Who Needs a Hybrid for Good Mileage?

June 27, 2008
Try to find a Prius. Go ahead, we dare ya! A few random calls to dealers around the country reveals that you won't locate many, if any, of the popular hybrids on Toyota's retail lots, not unless one is parked there waiting for a service bay. And while demand is a little lighter for some models, notably the full-size "two-mode" truck models that General Motors recently brought out, the fact is that hybrids are hot, and demand seems to go up with every added penny at the pump.

But as regular readers know, I'm a hybrid skeptic. Yes, if you can qualify for federal tax credits, get access to the commuter lanes, and such, there are some definite advantages. But when you do the calculations, it's hard to make a case for most of the current HEV models on the road. Even at $4.50 for a gallon of gas and even working in tax credits, you have to put a high value on their intangible "green-ness" to make a working business case.

One of the reasons why is that there are so many other vehicles on the road that match and, in some cases, exceed the fuel economy of similar-sized hybrids. A good example is the new Mercedes-Benz ML Blue-Tec, which, in several different real-world tests, routinely outperformed the Lexus RX 400h hybrid. It's significant to note that in the latest issue of Consumer Reports, only three HEVs made the list in terms of price-adjusted fuel efficient bargains. (Actually two. The list included two versions of the Prius and one of the Honda Civic Hybrid.)

Here are a few of our favorite fuel-efficient - non-hybrid - models:

Honda Fit and Fit Sport. The top two in the Consumer Reports study. Sure, they're small, and no, don't go challenging anyone at the stoplight, unless the other guy is behind the wheel of a Nissan Versa, but both versions of the Fit belie the old image of the stripped-down econobox.

Mercedes ML320 BlueTEC. (And the bigger GL version.) A recent drive through the countryside of Vermont demonstrated why Americans need to rethink their reluctance to embrace diesel. Occasionally, just occasionally, you might hear - but not feel - the clattering associated with classic diesels, but that's about it. They're smooth, quick, and clean, and they can nudge 30 mpg on the open road in real driving conditions.

On the small SUV side, we think the Ford Escape deserves another look, especially from those who think that a compact crossover has to carry a Japanese badge. Ford pulled off the seeming impossibility of boosting horsepower and mileage this year. Yes, there is a hybrid version, but even Ford officials say that by the time you trade it in, you'll probably have gotten a better deal on the I-4 Escape than the HEV.

Mini Cooper. The car that got Americans thinking "small is beautiful" has gotten still better in its latest iteration. Reasonably fuel efficient and surprisingly quick, it's just plain fun to drive. And if you need a bit more room for friends and cargo, check out the new Clubman model.

Mazda3 and Mazda5. Can you have zoom-zoom and good fuel economy, too? We've found the minivan-ish Mazda5 delivers both, along with plenty of passenger and cargo space. But if you want to boost mileage even more, consider the smaller of the two offerings. What amazed us, during a recent move, was the tremendous amount of cargo the smaller wagon could squeeze in - nearly as much as some compact SUVs.

Nissan Altima Coupe. Can you imagine? With the I-4 engine, this sporty-looking mid-size sedan will get you as much as 32 mpg on the highway and a still impressive 27 mpg in the city. No, not as much as the Altima sedan hybrid, but subtract the premium and you'll see which is the better deal.

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