How about 700 miles on a tankful? We test four hybrid family haulers that eke more miles from every gallon.
BY PATRICK BEDARD, PHOTOGRAPHY BY AARON KILEY
Like the price of sea bass on the restaurant menu, the cost of gas has become wildly unpredictable. As this comparison convoy of four family-size hybrids slipped past a station near our headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we noticed the posted price of regular had dropped to $1.78.
No worries, momma. Good thing nobody called on the ad to sell your Tahoe.
Hybrids get more compelling, of course, when gas zooms past four bucks a gallon. But that price will be just a sweet summer memory if Ahmadinejad busts a nuke over Tel Aviv. Closer to home, and more likely to happen short-term, Obama campaigned on a promise to cap and trade carbon, which is guaranteed to put gas prices on the up elevator. So we think hybrids are worth your consideration even if gas has gotten cheaper as you read this.
A little background: The mainstream media has recently been foaming all over itself about “plug-in hybrids,” a new category of someday cars that has replaced the hydrogen fuel-cell cars that were to happen someday in the foamings of a few years ago.
At least plug-in hybrids are technically more feasible than fuel cells. But whether they can soon be brought to market profitably and affordably is an open question.
The four hybrids here are readily available and run entirely on gasoline. They just run farther on each gallon than conventional cars. They do it without power cords. In fact, they are very much like normal cars except that the engines usually shut off when the cars stop moving.
That said, there are substantial differences among the hybrids within this group. The Chevrolet Malibu is what engineers call a “mild hybrid.” Added to its entirely conventional powertrain is a belt-driven motor-generator, this to capture a small share of the energy that would normally be wasted as heat in the brakes, then that energy is fed back into the drive system as needed for engine starting and acceleration. The reclaimed energy is stored in a relatively small nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery until needed. This type of hybrid cannot move the car without running the engine.
The potential fuel savings are small with a mild hybrid. If the added cost is similarly small, it could be a good buy. We’ll see.
The three other cars here are state-of-the-art fuel savers capable of moving at city-traffic speeds for a few blocks or more without running the engine, depending upon speed, slope, and, of course, the battery’s state of charge. These hybrids reach beyond regeneration (capturing “braking” energy) to give the fuel-burning engine a new assignment: It becomes an auxiliary power unit, called upon only when a computer decides that burning fuel is the most efficient way to propel the car.
Toyota has been the world leader in this style of hybrid, and the Camry operates very much like the now-famous Prius, albeit with upsized components appropriate to the dimensions and weight of this much larger sedan. For its Altima hybrid, Nissan licensed Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive technology, so the Camry and Altima operate similarly, even though each relies on the automaker’s own engine.
While Toyota wears the hybrid halo, Ford mostly got yawns for the hybrid system it introduced in the 2005 Escape SUV, even though it was a full hybrid capable of Prius-like engine-off propulsion. Now, five model years later, the latest evolution of Ford’s hybrid thinking appears in the 2010 Fusion.
Never mind the high price of sea bass and the low price of gas, this calls for a comparison test. Which of these four carmakers builds the best family-hauling four-door hybrid?
2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid - Comparison Test
Highs: Stylish sheetmetal, nicely shaped front buckets, fold-forward rear seat expands cargo space.
Lows: Weak on mpg, uninvolving hybrid machinery, droning engine sound, dollar-store plastic interior.
The Verdict: With this halfhearted hybrid, GM lays down another bunt.
2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
Fourth Place: Long Rangers
A warning light comes on when you read through the comment log of this hybrid and find many compliments to the stylists, none to the engineers. As hybrids go, this is weak tea. Not that we’re categorically against mild hybrids. The goal is laudable—gain more in fuel efficiency than you shell out in cost.
But against state-of-the-art hybrids, the Malibu, at its present state of development, seems like too little too late. It was the tail ender in all of our mileage tests, showing especially badly in urban driving—only 19.8 mpg, 12.4 mpg behind the third-best Altima, 17.1 mpg behind the frugal Fusion.
Hybrids make only minor gains on high-speed interstates, so the Malibu deficit was relatively small on that test, 29.9 mpg compared with the pack-leading Camry at 34.8 mpg. In our overall-mileage summation, the Malibu rounds up to 29 mpg, the only hybrid in this group under 30 mpg.
The emotional satisfaction that comes from driving a special-purpose car is completely missing in the Malibu because it’s not discernibly special. The engine shuts down when you brake to a halt, then restarts with inappropriate violence when you lift off the brake pedal. The dash has an abstract gauge to the right side of the cluster with a needle that wavers between charging the battery and assisting the engine, but this simply reflects whether you are decelerating or accelerating—and you know that without looking at a meter. The word “ECO” occasionally glows in green letters in this dial, too, probably good news but too cryptic to be rewarding.
Otherwise, the Malibu shifts through its conventional four-speed automatic in conventional fashion and responds oddly to accelerator commands as the electric assist fades in and out according to an unseen commander. The controls feel abrupt in urban driving and crude compared with the polished nature of the Camry and the Fusion.
