Commercial fleets may be the most voluminous buyers of fuel-efficient, gasoline-electric hybrid and pure electric vehicles (EV), but these types of cars and SUVs have grown in popularity among consumers over the past decade, too.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, hybrid sales have increased from a few thousand units a year at the dawn of the millennium to hundreds of thousands of vehicles annually. More recently, sales of plug-in vehicles – both pure battery-electric EVs and plug-in gas-electric hybrids – have been on the rise, accounting for 1.8% of automotive sales volume in the U.S. during the first three quarters of 2018.
Why do people continue to buy EVs and hybrids while gas prices remain low? Simple: they like saving money on their monthly fuel bills, or they’re environmentally conscious. But while many people would like to buy an EV or hybrid, those vehicles are currently more expensive to buy than the internal combustion engine alternatives.
At the start of 2019, the least expensive EV on the market is the Smart EQ ForTwo, a tiny little 2-seater with a base price of nearly $24,000 and an EPA-estimated range of only 58 miles. It might as well be a golf cart. And if you want an EV approaching useful, with room for passengers and triple the driving range, a base Nissan Leaf S will set you back $30,875.
As always, though, used cars present an option for those wanting to leverage depreciation to get some skin in the carbon pollution reduction game. Hybrids and EVs have been around long enough now that many can be found at reasonable prices with a few miles on the odometer.
To help those looking for a quality used hybrid or EV, here are some of the best ones, taking into consideration fuel economy, reliability, and price, among other things. Although the relative newness of hybrids and EVs – and their slow growth in terms of market share – mean that good used examples can be more difficult to find, Kelley Blue Book’s valuation tool reveals a number of solid options in the sub-$10,000 range.
None of them, however, are 100-percent pure EVs.
2011-2012 Chevrolet Volt
New, the Chevrolet Volt costs a pretty penny, and while the second generation of the car offers significantly more all-electric range and fresh styling, there’s still a lot to like about the Volt’s initial iteration. An elegant, visually conservative exterior aesthetic and an interior with an upscale look are the visual buttresses of impressive efficiency and verifiable reliability. Believe it or not, there’s a bit of a cult following surrounding the Volt – a phenomenon not likely associated with a Chevy since the halcyon days of pre-smog Detroit muscle.
My, how times have changed. The flip side of GM’s air quality-bred catharsis has produced a high-quality modern car capable of traveling up to 35 miles without ever firing up the gasoline engine. When it’s needed, the 1.4-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine serves primarily as a generator rather than a direct source of propulsion, using its energy to recharge the battery, which continues to power the electric drive motor. Only under certain situations is gas-engine power routed directly to the drive wheels, such as when driving up the side of a mountain.
It may make some noise when the gas engine is operating, but the ride is smooth and the handling – with the heavy battery pack mounted low in the car – is sure-footed. Best of all, it’s a hatchback, which makes it easy to fit bulky items inside the car when the rear seats are folded flat.
In combined driving, the EPA fuel economy rating for the 2011-2012 Volt is a respectable 94 MPGe, and with the gasoline engine running the car averages 37 mpg. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the Volt a “Top Safety Pick” in 2011 and 2012.
2013-2014 Ford C-Max Energi PHEV
The C-Max has always been a funky-looking little hatchback – undoubtedly a factor in its declining sales over the past half decade. But for used car shoppers, it represents an opportunity to get hold of a car that is both practical and fuel efficient. It doesn’t rate as well in terms of reliability, but as Meat Loaf once said, two out of three ain’t bad.
Cargo space in the plug-in version of the C-Max hybrid – dubbed “Energi” by Ford – takes a hit from the extra batteries this version carries onboard. While the standard C-Max has 24.5 cu.-ft. of cargo space behind the rear seats, the C-Max Energi has just over 19. With the rear seats folded down, the Energi offers about 43 cu.-ft. of cargo space – almost 10 cu.-ft. less than its non-plug-in stablemate.
