10 Best Used Hybrids, Plug-in Hybrids, and EVs Under $20,000

  • Benjamin Preston is an automotive journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Time, the New York Daily News and The Guardian, among other publications. His work has taken him from his Brooklyn home to a few war zones, from Baghdad, Iraq to the Detroit auto show.

can be reached at benjamachine@gmail.com
  • Benjamin Preston is an automotive journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Time, the New York Daily News and The Guardian, among other publications. His work has taken him from his Brooklyn home to a few war zones, from Baghdad, Iraq to the Detroit auto show.

can be reached at benjamachine@gmail.com
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With hybrid (HEV), plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and electric vehicle (EV) sales on an inexorable upswing over the last decade, non-gasoline car options have become more varied and interesting. Even as gasoline prices remain low, more and more people are turning to fuel-thrifty hybrids and EVs as a way to keep annual fuel costs down. Plug-in hybrid and pure electric vehicles now account for 1.8% of new car sales, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Eventually, more new cars means more used cars, and used car shoppers will be happy to learn that there are a number of good sub-$20,000 options among the slightly used, but more eco-friendly models. The search tool on the Kelley Blue Book website makes it easy to find the best ones.

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-tron

2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron in White
With 16 miles of all-electric range, the Audi A3 Sportback E-tron gives entry-level luxury shoppers an opportunity to enjoy a car that’s both sporty and fuel efficient. (Audi)

It’s no secret that Audi makes fun-to-drive cars. Think of a Volkswagen, but with a nicer interior and slightly better handling and acceleration, and that’s what you have in the plug-in hybrid version of the A3 hatch.

The difference between the A3 Sportback E-tron and its gasoline and diesel-powered stablemates is a plug-in battery pack and 16 miles of pure-electric driving range, which contributes to the car’s 83 MPGe combined efficiency rating. After the electric range is all used up, this version of the A3 is still good for an EPA fuel economy rating of 35 mpg in combined driving.

And did I mention that the car looks good? It is an Audi, after all. And while reliability is reputed to be only so-so, it’s hatchback configuration makes it mighty practical. Crash-test results for the 2016 A3 Sportback are unavailable, but the sedan version grabbed an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) “Top Safety Pick+.”

2016-2017 Chevrolet Volt

Blue 2017 Chevrolet Volt driving
Among plug-in hybrids, the Chevrolet Volt is unmatched in terms of all-electric range. It can go more than 50 miles on a full charge. (Chevrolet)

No list of plug-in hybrids would be complete without the Chevy Volt, the latest version of which features more electric-only range than any other plug-in hybrid on the market. The car will go 53 miles on a single charge (more if you’re really, obnoxiously careful about how you drive the car, making other motorists insane in the process.) Used in conjunction with the gasoline that powers the Volt’s internal combustion engine, this Chevy travels 420 miles between stops for gas or electricity – or both.

By way of explanation, the Volt’s 4-cylinder gas engine serves primarily as a generator, like the one you fire up to power your home after a big storm. It starts when the car’s battery reaches a minimum state of charge, but the drivetrain converts its power into electricity that is fed to the electric drive motor. When both systems are used, the Volt earns a 106 MPGe efficiency rating. When just the gasoline generator is operating, the EPA says the Volt will return 42 mpg in combined driving.

Technically, this car seats five people, but four will be happier, especially if those in the back seat are shorter and smaller. The Volt also supplies hatchback utility and folding rear seats, which you’ll need often since the easy-to-access 10.6-cu.-ft. cargo area isn’t huge.

The Volt is safe, too, landing on the IIHS “Top Safety Pick+” list in 2017, and receiving a perfect 5-star overall crash safety rating from the federal government.

2017-18 Ford C-Max

2017 Ford C-Max in White
The Ford C-Max hybrid’s looks may be polarizing, but it’s roomy and inexpensive – an easy choice for budget-minded car buyers eager to save money on purchase price and fuel. (Ford)

It may be kind of funny-looking, but Ford’s bulbous little C-Max grows on people. The reason is simple: people like a roomy interior, easy-access trunk, and great fuel economy. Its low resale price as a used car is just another cherry on top of a very practical cake. Mix in a reputation for reliability and it becomes clear how people come to see beauty as more than just skin deep.