The Malibu manages the dubious honor of last place in both fuel economy and acceleration. It eases to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds, 2.1 seconds behind the hustling Altima.
As a people hauler, we rated rear-seat comfort in the bottom half of the class: quite tight on the shoulders for three adults, tight on the instep, too, although foot space is otherwise generous. Because mild hybrids can get by with a small traction battery, the Malibu is the only one of the group to retain the full, fold-forward rear seatback of the nonhybrid models. The battery fits in the customary hybrid place, on the trunk floor just behind the seat, but the top of it is low and fully enclosed in a black plastic housing, allowing long objects to rest atop as they extend into the rear-passenger area.
The as-tested price of this hybrid Malibu is $26,575, by far the lowest of the group, but with cloth seats, no sunroof, and a weight-saving can of tire inflator instead of an honest spare tire, it doesn’t seem like a wise way to spend $3950 more than a base Malibu to save a minor amount of fuel. GM says there’s “very limited availability” of this model. Very limited demand, too, we predict.
2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid - Comparison Test
Highs: Serious hybrid attitude, keeps no secrets from the driver, quick and agile in urban maneuvers.
Lows: Noisy machinery, noisy tires, noisy aerodynamics, unpolished responses to control inputs.
The Verdict: A genuine hybrid with the bark still on it.
2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid
Third Place: Long Rangers
Whether we’re comparing conventionally powered versions or hybrids in this class of family four-doors, the Altima always anchors the zesty end of the range—eager, quick, and rowdy. This hybrid really specializes in test-track numbers.
Zero to 60 is hardly the most important focus of a gas saver, but the Altima delivers anyway, rushing ahead of the others to arrive in 7.1 seconds on the way to the best quarter-mile finish of 15.6 seconds at 91 mph.
Moving on to the main event, in overall-trip fuel economy, the Altima squeaked ahead of the Camry by a slim 0.3 mpg, which allowed it to round up to 32 mpg while the Camry rounded down to 31. In real-world fuel efficiency, these two are about as close as two competitors can be, as you will see when you balance overall mileage against the narrow-focus rural-, highway-, and city-loop mileage results as recorded by each car’s onboard mpg meter [see Fuel Economy chart]. Here, the Toyota out-frugaled the Nissan every time. That said, we’re most suspicious of the Camry’s trip computer because, unlike the others, our calculated, 300-mile average was considerably lower than the results of the individual loops reported by the computer.
While these fuel-economy numbers are close enough for the two models to share the same underwear, their personalities are far apart. The Altima engine is relatively loud and rough, it wakes up from battery propulsion with a jolt, and the system broadcasts a loud whine when you move away from a stop under electric power. The controls are troubling, too, amped up to the point where it’s hard to be smooth with them. Brake-pedal force has annoying variations, perhaps due to regen considerations beyond the driver’s knowing. The too-quick accelerator is particularly annoying: When you’re feather-footing down the street trying to stretch engine-off distance, the smallest twitch starts the burner. Amidst the various tire, wind, road-impact, and drivetrain noises that accompany a moving car, it’s not always clear if the engine is running or not, save for a glance low on the cluster to an orange rectangle enclosing the words “EV MODE.” If you see it, you’re cruising on your electrical savings account.
Possibly some owners just want better mpg numbers and don’t care to be involved in the process of achieving them. But “Driver” is our last name, and we enjoy pushing the hybrid’s envelope of possibilities. The test car, equipped with the nav option, has dedicated screens showing which components of the drivetrain are operating at any given time. It also discloses the battery’s state of charge and energy flow. But none of this breaks new ground, and some of the screens are strangely abstracted—neon pipes for power flow rather than shafts, gears, and wires, for example. Some of our drivers dissented loudly.
This is an agile, frisky car but not a refined player.
In a category where weight reduction is especially important—one of the cars in our comparison gave up its spare tire at least in part to reduce weight—why does the lightest-in-test Altima burden itself with the extra plumbing required for dual exhaust outlets? It’s sportswear, we’re guessing, and it’s a signal that Nissan thinks and acts differently than Toyota, even as they share a hybrid system.
2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid - Comparison Test
Highs: A highly polished hybrid act, top-quality interior, exceptional seat comfort front and back.
Lows: If you expect verve with your mpg.
The Verdict: Refined and sophisticated, a Lexus without the silk-stocking
2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid
Second Place: Long Rangers
This Camry is impeccably mannered and supremely confident in the rightness of its way. It sets the upper limits for smoothness, refinement, and maybe even purity of purpose. No gimmicks, no come-ons, no entertainment for drivers who like to play. Smiles are okay, but don’t let word of them get back to the engineering department.
Our opinions on Toyotas are divided, in general, and most certainly on this car. Those of us who know how difficult it is to achieve perfection love the Camry. The accelerator gain is so linear and gradual that you can squeeze on torque in increments as thin as paint. The flawless smoothness of brake actuation convincingly denies that regen and friction brakes hate to share the task of retardation. The engine discreetly comes alive to pick up the load of propulsion when the electrical side of the drivetrain can no longer keep up with demand. Everything happens seamlessly, as in an expertly conducted symphony.
