We all love the glamour, speed and technical wizardry of the top-end hybrids, but most people buy one for good gas mileage and the potential savings. So, cheap hybrid cars are actually far more important in the real world.
Of course, budget EVs are getting better every year, but they still won’t work for a large slice of society. A lot of people don’t fully trust the electric revolution, either, and want the fallback of an internal combustion engine that can take the strain if the batteries run dry on a rural road.
It’s a frustrating conundrum, because hybrids are really a technical mess built for compliance, credits and bridging the gap until EVs take over. With two separate powerplants crowbarred into one body then you always pay a price, and the fuel economy in the real world isn’t always that great thanks to the extra kilos the engine has to lug around.
But we have to work with what we’ve got and, right now, a hybrid might be the best solution for you. So, what are the best hybrids money can buy right now that won’t cost the Earth?
We’ve set a relatively high budget of $50,000, thanks to the savings you’ll make at the pumps and with the tax incentives. If you cover substantial miles then a hybrid could put serious money back in your pocket over the lifetime ownership period and that means you can splash out on a better car in the first place.
Here are our top ten affordable hybrids, but feel free to make a case for your favorite car in the comments!
Ford Fusion Hybrid
The Ford Fusion has been with us in hybrid form since 2010 and the Blue Oval has refined the basic concept to create arguably the finest affordable hybrid car on the market.
It looks stunning. This four-door sedan was an ugly duckling, but it has grown into a seriously elegant swan that punches well above its price range. The creased hood and angular front end are pushing the envelope in terms of design, but it’s a distinctive car that makes an impression.
The Titanium spec pushes the price up to $30,630, but lease deals start at $252/month and it does give you leather seats, Park Assist and a slick infotainment system that contains the useful battery info. It also gets a body kit and accent touches that gives the Fusion a real sense of style.
The EPA rating of 43mpg for the city and 41mpg for the highway turns traditional fuel economy on its head, but it shows how far Ford has managed to tune the basic set-up over the years.
Overall, this is probably the best affordable hybrid you can buy right now.
The Chevy Volt is a stunning hybrid and the only real stumbling block is the pure electric Bolt. Why would you buy the hybrid when the EV looks so good? Well it’s still a compelling car if you’re not quite ready for an EV.
For a start, the Volt does 53 miles in electric only mode, thanks to a T-shaped 18.4kWh battery pack, and it will give you a 420-mile range if you fill up the 8.9-gallon fuel tank and bleed the 101bhp, 1.5-liter engine. In the real world, Chevy reckons owners cover 1000 miles before refueling. It gets an EPA-rated 42mpg overall and a relatively meaningless 106MPGe.
It offers Regen on Demand and regenerative braking, too, so you can keep juicing up the battery for silent, energy-efficient driving. With a total output of 149bph, it’s not the fastest car in the line-up. But it does hit 60mph in 7.5s and tops out at 102mph, which is surely all you’ll ever need from a hybrid.
You can charge the battery in just 4.5 hours with a 240V supply and this is a slick-looking car, even though it does share a lot in common with the Chevy Cruze. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but this is a much more expensive car.
The raked roofline also intrudes on the interior space, but the Volt is a stunning car. Or it was, until the Bolt arrived and suddenly made its sibling look old-fashioned and uncool.
Audi A3 Sportback e-tron
The Audi offers something that the other cars on the list just can’t: prestige.
That matters and it turns the Audi into a totally different proposition. It’s an aspirational car with a conscience. You could drive it to the golf club and then sneer with barely-concealed disapproval at the gas guzzling SUVs your friends drive.
You get a combined output of 204bhp, too, which puts the Audi on top of this particular heap when it comes to performance. The 1.4-liter turbo kicks out 150bhp and the 95kW motor help the compact Audi smash through the 60mph mark in 6.5s and on to a top speed of 127mph. In this company, it’s a rocket.
Use a 240V power supply and you can charge the battery in a little over two hours and the car returns a fictional 86MPGe. In the real world you’ll get around 40mpg, but you’ll get it in a luxurious and well-appointed interior that will make you feel good about driving a hybrid.
Of course, the Audi isn’t cheap. But it’s a quality car with no real sacrifices.
Kia Optima Hybrid PHEV
Kia has come a long way in a comparatively short time. The South Korean manufacturer used to be responsible for some turgid offerings that could only compete on price, but it has evolved into a serious contender with slick machines that are still great value.
The Optima was always a lot of car for the money and the hybrid version goes even further between fill-ups. There is a cheaper hybrid that weighs in at just over $25,000 and arguably makes a more compelling case. But we would splash the extra cash and opt for the PHEV version that comes with a peppier electric motor.
A 154 horsepower, 2-liter four-cylinder joins forces with a 50kW electric motor and a six-speed automatic gearbox to give a responsive and relatively fast, 202bhp, four-door sedan.
It can manage 29 miles and 75mph in electric-only mode, but you can’t lock it in electric mode and aggressive acceleration will spark the engine into life. You still get 40mpg, though, so this is a frugal car.
Neat packaging means you only have to give up the spare wheel for the hybrid system and the interior of the Optima is a match for much more expensive metal.
Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid Blue
The Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid Blue looks like a Kia Nero, because it basically is one under the skin. You can choose an EV and a proper plug-in, but the base-level hybrid gets the win here due to the price.
It’s a surprisingly elegant car, especially in profile and that chunky rear end makes up for the slight mess at the front. It’s a novel take on the traditional Kahm-designed shape that has trickled down to a vast number of energy-efficient cars. This one gets a drag coefficient of just 0.24 thanks to grille shutters and a smooth underbody, which counts if you’re trying to hypermile.
