Once limited to niche brands, odd designs and ill-conceived marketing, carmakers in recent years have integrated hybrid, alternative fuel vehicles into the automotive mainstream lineup. Now, nearly every major manufacturer offers at least one hybrid and another alternative fuel car in its fleet. Combined with higher mileage gas-engine cars, the auto industry flush with improved fuel efficiency.
Hybrid anxiety is passé. Alternative fuel cars formerly designed and operated as if related to moon vehicles or military craft now largely look and drive the same as their gas-only siblings.
The “greening” of the automotive industry occurred primarily for three specific reasons: increased influence from the environmental movement, pending federal regulation for improved gas mileage and wishful collective public desire for less reliance on foreign fuel.
The mandatory gas mileage increases are the easiest to quantify. Under the new EPA and Department of Energy guidelines, passenger cars must achieve an average of 35.5 mpg by 2016 and a 54.5-mpg average by 2025.
But beyond increased consumer awareness pending regulation, carmakers have also realized the combination of eco-friendly and easy-of-use attracts more buyers.
“I think we are the epitome of being customer friendly, and not so intimidating primarily because the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid looks like a Sonata,” Jim Trainor, senior product spokesman said of the carmaker’s recent addition to the hot selling gas-powered sedan.
“Right away, you don’t feel like you are in some of other type of car. You don’t have to be afraid of it. You are not going to see a lot of difference in this car than you are in the gas version. I think we’ve done everything we can to keep the intimidation factor down.”
The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid combined with the Kia Optima Hybrid (Hyundai owns about 50 percent of Kia), sold the second most hybrids in the United States in 2011 behind Toyota, the dominating industry leader.
Toyota introduced the Prius, its gas-electric hatchback, into the United States in 2000 four years after it debuted in Japan. In 2004, there were four hybrid cars available nationwide. In 2011, at least 30 hybrid cars, sport utility vehicles and trucks from more than a dozen manufacturers were on the market.
And in recently released data, 23 hybrid or electric cars and trucks debuted in 2012, according to J.D. Power & Associates, the Southern California global automotive market research company. Several just released 2013 hybrids has have already received national recognition.
But while Toyota remains at the forefront, with its expanding lineup of Prius models, there’s now plenty of competition. Here are five top fuel mileage cars to consider:
Base price: $17,130-23,550. Fuel Mileage Estimate (Eco edition), 28 mpg (city), 42 mpg (highway). Website: www.chevrolet.com/cruze
For decades, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla were the top choices as well-designed, economical and safe small cars with vast resale appeal. Two years ago, the Chevrolet Cruze, an American-manufactured compact, debuted and abruptly infiltrated the foreign-manufacturer dominance.
This year, the Cruze further improves upon its quick newcomer ascension. It’s handsome inside and out, has been awarded with top safety marks and is among the most versatile small cars.
The Cruze is offered in four trim levels: LS, Eco, LT and LTZ. Base LS models come with a 136-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder, but most versions of the Cruze get a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine with features significantly improved quickness and aggressiveness in city and highway drive.
With several of rivals generously improving, the Cruze more than equals its rivals with a lengthy list of standard features and options, all impressive in the less-than-$20,000 entry price range.
Base price: $25,200-28,365; Fuel Mileage Estimate, 47 mpg (city), 47 mpg (highway); Website: www.ford.com/cars/cmax/
A five-door hatchback available in two gas, electric hybrid models and just released plug-in hybrid, the C-MAX is the car Ford hopes will infiltrate the dominance of the Toyota Prius in the green car market.
Touted as the most “car-like” among top green car, the C-MAX has a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder with a combined 188 horsepower and an industry-leading 620-mile range.
Although it looks small from the outside, the C-Max is true to its marketing. It’s a versatile, intuitive wagon that’s refreshingly spacious. It has true seating for four adults and a cargo space junkie’s wishes. There’s a wealth of storage areas, hidden rear footwells, as well a good collection utility hooks and storage net.
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
Base price, $25,850; Fuel Mileage Estimate, 34 mpg (city), 40 mpg (highway); Website:
Not many hybrids turn heads. The Hyundai Sonata hybrid is an exception. It’s handsome and has healthy list of standard features and intuitive technology features.
As a midsize sedan there’s plenty of front and rear-seat room. Combine comfort, good looks and 40 mpg and the Sonata Hybrid is an unheralded, good choice.
The Sonata Hybrid shares the same platform and the Kia Optima Hybrid. And that alone warrants its consideration. But considering its standard equipment list ranges from keyless ignition to Bluetooth and heated mirrors to an emergency communications systems, the Sonata Hybrid can’t be ignored.
Kia Optima Hybrid
Base price: $25,700; Fuel Mileage Estimate, 35 mpg (city), 40 mpg (highway); Website: www.kia.com
Twelve years after the Kia Optima debuted in the United Sates with little fanfare and few sales, the 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid was unveiled at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show and was available to the public one year later.
The hybrid is among five available Kia Optima trims and largely has the same long standard equipment list as EX model. The Optima has only average headroom, but from its solid, if firm, ride to the quality of the interior features, it’s hard to fault with what once was a vehicle often considered undesirable.
While unheralded against the industry leaders, it shouldn’t be particularly considering the Korean manufacturer’s 10-year, 100,000-powertrain warranty, the best offering in the industry.
Toyota Prius c.
Base price: $18,950-$23,230; Fuel mileage estimate: 53 mpg (city), 46 mpg (highway). Website: www.toyota.com/priusc/
It debuted less than two years ago as the newest, smallest and least expensive member of the Prius family. But don’t sell it short. The Prius c is the little engine that could.
As the country’s most efficient, non plug-in hybrid the Prius c (“c” is for city), like other new hybrids, it’s vastly improved from the early, intimidating and odd-looking hybrids. In fact, it’s well-designed, spacious car. The Prius c has surprising expansive interior room for a sub-compact. It’s easy to enter and exit and the hatchback is highly functional with enough space for groceries or two carry-on suitcases.
While several hybrids have been criticized for lack a lack of performance, the Prius c is far from sluggish. It has a lot of technological innovations, information and infotainment features. And it has an ultramodern instrument panel with light colors and efficient, well-placed navigation screen.
And for an entry-level vehicle, there’s a large supply of small, but important functions, including an air conditioning system with a filter to remove pollen, dust and other airborne allergens.