Family Hybrid Shoot Out:
Accord, Lexus, Highlander, Civic, Prius, and Escape,
and an electric bicycle.

By The Car Family

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http://www.motorists.org/new/carreviews/index.htmlWe tested them all; the Ford Escape, the Honda’s Civic and Accord, Toyota’s Highland and Prius, and the Lexus 400h. And, just to make sure we tested a “hybrid” bicycle, too. There isn’t a loser among them but be warned that you must come prepared with more than gas mileage figures in mind before you decide which hybrid is the best for you. The reason is that each of these vehicles has a forte and a weakness and none have much flare. One thing for sure, if you have a pet that comes running when it hears your car you can pretty much forget it because all of these vehicles run on electric power at low speeds and are virtually silent. The Car Family suggests a silent dog whistle or a noisy garage door opener to save the animal’s self-respect.

We also briefly tested the Chevrolet/GMC hybrid pick-up truck, but since that vehicle is really not intended for family use we have not reviewed it at length. It is just like any pick-up truck, except for the extra 110 outlets in the bed and in the interior that enable you to run power equipment and generators with the truck idling. If you are a contractor you must consider this vehicle as it can easily save ten percent off your fuel costs or more. It is interesting that General Motors feels that if all its models were equipped with the shutdown feature it would save the nation millions of gallons of gas. Look for them to make more vehicles with this useful feature. As for the new Saturn Greenline Vue SUV, it is well priced at $23,000, but is not really a hybrid as the others are in the fact that the electric engines just provide additional power when the fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine needs extra poke. On the plus side, we got nearly 27 mpg in this roomy Saturn on unleaded. However, it was clearly lacking in power when fully loaded or going into the mountains. The interior has lots of storage and the ride is excellent. As General Motor’s pick-up truck, it is at best a stopgap measure. If you do drive extensively in town it is a worthwhile consideration.


The first question to ask is whether you really need a hybrid. It would be foolhardy to simply buy one because they get better fuel mileage. For example, if you don’t spend at least 50 percent of your travel in traffic you can do as well with a diesel powered vehicle or a compact car such as the Toyota Corolla. The reason is that hybrids give the best return on your investment when they are using their battery power and they do this at constant speeds under 30 mph. Indeed, when they come to a stop the gasoline engine shuts down completely to save fuel. During one of our tests we went over 15 miles and the gas engine never needed to start. So hybrids are an excellent commuter car. Secondly, if you like more performance from your vehicle, but don’t want to pay in extra fuel consumption the hybrid fits the bill. The electric motors provide instant torque or motion so that even a small four-cylinder engine feels like a potent V6 or even V8 without suffering a gas penalty at the pump. Next, some heavily populated cities allow you to drive by yourself in the high occupancy lanes significantly shortening your commute. Finally, if you just like to talk about saving the environment or how far your last fill-up got you the hybrid is good fodder.

You should note that all hybrids have some distinct disadvantages. Except for the Accord, Highlander, and Lexus all of the hybrids get significantly reduced fuel mileage at highway speeds. Secondly, maintenance costs are more for a hybrid because you have both a gas engine and an electronic motor system to service. Finally, except for the Toyota Prius all the vehicles are very similar to their donor cars. Thus the new Honda Civic hybrid is virtually the same as the gas-powered version and so are the Highlander and Lexus. So if you want to be identified as a “green” person only the Prius can help your cause.

One question we were always asked concerned plugging the car in to recharge the batteries. The answer is never. The batteries are recharged by the engine as well as the energy created when braking. It is a self-contained system. Another hybrid idiosyncrasy was the fact that when the engine switches from electric to gas the car tends to shudder a bit. You quickly get used to this feeling as well as the silence when the engine shuts down at stoplights or when traffic quits moving. It starts instantly when your foot is removed from the brake or you step on the gas. By the way, the heater and air conditioning and all the other accessories work even with the engine is paused. Finally, the brakes feel different because the energy is used to recharge the batteries. They work fine, but the pedal feel is quite numb.