Two versions of the C-Max are available: a standard hybrid and the C-Max Energi, which is a plug-in hybrid providing about 20 miles of electric driving range before the gasoline engine starts to power the rest of the journey. Neither has the elegant styling of the Chevrolet Volt, but the C-Max offers something more useful: more than 24 cu.-ft. of cargo space behind the rear seat, and more than twice that with the seats folded. (Energi models have less cargo room due to the larger battery pack.)

According to the EPA, the C-Max hybrid’s average fuel economy is 40 mpg. The C-Max Energi is rated at 95 MPGe until the gas engine is used, and then overall efficiency measures 39 mpg in combined driving.

Crash-test results are good, but not great. The C-Max received an “Acceptable” rating in the driver’s-side small overlap frontal crash test performed by the IIHS, and received 4 out of 5 stars from the federal government’s crash-testing program.

2015 Honda Accord Hybrid

2015 Honda Accord Hybrid in Silver
A capacious interior and solid fuel economy are the hallmarks of the Accord Hybrid. (Honda)

The newest Accord Hybrid to fit the sub-$20,000 profile may be a little past its prime, but it’s easy to recommend this car so it had to make the list.

Fuel economy is the name of the game, and the Accord Hybrid is expected to return 47 mpg according to the EPA. Plus, the Accord enjoys a well-earned reputation for reliability, and the 2015 mode received an IIHS “Top Safety Pick” rating as well as a 5-star overall safety rating from the federal government.

Like any Accord, the hybrid model’s interior is roomy and accommodating. It’s trunk, however, loses a couple of cubes to the hybrid powertrain’s battery pack. Still, there’s a little less than 13 cu.-ft. of space, which should accommodate most people most of the time.

2017-18 Kia Niro Hybrid

2018 Kia Niro in red
Caption: The Kia Niro hybrid combines fresh styling with hatchback practicality in a vehicle that will probably work well for small families and city dwellers. (Kia)

Kia has been building some fresh-looking cars of late, and the Niro is definitely one of them. The compact hatchback’s hybrid version augments attractive bodywork with a 49-mpg EPA average fuel-economy rating and a reputation for reliability. A more expensive plug-in hybrid adds 26 miles of electric range, but the conventional hybrid’s solid fuel economy and lower price will be attractive to used car shoppers.

Fun-to-drive, loaded with active safety features, and equipped with an appealing interior design, the Niro is undeniably safe. The IIHS calls it a “Top Safety Pick+” and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

This car is useful, too. The rear hatch grants access to 19.4 cu.-ft. of cargo space behind the rear seats, which can be folded down to yield a grand total of nearly 55 cu.-ft. All the front-wheel-drive Niro lacks is an all-wheel-drive option to truly be called a crossover SUV.

2017 Nissan Leaf

2017 Nissan Leaf
The Nissan Leaf was one of the first EVs in the U.S. market, and it enjoys a loyal following. The 2017 model year was its last before a major upgrade. (Nissan)

Among pure electric vehicles, the Nissan Leaf has been available in the U.S. longer than any other mass-market EV (sorry GM EV1, you don’t count). It first went on sale for the 2011 model year, back before Tesla was on anyone’s radar.

As an early player in the game, the Leaf has developed a following, generating a strong reputation for its mechanical reliability and its ability to inspire customer satisfaction. And although the Leaf may not have the range of newer EVs like the Chevrolet Bolt and the Tesla Model 3, it is less expensive, particularly on the used car market.

The 2017 Leaf has an advertised driving range of 107 miles, and the EPA efficiency rating is 112 MPGe. The car’s simplicity and utility lend it further appeal, the rear hatch offering easy access to a generous 23.6 cu.-ft. cargo area behind the rear seats. More space becomes available with the rear seats folded down (but not much more, due to the electric drivetrain components).

If the Leaf lags behind its competition, it’s in the safety department. While the federal government did not provide an overall crashworthiness rating for the 2017 Leaf, the agency did give the car an overall front crash rating of 4 out of 5 stars. Meanwhile, the IIHS awarded top scores for most of its individual crash tests, but gave the Leaf a “Poor” rating in the newer small overlap front crash test. Chalk that one up to a design that essentially remained unchanged from 2011 to 2018.

2016 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid

2016 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid in Blue
All-wheel drive isn’t yet a common feature among hybrids and EVs, but Subaru offered it in very limited quantities with the Crosstrek Hybrid. (Subaru)

There still aren’t very many all-wheel-drive options in the alternative-fuel field. But Subaru, with a reputation as the go-to brand for outdoor recreation enthusiasts to uphold, was a natural to bring one to market. Although a new Crosstrek Hybrid is now on sale, complete with plug-in EV range, the only one available for less than $20,000 is a used 2016 model.

