CARS


Rating the Hybrids

These are the most popular hybrid models. We left out the low-production Honda Insight and the Mercury Mariner, which is almost identical to the Ford Escape. Here are definitions of the factors we used to evaluate these cars:

The MPG numbers are the Environmental Protection Agency's, and therefore inflated, but they work for relative comparisons. You can get gas-mileage estimates from hybrid drivers at www.fueleconomy.gov.

Green scores are based on ratings from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The 1 to 5 scale (5 is the most environmentally friendly) reflects fuel economy, as well as pollutants from vehicle tailpipes.

HYBRID SPECIAL REPORT
How Green is My Hybrid?
Rating Seven Popular Hybrids
Slideshow: What a Hybrid Really Costs
What's Next for Hybrids

The five-year cost estimate includes car-loan payments, fees and taxes, fuel, insurance, maintenance, repairs and depreciation, plus the interest you'll lose on the extra money you pay for the hybrid. The federal 2006 tax credit is also reflected. This credit starts to phase out after a carmaker's 2006-or-later sales reach 60,000, so if you buy a Toyota or Lexus hybrid later this year, you might get a smaller credit. The numbers come from Vincentric, an automotive- research firm.

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Finally, we say how much you would save (a negative number) or lose over five years versus a nonhybrid equivalent.

Toyota Prius

Sticker price: $22,885
MPG: 60 city/51 highway
Green score: 5/5
2006 tax credit: $3,150
Five-year cost: $28,650
Versus a nonhybrid: -$565


To many, the Prius is the epitome of the hybrid. It outshines the Honda Civic Hybrid in sales, and it scores slightly higher on the green quotient. Plus, its save-the-planet buzz is huge, helped by Hollywood heavies who drive the car.

Despite its four wheels and four doors, the Prius feels more like a spaceship than a car. You push the start button and you hear ... silence, thanks to the ultra-quiet electric motor. The shifter is a joystick-like knob on the dash that electronically shifts gears. Audio, climate and most other controls are accessible by touch screen.

Based on five-year ownership costs, the Prius is a slightly better value than the Toyota Corolla LE. It beats the Civic Hybrid, too, even though the sticker price is slightly higher, because five-year fuel costs are a few hundred dollars less, and Prius buyers are eligible for a $3,150 tax credit, compared with $2,100 for the Civic. Rear legroom in the Prius beats the Civic by 4 inches.


Honda Civic Hybrid

Sticker price: $22,400
MPG: 49 city/51 highway
Green score: 5/5
2006 tax credit: $2,100
Five-year cost: $29,900
Versus a nonhybrid: +$305


Honda redesigned the entire Civic line for 2006 and has won a gallery of awards, including Kiplinger's Best New Car in the lowest-price class. It has a bold new look and extra power. The hybrid powertrain has also been slightly reworked to get better city mileage. At idle, the gas engine shuts off with a reassuring thump.

The Civic Hybrid is one of the greenest vehicles on the road -- just behind the Prius. Ownership costs are $1,250 more over five years than for the Prius, but six airbags are standard (side and head-protection airbags on the Prius are a $650 option). Plus, the Civic won the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's top award for crash safety. And though it's slower than the gas-engine-only Civic, the Hybrid justifies its $4,500 premium with only slightly higher ownership costs over five years, thanks to lower fuel costs and the $2,100 tax credit.


Honda Accord Hybrid

Sticker price: $31,540
MPG: 25 city/34 highway
Green score: 3/5
2006 tax credit: $650
Five-year cost: $44,900
Versus a nonhybrid: +$3,350


The V6-plus-electric-motor Accord Hybrid's fuel-economy numbers won't impress your Greenpeace friends, but Honda isn't trying to win over the tree-hugging crowd. Instead, it promotes the car as a performance sedan that gets four-cylinder gas-engine mileage, thanks not only to the electric motor but also to technology that shuts down half the gas engine's cylinders when cruising.

With 253 horsepower, it accelerates from zero to 60 mph in an impressive 6.5 seconds, faster than the V6 Accord. The hybrid gets the same mileage as -- and a slightly lower green score than -- the four-cylinder Accord, at a $7,000 premium. That may be part of the reason that in its first year on the market, the hybrid had tepid sales. Or perhaps it was because the '05 was a $31,000 car that left out amenities such as a sunroof and a spare tire. Those perks have been added to the 2006 model, along with a better emissions rating.



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