The crop of hybrid cars for 2011 represents the most interesting developments in automotive technology since the appearance of the original Toyota Prius in 1997. All point the way to advancements in 2012 and beyond. As a finalist for North American Car of the Year and because it has been described by Edmunds as what "just may be the first practical electric car that real families can actually own," the Nissan Leaf commands top billing on the alternative vehicle list.
The Leaf also illustrates that being a trailblazer in this class of automobile means spending some serious cash. Even after a $7,500 federal tax incentive, the base Leaf sells for $25,280. In practical terms, that buys a car that will run 73 miles on an eight-hour charge from a conventional home outlet. (The Leaf will juice up faster if the consumer spends more than $2,000 on a proprietary rapid charger.) About 20,000 drivers have taken possession of their Leafs with more to follow later this year. There's no major "refresh" of the Leaf planned for 2012, but expect Nissan to be treating the first drivers as benevolent guinea pigs.
In comparison, the 2011 Prius, which US News places third on its list of 19 Affordable Midsize Cars, sells in a range of $22,744 to $27,766 and has a proven track record of performance with a combo electric / gas motor. In fact, it's not much different than the 2010, leading some cost conscious buyers to opt for the older model. The Prius returns the highest fuel efficiency ratings on the market getting 51 mpg city and 48 highway. The biggest change to look for in 2012 will be in terms of form factor. The Prius V "wagon" will be offering about 50 percent more cargo space, and a Prius C is promising "value-oriented" pricing.
Toyota could have a game changer in the works with the Prius wagon, since cargo space is a common complaint in the hybrid class. The issue rises to the top in reviews of the Leaf, and shows up in comments on cars like Honda's "sports hybrid" CR-Z. This is usually paired with some description of a torture chamber backset. In almost all cases, the fault lies with battery placement. With the Leaf, for instance, the back floor is raised forcing passengers to sit with bent knees. Cargo space comes in at a less than impressive 12.2 cubic feet.
The CR-Z, which Honda pitches to singles and couples, only seats two and its trunk, as one reviewer puts it "won't fit more than a week's worth of groceries." The CR-Z does, however, get 35 mpg around town and 39 mpg on the highway for a suggested starting price of $19,345. (The Honda Insight hybrid starts at $18,200 but is a mediocre performer in terms of handling. Fuel wise, it's a sipper at 40/43 mpg which many drivers will be more than willing to consider as gasoline edges ever closer to $4 a gallon.)
Both the Ford Fusion hybrid and Toyota Camry hybrid have fared well with reviewers and are consistently ranked more comfortable than the competition. In fact, they are so spacious that little distinction is drawn in their assessments and that of their gasoline-powered brethren. The Fusion opens at $28,240 (41/36 mpg) and the Camry at $26,575 (31/35 mpg).
Don't expect major changes in any of these cars for 2012 beyond cosmetics, although pretty much everyone is shaving off miles-per-gallon ratings. The 2012 Honda Civic hybrid, for instance, is rumored to have a combined fuel economy of 45 mpg. The real proof in those numbers doesn't surface until the EPA testers get their hands on the cars, but mpg numbers are steadily headed in the right direction.
Right now no hybrid, with the possible exception of the Tesla Roadster, will be hitting the speedway any time soon, but they are emerging as competent performers with an increasingly "gasoline like" feel. Just for kicks, the Tesla pumps out 288 hp with 295 lb ft of torque. If you have $130,000 to drop on an all electric sports car, have fun!
The Prius has a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder paired to a 60-kilowatt electric motor for 134 hp and 105 lb ft of torque. By comparison, the Honda Insight manages just 98 hp with 123 lb ft, while the Ford Fusion offers up a commendable 191 hp and 136 lb ft thanks to a 2.5 four-cylinder / electric motor combo. The Camry ups the power ante to 147 hp and 130 lb ft, but at the current level of the technology, more "umph" equals less fuel economy.
At the highest of the high end -- and the winner of Car of the Year -- sits the Chevrolet Volt with an MSRP of $40,280 and fuel economy rated at 35 city and 40 highway. As eagerly anticipated as the Leaf, the Volt has far exceeded reviewer expectations and sits at 3 out of 22 on US News rankings of Upscale Midsize Cars. The Volt is an electric, but unlike the Leaf, it is outfitted with a backup generator. Range is not a problem. Price is.
The Volt, however, which GM insists on called "an extended range vehicle" is a harbinger of things to come. Estimates say drivers get about 50 miles per 80 cents worth of electrical charge. Anyone who has filled up in the last week will fairly weep in envy at those prices before they faint at the price tag. Factor in all the tax incentives and you're still going to drop $33,500. If, however, GM can get this technology down into range, they have a Prius killer in the Volt.
Toyota has long said it will launch six new hybrids in 2012, including the Prii already mentioned and variations of luxury Lexus models. For the time being, however, expectations for new Toyotas in 2012 have to be put on hold due to the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. A month after the event, Toyota's plants were still idled and associated manufacturers, like battery makers, were reeling from the effects of the catastrophe. In all likelihood, launch dates on all 2012 Toyotas will be pushed back.
All in all, however, it's plain to see that everyone and their dog has some version of a hybrid. For the most part, these cars won't change a great deal from 2011 to 2012, but the technology is evolving rapidly. The Prius remains market dominant, but worthy contenders are nipping at its heels. Many compromise comfort for economy, but in hard times, consumers seem to care less and less. The 2011 crop of alternative fuel vehicles clearly show where the auto industry is headed, which just makes 2012 look more interesting for drivers. Two years from now, it's liable to be a whole new ballgame.