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Budget Hybrids Go Mainstream

Thanks to the Toyota Prius and Honda’s original Insight, hybrid technology has been available to mainstream consumers for more than a decade now. At this point, there are more than six million hybrids on the roads of the world-and more than half of those are Priuses. Yet, despite that popularity, hybrids’ high prices have kept them out of the hands of the majority of the car-buying public.

Now, with gas prices remaining high and consumer interest in the environment sharper than ever, manufacturers have started a full-court press to introduce hybrids to the market in many different shapes and sizes. It’s good news for budget-conscious shoppers because now there are several hybrids you can buy at a base price lower than $25,000-and some that even start below $20,000.

We’ve assembled a list of these budget hybrids, ordered by base price from lowest to highest, to make research easier. It used to take years for the price premium of a hybrid to pay itself off in savings at the pump. Now, with these less expensive hybrids, it could take less than a year.

2012 Honda Insight

Base Price: $19,290 including destination

Fully Loaded: $24,792

Fuel Economy (City/Hwy/Comb): 41/44/42 mpg

Although it hasn’t received the best of reviews-taking knocks for its lackluster handling and cheap interior feel-there’s no arguing with the Insight’s bargain-bin pricing. Until this year, the Insight was the only sub-$20,000 hybrid you could buy in the U.S. Today, faced with stiffer competition from Toyota in the budget battle, the Insight is starting to show its age.

Of note, it has a less advanced hybrid drivetrain than others in this category – called a “mild hybrid” – which is belied by its lower fuel economy.

2012 Toyota Prius C

Base Price: $19,710 including destination

Fully Loaded: $25,140

Fuel Economy (City/Hwy/Comb): 53/46/50 mpg

All new for 2012, the Prius C has come out of the gate swinging. This car is so hot, in fact, that dealers are barely able to keep it on their lots. With understated cute looks, incredible fuel economy and available advanced features, the Prius C represents one of the best values out there.

It competes in the same category as the Honda Insight, but the Prius C is clearly the winner in this category. Even though the Insight is about 15 inches longer, the Prius C has more cargo capacity in the trunk with the rear seats up.

2012 Honda CR-Z

Base Price: $20,485 including destination

Fully Loaded: $24,806

Fuel Economy (City/Hwy/Comb): 35/39/37 mpg (with CVT)

The CR-Z is meant to pay homage to the well-loved CRX of old, and as a sporty hatchback it does do that to some degree. It has found its niche with a group of younger buyers who don’t need more than two seats and who want to be green but look cool doing it. Unfortunately, the CR-Z doesn’t perform very well and has middling fuel economy. In an effort to create a vehicle that does everything, Honda ended up with a compromise that doesn’t deliver on either front. Even so, the CR-Z has proved popular with tuners, who have been known to spend thousands to make the CR-Z perform a bit better.

The CR-Z does offer one perk not available to hybrid buyers in any other platform: a manual transmission. Although the more expensive continuously variable transmission (CVT) provides significantly better fuel economy, the novelty of a hybrid with a manual transmission means a sportier ride.

2012 Toyota Prius

Base Price: $24,760 including destination

Fully Loaded: $34,885

Fuel Economy (City/Hwy/Comb): 51/48/50 mpg

The reigning king of all hybrids, the venerable Toyota Prius, is indeed available for less than $25,000. Unfortunately, at that price it’s a bare-bones shell of a vehicle, meant mostly for fleet use. Add a few thousand more, and it becomes a reasonably equipped daily driver. Even at that price, the Prius is affordable, has decent amounts of cargo space, gets great fuel economy and works well as a family car. It’s no wonder there are more than three million of them on the road.

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

Base Price: $24,990 including destination

Fully Loaded: $28,442

Fuel Economy (City/Hwy/Comb): 44/44/44 mpg

The Civic Hybrid largely flies under the hybrid radar. Its svelte, modern and minimalist exterior is unfortunately offset by a spartan and dull interior covered in a sea of hard plastic. Also, because it isn’t a hatchback, the placement of the battery in the trunk means it has about half the cargo capacity of the Prius and even less than the Prius C and the Insight. It gets decent fuel economy, but when compared with the Prius there’s no question that the Prius is the mileage champ. If you need an actual trunk in your budget hybrid, this is the car for you. Otherwise, you may want to opt for one of the better-performing hatchbacks.

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