When Honda launched the first Insight in 1999, the idea of a hybrid car for the mass market was still in its infancy. Since then, Toyota has sold over four million Priuses around the world, and nearly every other major automaker has built its own hybrid car. Some of them are unique models, like the Prius and Chevrolet Volt, while others are adaptations of existing non-hybrid models, like the Ford Fusion and Kia Optima.
The benefit of all hybrid cars is improved fuel economy, especially in urban driving with lots of stop-and-go traffic. When the driver of a hybrid car brakes, a generator captures kinetic energy and stores it in a battery. Then when the driver accelerates, the battery powers an electric motor that supplements -- or sometimes totally supersedes -- a gasoline engine. That means the gasoline engine does less work and can occasionally shut off entirely, saving fuel.
Of course, the expense of electric motors, battery packs, and other components means hybrid cars typically cost a few thousand dollars more than equivalent non-hybrid models. For buyers looking to buy a hybrid car to keep ownership costs down, purchase price can be an important factor. With that in mind, we compiled this list of the ten cheapest new hybrid cars on sale today.
First Place: 2013 Honda Insight
Price: $19,290 (including destination)
EPA Fuel Economy: 41/44 mpg (city/highway)
The Honda Insight may be the cheapest new hybrid you can buy, but that's in part because the base model lacks features like cruise control and its audio system only has two speakers. Upgrading to the Insight LX costs $21,065, the Insight EX runs $22,755, and the Insight EX with navigation is $24,480. Those higher trim levels are priced in line with the Insight's competitors, like the Toyota Prius, and have similar levels of equipment.
This version of the Honda Insight was introduced as a 2010 model in 2009. It uses a 1.3-liter inline-four gasoline engine rated for 98 hp, a 13-hp electric motor, and continuously variable transmission. Its aerodynamic hatchback styling clearly apes that of the Toyota Prius. Unfortunately for Honda, the Insight can't quite match the fuel economy of the Prius. And this three-year-old model doesn't even match the 2012 Civic hybrid's 44-mpg city rating. Even so, the Honda Insight remains a very economical hybrid car.
Second Place: 2012 Toyota Prius C
EPA Fuel Economy: 53/46 mpg
Toyota recently expanded its Prius family, and the baby of the new brood is the Prius C. This small hatchback packs a downsized version of the Hybrid Synergy Drive used by the larger Prius, but its compact dimensions help it out-score the Prius on EPA fuel-economy tests. The Prius C is 19.1 inches shorter in length and 542 pounds lighter than its forbear, yet still manages to seat five people inside its scaled-down body.
The C uses a 1.5-liter inline-four engine with 73 hp, and a 60-hp electric motor. Acceleration is decent at low speeds but disappointing on the highway. Seeing as this car will generally be used in urban environments, its performance is adequate for most drivers. Toyota segments the Prius C into four trim levels called One, Two, Three, and Four. Standard equipment on the One model includes air conditioning, keyless entry, and power windows. Upgrading to the $24,025 Four trim level adds alloy wheels, navigation, Bluetooth, and push-button start.
Third Place: 2012 Honda CR-Z
EPA Fuel Economy: 31/37 mpg (manual); 35/39 mpg (CVT)
The name and design hearken back to the old Honda CRX hatchback, but today's CR-Z is a thoroughly modern hybrid car. Like the CRX from which it draws much inspiration, the Honda CR-Z is a small two-door with a stubby rear and sporting pretenses. It's the only hybrid car on sale today offered with a six-speed manual, although models with the continuously variable transmission are a bit more fuel-efficient.
Even though efficiency is the name of the game, the CR-Z still tries to administer a dose of fun to the driver thanks to a taut suspension, 16- or 17-inch alloy wheels, racy body parts like a rear spoiler, and a Sport mode that tightens the steering and throttle responses. Under the hood is a 1.5-liter inline-four engine that produces 122 or 128 hp depending on transmission, supplemented by a 13-hp electric motor. The Honda CR-Z offers neither outstanding driving nor superlative fuel economy, but it is a decent compromise for buyers who want a thrifty hybrid without completely sacrificing driving enjoyment.
Fourth Place: 2013 Toyota Prius
EPA Fuel Economy: 51/48 mpg
The poster mainstream hybrid is still the segment's most popular vehicle, and Toyota has sold over a million copies of the Prius in the U.S. since 2000. The aerodynamic, functional exterior helps keep reduce drag at highway speeds but isn't necessarily the most pleasing design on the road. The entry price takes into account a long list of standard equipment like power mirrors, automatic climate control, push-button start, Bluetooth, and an iPod audio connection.
The Prius uses Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, which combines a 98-hp, 1.8-liter inline-four gasoline engine and an 80-hp electric motor/generator. The ride can be uncomfortable and acceleration is only adequate, but the Prius makes up for any driving deficits with its stellar fuel economy. It's the second-most efficient model on this list, after the pint-sized Prius C, with EPA tests promising up to 51 mpg in the city.
