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Buying & Leasing a Car

Rating the Hybrids

See how seven of the most popular hybrids stack up in terms of value and environmental friendliness.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.


Toyota Camry Hybrid

Sticker price: $29,500 (est.)
MPG: 43 city/37 highway
Green score: 4/5
2006 tax credit: $1,300
Five-year cost: NA
Versus a nonhybrid: NA

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The Camry Hybrid takes a super-popular midsize family sedan and adds an environmentally friendly powertrain. The hybrid arrives at dealers in May or June, so final price and ownership costs aren't available yet. (The redesigned 2007 gasoline-engine Camrys are already at dealers, with a more contemporary, Lexus-inspired exterior, more power and more standard safety equipment.)

Equipped with a capable, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine plus an electric motor, the Camry Hybrid has decent acceleration (zero to 60 in about 9.4 seconds). The gas engine and electric motor produce a combined 192 hp -- well above the tepid 110 hp of the Prius and Civic Hybrid.

Although the gas-engine Camry and Accord are direct competitors, the two carmakers took different paths with their hybrids. The Camry Hybrid keeps the smaller gas engine and adds electric power to emphasize the green line more than the red line.


Ford Escape Hybrid

Sticker price: $28,060
MPG: 36 city/31 highway
Green score: 4/5
2006 tax credit: $2,600
Five-year cost: $40,600
Versus a nonhybrid: +$1,880


The Ford Escape has the distinction of being the first hybrid SUV and (with its new, nearly identical sister, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid) the only compact hybrid SUV so far. It's also available in four-wheel drive ($29,685; the Mariner with 4WD costs $30,455).

But there are problems. The $1,850 navigation system -- which is also the only means you have to track fuel economy and energy flow in real time -- is outdated. Plan to spend $600 for side- curtain airbags. Unlike the other hybrid SUVs, stability control isn't available. The hybrid's ownership costs are nearly $2,000 more than for the V6-engine Escape XLT, and a hefty $6,000 more than for the 153-hp, four-cylinder gas-engine Escape.

The whole Escape line is getting long in the tooth, and a freshening is planned for 2007. Buyers should probably wait another year to see if the new Escape hybrids have more going for them.


Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Sticker price: $33,635
MPG: 33 city/28 highway
Green score: 3/5
2006 tax credit: $2,600
Five-year cost: $42,800
Versus a nonhybrid: +$3,750


If you want a seven-passenger vehicle, this is as green as you're going to get. The Highlander Hybrid has a 268-hp, V6-packing powertrain good for zero-to-60 times of about seven seconds. Besides the third-row seat, standard equipment includes six airbags as well as a system that anticipates instability and makes corrections.

Like the other hybrids from Toyota, the electric motor can operate solo at speeds under 25 mph, making stop-and-go rush-hour driving the most fuel-efficient way to drive. The Highlander Hybrid is also available in a four-wheel-drive model ($35,035) and in a Limited trim level (starting at $38,495), which offers a moonroof, heated leather seats and alarm system.

If quick acceleration isn't your top priority, consider the four-cylinder gas-engine Highlander, which costs about five grand less to own over five years. Its green score is not as good as the hybrid's but is still above average for midsize SUVs.


Lexus RX 400h

Sticker price: $45,355
MPG: 33 city/28 highway
Green score: 3/5
2006 tax credit: $2,600
Five-year cost: $54,300
Versus a nonhybrid: +$3,360


The first midsize luxury hybrid SUV is essentially a less-spacious Toyota Highlander Limited with a heftier price tag and a few extras. But if you prefer the prestige of owning a Lexus, which confers a four-year warranty and Lexus's legendary customer pampering, then you'll want to compare the $37,065 gas-engine Lexus RX 330 with the $45,355 400h.

Lexus claims that about $6,000 of the extra cost of the hybrid is due to standard features that are options on the RX 330 -- leather seats, navigation system, a moonroof, rain-sensing wipers, rear parking aid, even cruise control. Oh, yeah, the hybrid is also faster than its conventional sibling.

Lexus only recently added this front-wheel-drive model to the lineup. If you feel the need for all-wheel drive, prepare to pony up another $1,500. All in all, you'll pay more for the hybrid -- but not that much more considering you're saving the planet and riding in style.

Next: Slideshow: What a Hybrid Really Costs