The Crosstrek, with its capable symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, extra ground clearance, and confirmed reliability, is a boon to anyone who lives in a place where it snows a lot. The car isn’t a serious off-roader by any stretch, but it is more than likely to tackle with aplomb anything most people throw at it.

Crosstrek Hybrids are rare, though. The problem is that a regular Crosstrek averaged 29 mpg, according to the EPA, and the hybrid version boosted that number no higher than 31 mpg. That’s not bad for a car that can get you over the river and through the woods in the worst weather, but the price premium was hard to justify.

Subarus are renowned for safety, and accordingly, the Crosstrek has been an IIHS “Top Safety Pick+” for years. Both the hybrid and the conventional gasoline-powered models scored 5 stars in the federal government’s battery of crash testing.

2017 Toyota Camry Hybrid

2017 Toyota Camry Hybrid
A favorite with cab, Uber, and Lyft drivers everywhere, the Toyota Camry Hybrid rolls strong reliability and good fuel economy into one super-practical package. (Toyota)

There’s a reason why so many cab, Uber, and Lyft drivers choose the Toyota Camry Hybrid as the tool they use to win their daily bread. They burn fuel conservatively and rarely break down, even under the most punishing conditions. The trunk is a little smaller than in the standard Camry due to the battery pack, but its roomy interior remains unchanged.

Leave it to American consumers to get bored with a good thing, but the Camry suffered a dip in reputation due to a perception of tedium, so Toyota spiced up it’s styling a few years back. The automaker came up with a car that looks dynamic and futuristic, and that will still get you where you need to go day after crushingly similar day without trouble, all while delivering an average of 40 mpg in combined driving.

Overall, the Camry Hybrid is a great car, and an IIHS “Top Safety Pick+,” too. The federal government gave it a perfect 5 stars for overall crash safety.

2017-18 Toyota Prius

2016 Toyota Prius in Red
No list of capable hybrids is complete without mention of the Prius, still one of the strongest contenders in an ever-broadening field. (Toyota)

What is any hybrid list without mention of the mighty Prius? It may not be many people’s idea of an attractive car, but it has come a long way since its inception more than 20 years ago. Anyway, that’s beside the point. The Prius offers an unmatched combination of utility, economy, and reliability.

With a 52-mpg EPA average fuel-economy rating, there are few hybrids on the market that sip fuel as sparingly as a Prius. People who own them tend to approve, as customer satisfaction also gets high marks among consumers. A roomy interior, easy-to-use hatchback format, and nearly 25 cu.-ft. of trunk space make the Prius a good choice for anyone who needs a do-it-all sort of car. Just fold those seats down to expand cargo room to more than 65 cu.-ft.

This thrifty car is safe, too. An IIHS “Top Safety Pick+” for the 2017 model year, the 2018 Prius was downgraded to “Top Safety Pick” after scoring only “Acceptable” in the passenger-side small overlap front crash test. The federal government gave it a 5-star overall safety rating.

2017 Volkswagen e-Golf

2017 Volkswagen e-Golf in White
Volkswagen’s e-Golf drives with the taut manners of its gasoline-powered Teutonic siblings, but with pure electric efficiency. (Volkswagen)

The Volkswagen Golf has always hewn to exacting Teutonic styling standards, and its EV variant, the e-Golf, is no exception.

Taut lines and a crisp, no-nonsense interior characterize this pleasant little car, which has a battery range of 125 miles and an EPA efficiency rating of 119 MPGe. The 2017 Golf received an “Acceptable” rating in the IIHS passenger-side small overlap front crash test, but because it still excelled in most of the other categories (except headlight performance), the Institute dubbed it a “Top Safety Pick.”

The heavy battery pack that underpins the car – along with the precise handling and firm seats anyone should expect from a Golf or Jetta – gives the e-Golf a low center of gravity and a firm ride. That’s something of a plus in tight cornering, and in combination with German-bred driving manners add to an already likable car.


About the Author

  • Benjamin Preston is an automotive journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Time, the New York Daily News and The Guardian, among other publications. His work has taken him from his Brooklyn home to a few war zones, from Baghdad, Iraq to the Detroit auto show.

can be reached at benjamachine@gmail.com
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