Still, there is another contingent that insists on motoring verve. And they are disappointed. If you hold your mind just so, the hybrid Camry seems to be an old man’s car, so viscous as it moves off the mark, so isolated from the pavement, so uncommunicative about its management of BTUs and kilowatts and g’s.
And yet, for those who conspire to slip through streets and alleys in silence, keeping the current flowing and the burner off, the Camry is such a happy accomplice. Without the optional nav, the dash tells you very little about the machinery below, but the controls seem to tell all. As with a favorite dancing partner, nothing needs to be said, it just happens. The power comes on in a deliberate way, measured, unrushed.
That means no neck-snapping downshifts accompanied by Shop-Vac sucking sounds, yet the electrical assist gives real muscles to all of these hybrids. They gather up and pass quickly on the two-lanes. For example, this silky-silent Camry sprints from 30 to 50 mph in 4.0 seconds and 50 to 70 in 5.1, improving on the nonhybrid Camry’s marks by 0.3 and 1.0 second, respectively.
Putting aside the hybrid part, the Camry’s people accommodations are top-notch. The test car, optioned up to almost five large from its $26,870 base, was lined in exquisitely soft gray-green leather pulled smooth over subtly sculpted padding. The front buckets give plenty of side restraint without feeling like confinement devices. The shape of the rear bench seat was exactly right to cosset adults on all-day journeys, earning top marks in this category. A thoughtful detail adds cargo flexibility, too. The traction battery has much more capacity than the Malibu’s, yet the vertical dimension has been pulled down just enough to open a useful passage on the right side of the trunk into the back-seat space, perfect for transporting those tournament-length zucchini.
One thing happens in the Camry that we find annoying. The mpg meter resets whenever the tank is filled, a cowardly way to avoid long-term accounting for hybrid benefits or lack of same. In fact, this Toyota has nothing to hide.
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid - Comparison Test
Highs: Impressive hybrid machinery, major mpg, video cluster invites driver into the game, superb quality.
Lows: Loose-feeling CVT on the highway, growling engine on mild acceleration.
The Verdict: Ford hits one over the fence and into the ionosphere.
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
First Place: Long Rangers
Ford has pulled off a game changer with this 2010 model, creating a high-mpg family hauler that’s fun to drive. That achievement has two components: First, the machinery is unexpectedly refined—call it Toyota slickness expressed with car-guy soul. Second, the electronic instrument cluster involves the driver, invites you into the hybrid game, and gives you the feedback needed to keep increasing your personal-best mpg number.
Or you can say the heck with it and opt for a minimum-distraction display that shows little beyond the speedo.
No matter which you ultimately choose, you’re welcomed to the game with green grass and blue sky, a dashboard notion so corny we would groan if it weren’t so vividly executed. Hybrid enthusiasts will select the expert screen. All eyes sweep to the power grouping that shows the level of battery charge beside two columns of discharge meters, one for power consumed to propel the vehicle, the other a sum of all accessory loads (lights, fans, air conditioning, stereo, etc.).
How far can you go without the engine? That’s the game. Easy on the accessory loads, of course, but whenever you’re moving, the propulsion meter gives you an EV bracket. Keep your propulsion power within the EV bracket by modulating the “gas” and you’ll drive on the battery, up to 47 mph under ideal circumstances. Call it a video game to go.
Under normal driving, the engine starts and stops far more often than in the other hybrids. It comes and goes stealthily. Your wife won’t notice, and you probably won’t, either, unless you’re really into the hybrid game.
Nothing about the leather-lined test car, optioned up from its $27,995 base price to $32,555, seemed economy minded except for the mileage readings. On that score, the Fusion topped the others, turning in a 34-mpg score card for the overall 300-mile test run. It also finished highest in two of the three specialized tests, with a 34.3-mpg mark on the rural loop and 36.9 mpg on the city loop. Official EPA fuel-economy numbers are 41 mpg city, 36 mpg highway, roughly 720 city miles between fill-ups. For a four-door with civilized room for five, that’s a standing-O achievement.
Though the Fusion gets out-hustled by the Altima and the Camry—at 3805 pounds, the Ford is the heaviest of the four—we think 8.5 seconds to 60 mph is just fine considering the fuel economy. All of these players were too tightly grouped in braking and roadholding to draw significant distinctions, but for the record, the Fusion did tie with the Altima at 0.80 g for top marks on the skidpad. The suspension feels nicely taut, well planted. The tires communicate more than the Camry’s and speak in tones more refined than the Altima’s.
As in the Altima and the Camry, the power delivery of the Fusion’s CVT is hard to hold steady in cruising conditions. The test logs include many comments about “surging.” Engaging the cruise control deals with it every time.
Ford really hit all the marks with this hybrid Fusion, combining excellent fuel economy with slick manners and an engrossing personality. Fun and fuel economy have finally gotten married in a mid-size sedan.
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid vs. Camry Hybrid, Altima Hybrid, and Malibu Hybrid - Photos
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