Pricing is another significant factor as the price of the hybriderization of a vehicle can add several thousand dollars to its cost. Adding to that factor is that most companies load them up with features. For example, the only way to compare a gas powered Lexus RX 330 with its hybrid sister, the 400h is to outfit both vehicles with similar options. When that is done the cost is about $2000 to $4000 more. That difference is the cost of the hybrid system. Before you bemoan that fact remember that hybrids are retaining their values more than any other vehicle according to www.nada.com.

Getting into specifics, the Accord hybrid lists for about $30,000. It gets about 32 mpg in mixed driving, and is very fast. We find it difficult to recommend it when the Accord with the four-cylinder gas engine with a standard transmission gets nearly the same mileage and is $12,000 less expensive. However, if you want to go fast the Accord is it. The Ford Escape hybrid starts around $26,000 and climbs into the $30,000s for an all wheel drive version which is a premium of $3000 or more. You sacrifice little in terms of performance and room over the V6 powered version, but you only get about six miles more per gallon with the hybrid. The Prius begins at $20,000 for the base model, as does the Civic. The Highlander is priced well into the $30,000 bracket and the Lexus can easily top $50,000. Why the tremendous difference in pricing between these two very identical Toyota built SUVs? Well, if you have to ask you can’t afford it. In other words in you desire panache and are into leather and electronic doodads order the Lexus. If you have a dog that runs around rather than being carried in a purse, the Highlander is the better bet.

Another valuable question to ask is how long it would take to pay back the extra cost of the hybrid’s technology. If a gallon of gas were selling for about $2.50 you would have to travel in excess of 20,000 miles a year for at least three years to make up the difference. If the price goes higher or you drive more the hybrid pay-off is quicker. Of concern for those who don’t lease is the fact that the battery packs are going to need to be replaced. As of now they are said to be good for eight years, but the replacement costs can be several thousand dollars. And don’t forget the government is giving tax rebates worth a couple of thousand dollars. http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=104549,00.html

However, these may change at any time so do your homework. http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/tax_hybrid.shtml

Areas of strength are also essential for a consumer to identify. For the Ford Escape, Lexus, and Highland it is their cargo room and quickness. For the Civic it is its handling and highway fuel mileage. For the Accord it is performance. And, for the Prius it is ease of commuting and interior room. We did not test the Honda Insight because it only carries two. Oh, and for the Tidal Force 21 speed bike it the freedom to cut through stopped traffic with ease, destroy the egos of professional bike racers as you unleash the 20 to 30 mph electric powered energy on them, and the fun of getting fit painlessly.

Mom’s view:
The best news about buying a hybrid is that the batteries are included and no assembly is required. The bad news is that at every family gathering the men gather together to discuss who used the least fuel to get there. If you think the government gas mileage figures are optimistic you need to hear these gathering of old farts throw about statistics with the authenticity of their income tax filings.

Anyway, I drove each one and gave them more than a little consideration since my car is getting long in the tooth and I am looking for an environmental sensitive replacement. And yes, I rode the Tidal Force electric bike and don’t ask. The Ford Escape was too noisy inside and I didn’t like the grabby brakes even if they did use the energy to regenerate the battery pack. The seats were good, and it is a doll to load with wide doors and easy access. The turning radius is very large and so parking is something that requires practice. Never attempt it in front of your husband. Visibility is excellent and there is a handy 110 outlet in the cup holder area that would be perfect for running a laptop. Good storage and fairly easy to read gauges make the Ford pleasing. Our test car had GPS but the CD for our area was missing. I would say that the screen looked too small, but either way the best GPS run on a DVD so consider that carefully before ordering this $1500 option package.

My favorite was the Prius. I liked the starting button, the little transmission lever, the easy to master GPS, the great gas mileage, and the large amount of room it offered. I did not like its susceptibility to side winds. It looks cool and I felt good driving it. The Hondas were okay, but they didn’t make me feel special. The Accord was very fast, but I didn’t feel it expressed what I want to say when I drive a hybrid. I reminded me more of an Acura than a Honda with its upscale treatments and power. The Civic needs more interior cargo room and was too stark for me. In other words, efficient, but not fun. The Lexus was too expensive and the Highlander was so droll looking it you wouldn’t even have to take an infant for a ride to put him asleep, just have him look at it. Of note is the fact that Toyota is now heavily discounting the Prius just as the Los Angeles area halts stickers for any new hybrids to use the high occupancy lanes.

