Are they really the fuel-efficient alternative they claim to be?
Buying a new car tended to be a lot less complicated a few years ago. If you wanted fuel efficiency you bought the one with the small gasoline engine. If you craved performance you got the big V6 or V8. Simple. But now we have turbochargers, electric vehicles and the most confusing of all, the gasoline-hybrid offerings. These cars make use of both an internal combustion gasoline engine and an electric motor for propulsion, while you can get a variety of different ones such as plug-in hybrids, mild hybrids and full hybrids.
Since they do not rely on electric power alone, hybrids offer reduced range anxiety and you do not have to plan longer trips around available charging points. They also promise improved fuel economy versus their gasoline-only powered counterparts. However, as with any solution that claims to offer the best of both worlds, there are inevitable compromises too. The added complexity and weight of an electric motor and battery pack tend to impact performance levels and increase the base price. Claimed economy improvements are also heavily reliant on the type of driving you will be doing.
In light of this, we took a look at a wide range of popular hybrids on the market and assessed whether they really are the fuel-efficient alternative they claim to be.
The BMW 330e uses a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine and electric motor to produce 248 hp and a strong 310 lb-ft of torque. That's puts it on an equal footing to the 330i power wise and gives it a 52 lb-ft torque advantage. Dig a little deeper though and you find that the lighter and less complicated 330i actually outsprints it to 60 mph (5.5 seconds versus 5.9), and there is a fairly steep $5,000 price premium for the hybrid. The 34 mpg combined rating of the 330i falls well short of the 71 mpg-e rating of the 330e but you will have to make full use of the electric range to match those figures.
A similar scenario can be found at Audi, the A3 Sportback e-tron offers 204 hp from its hybrid powertrain and a combined 83 mpg-e. Promising, but the base 186-hp A3 Sedan is even quicker (thanks to being much lighter) and even at 29 mpg overall, it is still going to cost you less to run thanks to a nearly $9,000 difference in pricing. So, going the hybrid route does not seem to make a whole lot of sense in the premium sector, what about lower down the range? The Prius has been around longer than just about any other mass-produced hybrid and is available in no less than four different styles.
The underlying technology is well-proven and the system is unobtrusive in its operation. Fuel economy is among the very best in the business but rivals like the Hyundai Ioniq claim to be even more efficient and there are a number of similarly priced and less controversially styled alternatives out there. One of them is the Kia Niro Hybrid. Available in a plug-in hybrid version too, it is the cheaper standard hybrid that seems to make more sense. At $23,340 for the base model you get a combined 50 mpg which is class-leading and while it is no ball of fire it is quick enough for its segment. The plug-in version offers longer electric-only running but prices start at $27,900 so it makes less financial sense.
Compared to a conventional gasoline-powered car, the Niro Hybrid is a valid alternative and while it may not quite be the compact crossover Kia claims (it is FWD only and hardly any higher off the ground than a standard sedan), it is a competent and efficient city car. The Chevrolet Malibu is available with a 182-hp hybrid drivetrain and carries a sticker price of $28,795, economy ratings are 49/43mpg in city/highway driving and it straddles the line between cars like the Prius and upmarket German sedans. It looks like a viable alternative to the two gasoline powered offerings in the Malibu range too. The LT trim is equipped with a 160-hp 1.5-liter turbocharged engine and comes closest in terms of standard equipment to the hybrid.
Fuel consumption figures are worse at 27/36 mpg for city/highway driving, however the base price is $2,700 less, so you will only reap the benefits once you have covered a lot of miles in the pricier hybrid. The Acura NSX is a good example of hybrid technology being used to boost power levels rather than singularly focusing on economy figures. Three electric motors and a twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6 deliver 573 hp to the road and the 0-60 mph time of under 3 seconds is firmly in supercar territory. The 21/22 mpg city/highway fuel economy figures are not bad considering the performance on offer. However, if we look at something with similar acceleration, say a 580-hp Porsche 911 Turbo S, the figures are virtually identical.
Both are priced at around $160,000 too, so in this case there is not much benefit in opting for the more complex hybrid setup from an economy point of view. The Panamera 4 E-Hybrid offers 462 hp, a 0-60 mph time of 4.4 seconds and good fuel economy. The Panamera 4S costs $3,000 more, makes 440 hp, gets to 60 mph 0.2-seconds quicker, and offers 23 mpg overall. This is nowhere near the E-Hybrid's effort but you will have to make regular use of the 30-mile electric-only range to match the claimed figures. Is that likely in a performance-oriented luxury sedan? That comes down to the individual but seems like an unlikely scenario in most cases.
Whether it is performance or economy you are looking for out of a hybrid setup, it is worth comparing your potential purchase to other similar conventionally powered alternatives as the benefits may not always be a given. We have found that higher initial purchase prices, lots of time spent on the highway and enthusiastic driving will quickly negate any economy benefits a hybrid car may offer. Conversely, if you spend the majority of your commute in the traffic, stick mainly to city roads and can take advantage of the electric-only mode on a regular basis, a hybrid can offer a significant fuel saving.
One area where the majority of hybrids tend to suffer though is in driving enjoyment; this is particularly apparent at the lower price ranges. As the Acura NSX proves however, if you are willing to pay the price, a hybrid sports car is a different matter entirely. Porsche's hybrid offerings too can be just as engaging as their conventional models and their commitment to hybrid technology is apparent in the fact that the latest Turbo S Panamera is a hybrid model.