Under the skin the hybrid boasts a 104bhp, 1.6-liter inline four cylinder and a 32kW (43bhp) electric motor mated to a 1.6kWh battery pack. The combined output is a relatively paltry 139bhp, but then you don’t go shopping in this sector and expect a supercar.
The plug-in version comes with a much larger 8.9kWh battery pack and a 60bhp motor, but this base-level version returns 58mpg. That means it’s the most efficient car here and that could well be the deciding factor if you’re looking to buy a budget hybrid in the first place.
Toyota Prius Prime
The Toyota Prius was the car that started the whole hybrid movement, but thankfully it has evolved from the painfully slow sedan that hit the market in 1997.
The new Prius Prime is a beautiful looking thing and the front end looks like it belongs on a high-end supercar, while the hatchback is seriously made from carbon-fiber. Those signature light clusters, sculpted vents and low slung nose might be writing checks the powerplant can’t cash, but there’s nothing wrong with looking good while you’re saving the Earth.
Now the Prime is the result of 20 years of hybrid engineering and Toyota has clearly done its homework. You’ll get 53mpg in the city and 55mpg on the highway, together with an almost ridiculous 133MPGe rating. Charge it up, fill it up and run it dry and you’ll be 640 miles down the road.
The 95bhp, inline four-cylinder engine works in tandem with the 90kW (121bhp) motor, but the combined output is just 121bhp. So, it’s no great shock that the Prius Prime isn’t the fastest car here. It hits 60mph in 10.9s and tops out at 115mph, but it does cover 25 miles in electric only mode.
The Prius was the king of the hybrid heap and the new car is still a solid performer, but it has been overtaken by the competition and it simply isn’t the star it once was.
Toyota’s luxury brand bills this hatchback as a sports hybrid, which honestly is pushing it a little. It’s based on a Prius platform, after all, but the engineers did the best they could with what they had.
A 98bhp, inline four-cylinder engine mated to two electric motors that combine to pump 60kW, but the combined output of 134bhp falls well short of the sum of their parts. The two-speed CVT transmission with an Overdrive function is pretty quirky, rather than sporty, but it helps Lexus achieve 73.4mpg.
With a top speed of 10.6s and a top speed of 112mph, the Lexus trails in the wake of other cars here. The chassis simply can’t handle the weight and the team’s ambition, too, and it has been roundly criticized for the way it rides and handles.
BMW i3 with Range Extender
The BMW just slips under the bar when it comes to the price. It’s far and away the most expensive car here, but it does a lot to justify that extortionate price tag.
First, the good points. The i3 is a design revelation, from the Carbon Reinforced Plastic and aluminium frame through to the exterior styling. It’s like a spaceship compared to the rest of the cars here and the interior is a work of art.
It’s an EV, first and foremost, with the optional range extender 600cc engine bringing it into the hybrid fold. The latest model brings a 33kWh battery pack that is good for approximately 125 miles. Then the range extender takes over and that should give you another 100 miles before you run out of juice.
So, the electric only range stomps on everything else here, even though the overall range is the lowest.
The BMW charges through the 60mph mark in 8s and thanks to 170bhp of output and a lightweight frame, it feels peppy throughout the range. The rear-drive set-up means it’s fun in the corners, too.
In reality, though, the i3 is a city car that can handle the occasional highway journey. That makes it hellishly expensive for what it is. But it’s a prestige car with a lot of unique design touches and a premium badge, which just about earns it a place on this list.
Honda Accord Hybrid
The Honda Accord Hybrid is a spectacular hybrid that only slides down the list because it took a direct hit to the face with the ugly stick.
The side profile and rear aren’t that bad, but the front end is a total, shameful mess. If we drove this car, we’d put a bag on its head.
Looks aside, though, the Honda is a sensational all-round car. It’s a proper sedan that can handle highway driving, it returns 49mpg in the city and 47mpg on the highway and it offers 212bhp in total.
You get a two-liter four-cylinder engine that pumps out 143bhp and two small electric motors that combine to produce 135W (181bhp). It does 60mph in 6.9s and tops out at 112mph, which it achieves with grown-up grace.
There are more than 12 million Accords on the public road, so you better believe that Honda has got the interior right. It isn’t the most spectacular car, it isn’t the fastest and it isn’t the best handling machine. It is, however, a very solid all-rounder.
Toyota RAV 4 Hybrid LE Plus
This plucky little crossover SUV has swept the board with the buff books, for good reason. It’s got five seats, it’s peppy enough thanks to the 194bhp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and it returns 24mpg in the city and 31mpg on the highway.
You can squeeze out a few more miles with the two most eco-friendly driving modes: EV and, unsurprisingly, Eco. Sport mode offers an altogether more engaging driving experience when you don’t mind using a bit more fuel.
The low price of entry and the high spec of the LE Plus model combine to create a tantalizing proposition. You get a reversing camera, Toyota’s Entune infotainment, satellite radio, keyless entry and a raft of safety features that include electronic stability control, 8 airbags and antilock brakes all round.
The Toyota is an elegant car, with space for the family, solid gas mileage and a great price tag. It isn’t the best at anything, but it’s good at everything.
That is our roundup of the best budget hybrid cars we recommend. Don’t let the price tag of some of these hybrid cars discourage you – the lifetime fuel economy and any potential incentives could bring their overall price significantly.