that’s very unique to hybrids and electric vehicles. Federal regulations require that manufacturers warranty their hybrid battery packs for at least 8 years or 100,000 miles, while California and about a dozen other states require 10-year/150,000-mile warranties. Hyundai, well known for its extra-long warranties, guarantees the battery pack in its Sonata Hybridfor the life of the car, as long as you’re the original owner. Toyota doesn’t go that far, but the Prius has its own advantage: age and volume.
Having been around so long and been so popular, the Prius has created an entire industry for replacing and reconditioning its battery packs. If your Prius battery pack does peter out, the most expensive option is buying a new one from Toyota for about $4,000 to $5,000. Fortunately there are lots of cheaper options that include remanufactured battery packs, salvaged battery packs, and attempting to have the original battery pack reconditioned. Check out the Autoline Garage segment in this episode of Autoline Daily for an easy-to-understand explanation of all your options.
What others say
Other experts agree that the Prius remains the benchmark for hybrids. Sebastian Blanco told us, “The best standard hybrid is the Toyota Prius. It’s reliable and has been the US MPG leader for a decade now (not counting plug-ins). While some people don’t like the look, the shape is now iconic and has proven itself both practical and effective. Toyota has also made more hybrid vehicles than any other company on the planet, and has a lot of experience fixing any problems that come up.”
“The Prius is the quintessential hybrid, its own stereotype, the ur-hybrid …”
When asked for his pick of best hybrid, John Voelcker told us, “Has to be the Toyota Prius.” He summed up his feelings with, “The Prius is the quintessential hybrid, its own stereotype, the ur-hybrid, and it even had a starring role in a ‘South Park’ episode (as the ‘Pious’). It’s a remarkable exercise in extreme engineering for ultimate efficiency, and Toyota deserves enormous credit for pioneering the world’s first modern hybrid-electric vehicle (in 1997).”
Jeff Cobb at HybridCARS.com says, “The Prius is in a class by itself, and the car preparing to ultimately beat it in every respect will be its own replacement that could be here in 2015.”
“it’s amazingly inexpensive given what it is, reasonably comfortable, impressively roomy, and even surprisingly lightweight.”
Jason Cammisa from Road & Track compared the Prius to a diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz E-Classand remarked, “it’s amazingly inexpensive given what it is, reasonably comfortable, impressively roomy, and even surprisingly lightweight. And it’s actually more than quick enough to keep up with traffic.” At the end of the test he concluded, “The Prius is a tremendously efficient package … with a bigger back seat than the E-Class and a usable hatchback for cargo. It’s reasonably quiet, quick, and smooth. And it returns unbeatable fuel mileage, even on the open road when the big benefits of its hybrid system are minimized.”
Lastly, Sam Abuelsamid, Senior Analyst – Smart Transportation with Navigant Research, told us, “If all you want is maximum fuel economy, the answer is probably the old standby, the Toyota Prius with an EPA-estimated combined rating of 50 MPG.” We also liked his general assessment of the hybrid market that’s good to keep in mind when conducting your own hunt for the right hybrid: “There’s no silver bullet, and the choice really comes down to personal driving preferences and where and how far you drive on a typical day. As always your mileage will vary.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Prius isn’t perfect. For one, the underlying technology that powers the Prius (and every other Toyota and Lexus hybrid) hasn’t changed much. It still uses nickel-metal hydride batteries, for instance, when most newer hybrids are using lighter, more power dense lithium-ion batteries. The Prius only has a year or two left atop the hybrid heap before rival automakers strike upon a better alternative. That is, if an all-new Prius expected to arrive next year as a 2016 model doesn’t move the bar significantly farther.
John Voelcker told us, “[The] Prius is now old, unpleasant to drive, and its instrument panel is scattered, incoherent, and old-looking.” It’s a harsh take on things, but he’s not altogether wrong. The way a Prius drives will not appeal to people who enjoy driving for its own sake. Saving fuel just does not make for fun driving in the traditional sense. And while John’s take on the car’s flaws is very pointed, when asked what’s the best hybrid and why, he responded, “Has to be the Toyota Prius… It’s a remarkable exercise in extreme engineering for ultimate efficiency, and Toyota deserves enormous credit for pioneering the world’s first modern hybrid-electric vehicle.”
