You don't have to advertise that you're driving a hybrid anymore.
Hybrid and electric vehicle technology has come a long way, a lot of which can be attributed to the Toyota Prius. If you ignore the stereotyping of its owners and look at the Prius objectively, it's one of the most important cars in automotive history. The Prius didn't just demonstrate that electric motors and internal combustion engines can work together; it confirmed that it could be done reliably and drastically improve fuel economy. The knock-on effect is really starting to show now as today we have a large selection of hybrid vehicles to choose from. While all-electric vehicles haven't met the hype with market share, hybrids are everywhere.
The Prius is still with us, 22 years after its launch, but it's not necessarily the king of the hill anymore. What was once a cutting edge car is now surrounded by models offering the same benefits. That means that if you want the fuel efficiency of a hybrid, but not the social stigma or stand-out styling of a Prius, there's plenty of choices. The Prius, at the time of writing, ranges in price from $24,325 - $32,500, so we've kept our suggestions here to cars that can compete by having at least a base model in that bracket.
The Hyundai Ioniq is making a direct play for the Prius's fuel economy crown, and, according to Hyundai, is succeeding. The Ioniq's basic 55 mpg city and highway combined number is impressive, but the Blue trim's 58 mpg is exceptional. That's more than double the national new car average of 25.1 mpg estimated by the EPA, and getting close to doubling Mazda's record average 29.6 mpg for its range. Hyundai has also been steadily making sure it has a reputation for reliability, but the second major selling point for the Ioniq is that it doesn't look like a hybrid. We're beyond the point where hybrids are an oddity, something to show off, or a political statement, and the Ioniq is embracing that.
The original Honda Insight was a stunning little car when it first arrived 20 years ago with fuel economy figures of 49/61/53 mpg city/highway/combined. Now, the Insight is in its third generation and has matured into an excellent looking car that sports a 1.5-liter gas engine and two electric motors making a combined 151 horsepower. The current Insight is a little brisker off the line than the Prius and has a better overall driving experience. Standard models are equivalent to all but the Eco-L Prius models at 52 mpg combined, but the highest trim level drops to 48 mpg. The lack of Apple Carplay and Android Auto on the base model could be a deal-breaker for some, though, but the Prius doesn't currently offer Android Auto at all.
Not only is a small crossover a good alternative to the Prius, but the plug-in capacity to charge the battery adds a useful dimension. For those that don't have a big commute or the who predominantly make shorter journeys, the Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid will go around 26 miles on battery alone. In normal hybrid mode, it then delivers a healthy 46 mpg. The drivetrain is based around a four-cylinder 1.6-liter engine, rated at 105 hp and 109 lb-ft of torque, and an electric motor that makes 60 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque. Despite a respectable 195 lb-ft of torque combined, we found acceleration to be weak, but it has excellent ride quality, a decent interior, and a high level of technology available.
Here's something to consider. The mid-size Camry is larger and more comfortable than the Prius, but, in hybrid form, it also gets 52 mpg combined. At $28,430, the Camry Hybrid is a little more expensive than a base Prius, but if you're looking at the Prius in XLE trim at $28,375, it's worth cross-shopping with the base Camry Hybrid. Android Auto is standard along with Apple Carplay and Amazon Alexa, and the 2.5-liter engine with 88-kW electric motor gives a combined output of 208 hp. That makes it a peppier drive train than the Prius, and we found it compares favorably with the non-hybrid 2.5-liter base model Camry.
For close to the same price as a Camry, you could step into a nice crossover. However, the compromise here is in fuel economy. While the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V are comparable in price and size, the Ford Escape SE Sport Hybrid matches the RAV4's 41 mpg and bests the CR-V by 1 mpg. We would recommend both of them to cross-shop, but we're highlighting the Escape for a couple of reasons over its more obvious competition.
The current Sync 3 infotainment system is excellent and includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, and Waze integration as standard. There's also a comprehensive suite of driver and safety tech as standard equipment, and the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an 88-kilowatt electric motor drivetrain is nicely refined. The SE Sport is the only model currently available as a hybrid, and plug-in hybrid drivetrains are slated for the spring of 2020.
If you're thinking about a hybrid, then going all-electric may also be a consideration. At $31,600, the Nissan Leaf is just a few hundred dollars cheaper than a Prius in its top trim level. However, that's before any federal or state rebates and incentives are factored in. If you can take advantage of the $7,500 federal income tax credit, then you're looking at an EV for $24,100 before delivery charges, and that puts it just under the Prius' starting price. That's also before looking at local incentives being offered to buy a new electric vehicle. The Leaf packs a range up to 226 miles, which will get most Americans though the week with just a top-up, and it's a peppy little car around town due to its instant torque delivery.
As an outside shot, the plug-in Chevrolet Volt is still worth investigating. Chevy stopped building it in 2019, but we're seeing that there's still a bunch out there in dealer's lots. The base model is $33,520, but Chevy has them priced at $31,395 with a cash allowance right now. Also, the dealers will be keen to get them sold, so picking one up with options could net a fantastic deal. In 2019, the Volt was one of the best plug-in hybrids on the market, and we think Chevy killed it off too soon. It's sprightly for a hybrid, and will out-drag a Prius to 60 mph by around 3 seconds. Its 53 miles of range on battery only is still impressive, and its 42 mpg in hybrid mode keeps it competitive. Land one with the 7.2 kW onboard charging module, and it can be fully charged in under 2.3 hours on a 220V outlet or in four and a half hours on a 110V plug.
The Ford Escape hybrid returns the same combined fuel economy as Toyota's RAV4, but the Japanese brand's crossover is one of our favorite hybrids overall. The RAV4 was the best selling vehicle in the US that wasn't a truck last year, and probably will be again in 2020. However, we think the hybrid version outclasses the pure combustion-engined version. Like its gas-only counterpart, it has lots of cargo and passenger space, comes standard with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and it drives great. However, its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with electric assistance is more potent than the gas-only version. On top of that, the continuously variable transmission is super smooth and more responsive than the eight-speed automatic in the gas-only RAV4.
At $28,350, it competes against the Prius in XLE trim, but the tradeoff is 40 mpg combined versus the Prius's 52 mpg. However, when we drove the RAV4 for a week, we managed 44.6 mpg with a bias to city driving compared with the EPA's city estimate of 41 mpg. That's only seven mpg less than our experience of 51 mpg with the Prius driven in similar conditions.