In December 1999, the two-seat Honda Insight became the first production gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle available in the U.S., beating Toyota’s Prius by seven months. It was an inauspicious beginning. Critics quickly labeled all hybrids small, impractical, and suited mostly for hard-core environmentalists and techno geeks.
Today, though, hybrids are no longer only super-frugal, perceptibly wimpy cars. They’ve grown up, gone mainstream. Electricity in the drivetrain is a concept that’s here to stay. More than three million hybrids have been sold since that original Insight sparked a new automotive category. Sales set a record in 2013, with nearly a half-million hybrids sold.
Still, that’s just 3.2 percent of America’s 15.5-million-unit passenger-car and light-truck market. Hybrid-powered vehicles won’t dominate the automotive landscape anytime soon. But their numbers will increase as automakers maneuver to meet federal regulations that stipulate fleet-wide averages of 54.5 mpg by 2025 – nearly twice today’s standard. Hybrids increase fleet averages directly. Each one sold earns its maker credits that offset the sale of less fuel-efficient models. To continue reaping profits from big pickups and V-8 luxury cars that hurt fleet economy averages, manufactures are compelled to also produce credit-earning hybrids. (Automakers also earn credits from the sale of pure-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles; for more on these, see the CarPreview 2014 Electric and Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles Buying Guide.)
The purchase price of a hybrid is generally higher than that of a similarly sized gas vehicle. And advanced technologies have produced a growing number of gas cars that rival hybrids for fuel economy without the added cost of the sophisticated gas-electric powertrain. But you’re in luck if your environmental consciousness or frugality at the gas pump makes you a hybrid candidate. For model-year 2014 there are 46 models from 21 carmakers – more than ever before. They range from small hatchback commuter cars to roomy sedans to seven-passenger crossover SUVs that offer every amenity of their gas-guzzling rivals. Hybrid buyers can get 300 horsepower, even indulge in a few gas-electric supercars with triple that power.
From these, we have picked the best in an assortment of categories and for a variety of needs.
Here are our Best Hybrid Vehicles of 2014:
2014 Honda Accord Hybrid
A Masters degree in interior packaging and a Ph.D. in fuel efficiency make the Accord Hybrid our No. 1 Hybrid pick. With its clean-sheet redesign for model-year 2013, the Accord became the exemplar for family-car design with an unbeatable brew of smart engineering, passenger room, and rewarding road manners. The four-cylinder gas models shine for fuel economy, and the 2014 Accord Hybrid’s appearance and function is much like that of any other four-cylinder Accord –except for an EPA fuel-rating of 50/45/47 mpg city/highway/combined. That beats the gas four-cylinder’s already-laudable 27/36/30-mpg rating and is the new benchmark for five-passenger cars.
To achieve these ratings, Honda shelved its long-standing mild-hybrid technology and started from scratch, creating a new full-hybrid system called Two-Motor Hybrid Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD). A mouthful for sure, but it is an elegant design unlike any other. Engineers deftly combined a 2.0-liter four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine developed specifically for hybrid vehicles with a pair of electric motors, a lithium-ion battery pack, and an innovative power-delivery strategy that in effect eliminates the transmission. One motor powers the front wheels, while the other, the motor-generator, makes electricity. The gasoline engine produces 141 horsepower and when the motors operate in conjunction with the engine, total powertrain output is 196 horsepower and 226 pound-feet of torque.
Accord Hybrids can be driven at lower speeds under electric-only power. Then, when the battery pack runs low or it’s time for brisk speeds, the engine kicks in to help. With this system, the gas engine is only rarely connected to the front wheels.
The Chevrolet Volt employs similar technology. But what sets the Accord Hybrid apart is that it has the fine driving manners of any other Accord. Interaction between the electric motors and engine is near seamless. The steering feels natural and braking action from the regenerative system delivers a solid, progressive feel without the grabbiness of many other hybrids. Cabin décor is pleasant, workmanship is solid.
In one fell swoop, Honda leapfrogged to the head of the midsized-sedan mpg ratings, ousting Ford’s Fusion Hybrid and Toyota’s Camry Hybrid, not to mention Kia and Hyundai hybrid models. Base-price range: $29,945-$35,695. (All base prices in this article include the manufacturer’s mandatory destination fee.)