Buying Guide: Best 2016 Hybrid/Electric Cars

By

Contributing Editor

A veteran auto journalist and editor of Tirekicking Today, Jim has contributed countless reviews and articles to such publications as autoMedia, New Car Test Drive, and Kelley Blue Book, as well as J.D. Power, cars.com, Consumer Guide, and the Chicago Tribune. He began by writing about antique/classic cars and how-to tasks, before turning to new and used vehicles. Most of his 30 published books have dealt with auto history, along with six children’s titles. His most recent book is the Tirekicking Used Car Buyer’s Guide.


, Contributing Editor - February 29, 2016

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that hybrid-powertrain (battery/gasoline) vehicles—and especially, electric cars—are fading out of the picture. Hybrid sales peaked in 2013 at nearly half a million, but sunk below 385,000 in 2015. Close to 114,000 plug-in vehicles were sold in 2015. Analysts blame cheap gasoline for part of the sales slump.

Yes, it’s true that some manufacturers have ceased production of alternative-fuel models that had been on sale. At the same time, though, quite a few brand-new entrants into each category have emerged.

Coming soon are more, ranging from a Mini Countryman plug-in hybrid to a revival of GM's hybrid full-size pickups. Electric vehicles stretch from tiny (Fiat 500e) to a few sizable examples (Tesla sedan). Plug-in hybrids have gained considerable attention, because they can go farther than pure electrics before recharging.

2016 Toyota Camry Hybrid
Toyota Camry Hybrid

In addition to the long-familiar Prius hatchback, which has a look all its own, Toyota offers a broad range of hybrid cars and crossovers that differ little visually from equivalent gas-engine models. Camry gets the nod here, for tucking a battery/gasoline powertrain into its ever-popular, highly regarded midsize family sedan. Hyundai, Ford and Kia do likewise, issuing hybrid offshoots of the Sonata, Fusion and Optima, respectively.

Fuel economy of the Camry Hybrid cannot match that of the regular Prius, which is estimated by the EPA at 54 mpg in city driving and 50 mpg on the highway. Still, the 43/39 mpg (city/highway) figure earned by the Camry Hybrid LE is vastly thriftier than the 25/35 mpg estimate for a regular four-cylinder Camry sedan.

With the Camry Hybrid, you get a spacious cabin, a comfortable ride, driving ease, and quiet high-level refinement. Except for a handful of body details, the battery/gasoline Camry looks exactly like its conventional-engine mates. But you’ll know the difference as you breeze past strings of gas stations without stopping.

2016 Nissan Leaf (electric)
Nissan Leaf

Not unlike the Tesla S sedan at the luxury end of the electric-car spectrum, Nissan’s Leaf practically turned into a synonym for battery-powered transportation in the more affordable price range. Although electric cars had first appeared more than a century earlier, Nissan was arguably the first company in modern times to aim its sights high, intending to make the Leaf a strong seller despite its pure-battery powertrain.

Because it’s not based upon any other Nissan model, the Leaf (or LEAF) has a unique appearance. Yet, it’s fairly conventional-looking, displaying only a little evidence if its battery-only powertrain.

Initial acclaim died down before too long, but not because of disappointment with the Leaf. Other plug-in models were joining the fray, including Chevrolet’s heavily-promoted Volt, which uses a small gasoline engine to augment the battery and boost the range. Maximum range of battery-powered vehicles has been increasing, but mostly gradually (with the exception of Tesla). Currently, Nissan offers a choice of two battery packs, with an estimated range of either 84 or 107 miles.

2016 BMW i3 (electric)
BMW i3

Not unlike the Tesla S sedan at the luxury end of the electric-car spectrum, Nissan’s Leaf practically turned into a synonym for battery-powered transportation in the more affordable price range. Although electric cars had first appeared more than a century earlier, Nissan was arguably the first company in modern times to aim its sights high, intending to make the Leaf a strong seller despite its pure-battery powertrain.

Because it’s not based upon any other Nissan model, the Leaf (or LEAF) has a unique appearance. Yet, it’s fairly conventional-looking, displaying only a little evidence if its battery-only powertrain.

Initial acclaim died down before too long, but not because of disappointment with the Leaf. Other plug-in models were joining the fray, including Chevrolet’s heavily-promoted Volt, which uses a small gasoline engine to augment the battery and boost the range. Maximum range of battery-powered vehicles has been increasing, but mostly gradually (with the exception of Tesla). Currently, Nissan offers a choice of two battery packs, with an estimated range of either 84 or 107 miles.

2016 Lexus NX 300h (hybrid)
Lexus NX 300h

Toyota and its luxury division, Lexus, have so many hybrid-powertrain vehicles on the market that it’s hard to keep track of the total. That’s been the case for years, as Toyota/Lexus kept adding new models to reach audiences beyond those who prefer the original Prius or one of its offshoots.

Demonstrating that battery/gasoline power is viable in utility vehicles as well as passenger cars, we wanted to include a crossover in this group. Rather than the larger RX 450h, which debuted a decade ago, we decided on the recently-launched, smaller—and flamboyantly styled—NX 300h.

Lexus offers a gasoline-engine version of the compact NX, but with a turbocharged 2-liter engine: the NX 200t. The powertrain in the NX 300h consists of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine and dual electric motors. Fuel economy is estimated at 35 mpg city/31 mpg highway with front-drive. That’s quite a jump from the 22/28 mpg estimate for its IS 200t companion.

2016 Ford C-Max Hybrid and Energi
Ford C-Max Hybrid

Also recommended in our Hatchback category, Ford’s C-Max Hybrid and Energi models (the latter a plug-in) haven’t quite caught on in the marketplace, following a brief flurry of initial enthusiasm. Maybe the obstacle is their European derivation, which translates to different driving characteristics. C-Max models had been popular in Europe for years before reaching the U.S. for 2013.

Because C-Max hatchbacks are unusually tall compared to their footprint, it’s not exactly a surprise to discover that headroom is immense. Excellent ride comfort accompanies satisfying handling, using a somewhat light touch at the wheel. Sure-footed and confident, easy to drive but with a decidedly European feel, the high hatchback exudes quiet efficiency.

Unlike many potential rivals, the C-Max comes only in Hybrid and Energi form. No gas-engine version is available, though that’s been popular in Europe. Mercedes-Benz follows a similar marketing path, making its modestly-sized B-Class available only as an electric crossover in the U.S.

More details on the Ford C-Max Hybrid »

More details on the Ford C-Max Energi »

, Contributing Editor

A veteran auto journalist and editor of Tirekicking Today, Jim has contributed countless reviews and articles to such publications as autoMedia, New Car Test Drive, and Kelley Blue Book, as well as J.D. Power, cars.com, Consumer Guide, and the Chicago Tribune. He began by writing about antique/classic cars and how-to tasks, before turning to new and used vehicles. Most of his 30 published books have dealt with auto history, along with six children’s titles. His most recent book is the Tirekicking Used Car Buyer’s Guide.