Despite the reduction in interior volume, either version of the car features the same crossover-style design – the pinnacle of modern automotive practicality. This car was safe when it was new, too, with the IIHS awarding it a “Top Safety Pick” rating in 2014.
Where the C-Max Energi shines, though, is in the fuel economy and safety departments. The Energi features a 188-horsepower propulsion system comprised of a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor sending power to the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission. It’s supposed to be good for 20 miles of all-electric range – not bad among even this year’s crop of plug-in hybrids – and gets an 88 MPGe efficiency rating from the EPA.
In gasoline-only mode (those times when you use up all the battery juice and forget to plug the car in to recharge the battery) the C-Max Energi is expected to get 38 mpg in combined driving, a mere 1 mpg down from the conventional C-Max hybrid model.
2012-2014 Honda Civic Hybrid
It’s no secret that Honda, like Toyota, makes excellent cars. The Honda Civic Hybrid is no exception and combines almost sporty handling with a fuel-efficient drivetrain and attractive exterior styling. Interior styling is, unfortunately, faux-futuristic and polarizing, and the car’s infotainment system leaves much to be desired.
Honda had made a few changes to the hybrid version of its Civic by 2012. While an earlier version was plagued by battery failure problems, the 2012-2014 models, which still fall below the $10,000 mark according to KBB’s private party valuation tool, received top marks in the reliability department. Another benefit of the improved drivetrain is fuel economy; the Civic Hybrid carries a 44-mpg EPA fuel-economy rating in combined driving.
The Civic was an IIHS “Top Safety Pick” in 2012, and got an upgrade to “Top Safety Pick+” in 2013 and 2014. Additionally, the hybrid version come with a forward collision warning system. Unfortunately, the hybrid model’s lithium-ion battery pack digs into trunk space, reducing its volume by about 1 cu.-ft.
2011-2012 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid
Lincoln MKZ sales may be on the decline right now (no one seems to want a sedan these days), and the public’s voracious appetite for utilitarian crossovers has depressed used sedan values. However, that’s good news for anyone looking for a deal on a used luxury hybrid sedan.
Aside from its fancy pants pedigree, the first-generation MKZ Hybrid offers the same benefits as its mechanical twins, the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Mercury Milan Hybrid: good fuel economy, a comfortable interior, and a quiet ride. In fact, if you want an even better deal, seek out a used first-gen Fusion Hybrid or Milan Hybrid, trading the Lincoln’s luxury bits for even better value.
The IIHS named the Lincoln MKZ a “Top Safety Pick” in both 2011 and 2012, and at the time of its debut, the MKZ Hybrid led its class in fuel economy. The EPA’s average estimate for the car is 38 mpg – not at all bad for a luxury car the size of the MKZ. Sadly, that roominess does not extend to the trunk on the hybrid version, where the extra batteries needed by the drivetrain eat nearly 5 cu.-ft. from an already tight cargo area.
2011-2013 Toyota Prius
Although the Prius has been derided by critics as a boring way to boost your eco-cred, it does have a few things going for it.
First, Toyota poured its resources into the hybrid game years ago and has long since figured out how to build cars that will last. The Prius has a well-established reputation for reliability. Second, the Prius has also been an IIHS “Top Safety Pick” since 2010. Third, it’s a practical car, combining midsize passenger space and hatchback practicality with small car exterior dimensions. There is nearly 22 cu.-ft. of cargo space behind the rear seats – a volume that nearly doubles with those seats folded flat.
This vintage of Prius comes equipped with a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine mated to an electric motor and a continuously variable automatic transmission. With a combined EPA fuel economy rating of 48 mpg, the 2011-2013 Prius isn’t quite as thrifty as the latest iteration, which boasts 52 mpg. But compared with many used cars on the market, it can be considered ahead of its time.
If you can square yourself with its bland styling and status as the one-time darling of eco-warriors everywhere, an older Prius can serve as solid transportation.