Fifth Place: 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid
EPA Fuel Economy: 44/44 mpg
Whereas the first four entries in this list are unique vehicles specifically designed as hybrids, the Civic hybrid is one of several normal vehicles that were subsequently adapted for hybrid propulsion. In the case of the Honda Civic hybrid, that meant joining a 1.5-liter inline-four gasoline engine, a 23-hp electric motor, and a lithium-ion battery back. Peak combined outputs of 110 hp and 127 lb-ft don't make for speedy acceleration, but the hybrid is the most fuel-efficient version of the 2012 Civic by a wide margin.
The hybrid also is the second-most expensive Civic sedan, with its price tag eclipsed only by that of the Civic Natural Gas. Fortunately, a long equipment list makes the sticker price more palatable: automatic climate control, a six-speaker sound system with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, power locks and windows, and lightweight 15-inch alloy wheels are all standard.
Sixth Place: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco
EPA Fuel Economy: 25/37 mpg
The Chevrolet Malibu Eco has the lowest fuel-economy ratings of this group. That's not only because the big car is quite heavy, at 3620 pounds, but also because the sedan has a relatively simple hybrid drivetrain called eAssist. The belt-driven electric motor can only provide 15 hp and 79 lb-ft of assistance, and the Malibu Eco cannot drive solely on electrical power like other hybrids. That means the 182-hp, 2.4-liter inline-four engine must always burn fuel to motivate the Malibu, even if it can shut off when the car comes to a stop.
The good news is that the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu is still a very pleasant big sedan. Its four rectangular taillights are meant to remind viewers of the Camaro sports car, and interior room is plentiful. In addition to this hybrid powertrain, there are two other traditional drivetrains. Most buyers will gravitate to the cheaper 2.5-liter inline-four engine, rated for 197 hp and 22/34 mpg. Enthusiasts might want to consider the Malibu Turbo, which has a 2.0-liter turbo-four good for 259 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque.
Seventh Place: 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid
EPA Fuel Economy: 35/40 mpg
The Kia Optima hybrid is another vehicle that offers both traditional and hybrid powertrains. In the case of the latter, a 166-hp, 2.4-liter inline-four engine works in tandem with a 40-hp electric motor to save gas. The Optima hybrid can drive at speeds of up to 62 mph on electrical power alone, allowing the gasoline engine to shut off frequently in low-speed driving. A six-speed automatic transmission, navigation, Bluetooth, and automatic climate control are standard.
There are few outward signs to differentiate a Kia Optima hybrid from regular models. The car's sloping rear windshield, upswept headlights, black mesh grille, LED taillights, and smart 16- or 17-inch wheels look considerably smarter than other entries in the hybrid segment. Tricks like an active grille shutter, underbody trays, and a slightly lower ride height make the hybrid ten percent more aerodynamic than a regular Kia Optima. All that adds up to fuel economy that significantly beats the non-hybrid Optima's ratings of 24/35 mpg.
Eighth Place: 2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
EPA Fuel Economy: 35/40 mpg
The Hyundai Sonata hybrid shares most of its mechanical components with the Kia Optima, so it should come as no surprise that the Hyundai has the same horsepower and fuel-economy ratings as the Kia. As a result, the Sonata hybrid carries a sticker price that's a marginal $175 more expensive than that of the Optima hybrid.
The main difference between the two cars concerns design. Though the Optima hybrid looks only mildly different than traditional models, the Sonata hybrid takes wears a drastically different face. Instead of the elegant chrome waterfall grille on other versions, the hybrid has a gaping black plastic grille. Aerodynamic five-spoke wheels and clear taillights also distinguish the hybrid from normal Sonata models.
Ninth Place: 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid
EPA Fuel Economy: 43/39 mpg
The Toyota Camry hybrid may not be as fuel-efficient as the Prius, but its EPA ratings are still much higher than those of other Camry models. The hybrid uses a 156-hp, 2.5-liter inline-four engine and a 105-kW electric motor, producing a combined output of 200 hp. While passengers have the same amount of space as in other versions of the Camry, the hybrid's battery pack intrudes into the trunk and cuts cargo room from 15.4 cubic feet to 13.1 cubic feet.
Offered only in LE and XLE trim levels, the Camry hybrid comes standard with push-button start, a six-speaker audio system with an iPod connector, ten airbags, power locks and windows, and cruise control. Upgrading to the XLE nets goodies like 17-inch alloy wheels, a touchscreen audio system with Bluetooth, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and more exterior chrome trim.
Tenth Place: 2012 Toyota Prius V
EPA Fuel Economy: 44/40 mpg
Toyota introduced the larger Prius V in January 2011 as an answer to buyers who want the car's well-known Hybrid Synergy Drive and low fuel consumption, but need more room inside. The V stands for versatility, and the car's hatchback design affords more passenger and luggage room that a regular Prius. Cargo room of 34.3 cubic feet bests the normal Prius by 12.7 cubic feet, and there's more headroom for backseat passengers.
Under the hood is the same 1.8-liter gas engine and 80-hp electric motor/generator as the regular Toyota Prius. However, the taller V's fuel economy is lower because it is heavier and less aerodynamic than the normal Prius. Still, the car is far more economical than any similarly roomy and practical vehicle on the market. The long standard equipment list includes automatic headlights, push-button start, automatic climate control, power windows and locks, and an audio system with Bluetooth and iPod connectivity.