Dad’s view:
The hybrid Accord is quite a speedy sedan and is rather roomy. It is fun to drive and I doubt you would ever notice you were in a hybrid. It has a keen look and the interior is well done. Of course, it did cost the most by a wide margin over the other sedans. The Prius has always been one of the most sensible cars we have ever tested. It does everything well and is not offensive. We went on a 300-mile trip on a very hot day and so we would advise you to tint the windows as the air conditioner was having a difficult time. As for the Civic, it is an exceptional handling vehicle that does well on the open highway at speed. A relative of ours has had one for a couple of years and swears by it on his high-speed commute. He averages about 40 mpg. All this is well and good, but my choice is the Escape. It has a good ride; turns well thanks to its all weather tires- the other vehicles had gas mileage oriented ones- and the Ford has a nice look to it. The Lexus and Highlander are both expensive and the Lexus only comes well loaded, as Toyota has loaded up this model. The front wheel drive Highlander is perhaps the fastest non-V8 SUV available, and it has third row seating, but overall the few extra miles per gallon didn’t seem worth the extra funds.

Young working woman’s view:
The Honda Civic just looked like every other car. I want people to notice that I am environmentally aware and the Civic didn’t do that. Of course, it was responsive to drive and eager to please. The Prius was my personal mate. The little girl did everything I wanted, looked good in her silver outfit, and even had an easy to master GPS with a good sized screen. The hatchback combined with the fold down rear split seats made shopping easy. The Toyota was quiet and lady like, something that in these days of Paris Hilton may be under appreciated. The Accord was sharp looking, a hoot to drive, and had the snappiest interior. If I were older I would go this route. The Ford Escape, except for a couple of small nametags, looked like every other Escape. It was also too trucky for me. However, if my new job pays off with added incentives as I move into the business of making websites more user friendly, I would be content in the Lexus 400h. It treats you like a lady, is easy to park, isn’t so high off the ground that you have to worry entering and leaving when wearing a dress, and has flair. I also like the way Lexus dealers treat me. Here is a comparison of the Lexus 400h and the Lexus 330 non-hybrid. Lexus hybrid review

http://www.motorists.org/new/carreviews/lexusrx.html

Young working male’s view:
You think they could build a superior stereo system for these after spending so much on technology, but they didn’t. So don’t buy a hybrid for the sound system in case you were tempted. As for driving them, the Accord is the best. It is like one of those World War two propeller driven bombers that needed a JATO assist to get off the ground. When 255 horsepower from the gas engine isn’t enough, just press harder and the electric motors cut in to give you even more acceleration assist. The interior is luscious, the ride just BMWish enough for my taste, and the look nicely aggressive. As for the rest, they were just cars. The Accord was a statement about the ability of having your cake and eating it too. (I can’t believe I am using dad’s phrases.) And, if you need some music on your travels download my newest songs at http://www.simple-thoughts.net

If you are really serious about saving money and the environment and work less than ten miles from home try the Tidal Wave electric bicycle for about $2000. This is so great we bought one. It is very sophisticated with a cruise control, turbo acceleration when needed to 20 mph, and also is a 21-speed bike. You can get it in two models, mountain and cruiser, and the deluxe model even folds in two for easy transport. Lots of features and a second battery are available for longer commutes. Here is our review:

http://www.auto123.com/en/info/news/carfamily,view,.spy?
artid=29956&pg=1

Family conference:
Soon there are going to be an abundance of hybrid vehicles to choose from and so we recommend you consider leasing if you do not travel too far. The new models may offer superior benefits and come in vehicles that more closely align with your needs. Resale has been strong as well making a lease attractive. You might check with www.nada.com for the latest on prices. Here is what the government lists for upcoming models. http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/hybrid_news.shtml#choices

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