John has a good point about the instrument panel, too. As we mentioned elsewhere, Toyota keeps the dashboard behind the steering wheel completely empty. Your speed, fuel gauge, and all other pertinent info are digitized and contained in a sliver of an instrument panel located at the center of the base of the windshield. It’s unclear what purpose this relocation has ever served, other than to reinforce that the Prius is just different, but we found it takes some getting used to and never quite feels or looks normal.
The view through the rearview mirror also isn’t that great. The rear hatch has two windows, a deeply slanted one up top and a more vertical one below. In between them is an integrated spoiler with the center brake stop light. It’s this crossbar that dominates the rearview mirror, but fortunately Toyota has made a rearview camera standard equipment.
Lastly, there’s a potential stigma for owning a Prius. When the Prius was young, owning one was a green badge of honor. After so many years and millions sold, it has evolved, for some, into a symbol of eco smugness. As Jason Cammisa puts it, “I can’t decide what’s more annoying about the Toyota Prius: the people who buy it, or the fact that the car does such a good job of delivering ridiculous gas mileage.” It seems the mere act of owning one can make other people feel like they’re being judged, but at the end of the day, that’s their problem.
How to get great fuel economy (in a Prius)
The Prius manages a combined EPA rating of 50 mpg (2.0 gp100). That’s better than every other car sold in the U.S. with a gas engine, hybrid or otherwise, except one: the smaller Toyota Prius c. We didn’t choose that car because fuel efficiency isn’t the only consideration; the c is much smaller and feels cheaply made compared to its big brother.
We spent a week driving one and, with just a little effort, achieved an average of over 50 mpg.
What we like about the Prius in regards to its fuel economy is that it’s so darn easy to achieve, and it can do even better than its official numbers with just a few adjustments to your driving. We spent a week driving one and, with just a little effort, achieved an average of over 50 mpg according to the trip computer.
How’d we do it? For one, the weather was on our side. Mild temps mean the climate system doesn’t need a lot of energy to keep you comfortable. Alaskans and Texans, then, will likely not often see north of 50 mpg in a Prius. Aside from favorable conditions, our Cliff’s Notes for besting the official fuel economy numbers of a Prius included accelerating slowly, braking early, and coasting as often as possible. That said, a slightly more advanced course of keeping the car on battery power as long as possible is what got us firmly over 50 MPG.
That’s not easy to do considering the Prius battery pack isn’t very big. It contains only 1.6 kilowatt-hours of energy, good for about 1.25 miles of continuous electric driving. And like with most hybrids, there’s practically no way to accelerate from a dead stop on battery power alone; the engine will always kick on to help get you up to speed. Even if you press the optimistically-named EV mode button on the dash, the car’s computer brain remains just as eager to use the gas engine when accelerating.
You can’t use battery power alone to get away from stoplights, but you can switch back to battery power afterwards by lifting your foot off the gas pedal and reapplying it gently. This gets the car coasting with its engine off and, if you get back on the gas lightly enough just to maintain speed, the Prius will let you continue on with the engine off for a while. Again, it won’t be for long, probably about a mile if there aren’t any hills to climb, but as long as you coast whenever possible and brake early for the next stop, the battery should be ready to repeat the process. Eventually, the battery pack might deplete so far that the engine stays on or spins quicker to recharge it, but we found this strategy still worked best for keeping our average above 50 mpg.
We left the Prius in Eco mode for most of the time and found it livable.
The Prius can do more to help this cause, too. Along with EV mode, there’s also a button for Eco mode that subdues the gas pedal’s response for smoother acceleration, as well as optimizes how the heater and air conditioning work for more fuel savings. We left the Prius in Eco mode for most of the time and found it livable, but the slower pace might take some getting to use for others.
Driving with a soft touch will get you the most MPGs, but the Prius also has a Power mode that marshals all of the hybrid system’s 134 horsepower at once. This sort of thing is common among hybrids that often default to slower, more-efficient driving modes and is great for short bursts of power. Staying in Power mode too long will crash your fuel economy, though, so we used it mainly for getting up to speed on busy highways.