Just two years ago, the idea of a hybrid comparison was laughable. There was the Prius, the Prius, and oh yeah, that little Honda Insight popular with MIT professors, IT nerds and Caltech alumni. You had no practical choice: if you wanted a hybrid, you sacrificed driving pleasure and cargo room and bought either a Honda Insight or an old-style Toyota Prius. If you wanted to be cool, conserve fuel and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, you could drill for oil up in the Arctic –- or just get in line outside the nearest Toyota or Honda dealer. Get in that line, boy, and get ready with your checkbook. You’re doing God’s work, so smile for the camera when the ink you scratch comes out to a thousand over sticker.
At least some things have changed.
Two years of oily water under the bridge, and now shoppers can choose between a new Prius, an SUV hybrid and a sedan hybrid, with more on the way. Now the idea of a comparison –- albeit across vehicle types –- is a credible one, as people who are shopping for a hybrid need to know which vehicle provides the best all-around value. That’s a good question, and one we endeavor to answer with our first-ever hybrid comparison. This is a unique and challenging test, as it pits different types of vehicles with a common technology that has become the nation’s center of attention. People don’t talk about the Ford Escape. They talk about the Ford Escape Hybrid. And the Toyota Prius is just a funky hatchback without its Synergy Drive. Of course, the very idea of a hybrid world without a Prius in it is like talking about baseball without the bean ball.
And here it comes, high and tight: Toyota, doing what Toyota does, put a sack of money –- a big sack –- in the hands of their own MIT professors and told them to keep the Prius credible in a changing market, to keep the competition either gasping to catch up, or, as with General Motors, sitting on the sidelines.
Ford chose a different path.
Not content to sit and watch like its Detroit brethren, Ford struggled to build its own landmark hybrid, and came out with an SUV –- the Ford Escape Hybrid, to be exact. Honda, as the only car company really playing on the same field as Toyota, added the Honda Accord Hybrid to a lineup that already included the Civic Hybrid and the Insight.
Both of these new cars from Ford and Honda offer benefits beyond the considerable charms of the Prius. There’s more room. And more power, along with a more traditional style, all of it in the same price neighborhood. For people who want to buy a hybrid, that choice is excellent news. Shoppers are no longer restricted to the impractical Honda Insight, too-expensive-for-what-you-get Honda Civic Hybrid, or the Prius –- now there’s a different hybrid for different lifestyles, one to fit what you do and how you get there. Because all are priced at or under $30,000 for a well-equipped model, they represent what is most likely on the shopping list of those in the Great Gray Middle Class who want to shed the dinosaur –- and must have a practical, fairly-priced car to do so. A luxury hybrid, such as the Lexus RX 400h, probably doesn’t make it to this list, so it was not tested.
So there you go –- those of you who want to save the planet, you finally have a choice. Be sure to choose wisely.