As true in any competition, many contenders may vie, but only one can be the champion.
And, now that the Rio Olympic games are underway, we thought we’d score another game with arguably higher stakes than gold, silver or bronze – the race by automakers to propel society away from excessive petroleum usage and climate change emissions.
The ranking for U.S. market vehicles thus defines the “best” as not the fastest, quickest, or most athletic necessarily, but rather the one that makes the biggest contribution in its segment by EPA rating.
However, these winners culled from our HybridCars.com Dashboard are electrified, meaning they use gas part time – or in the case of battery electric cars, not at all.
America’s Fuel Economy Champions in Each Class
Of course plug-in electrified vehicles do also have “upstream emissions” from the local electric grid, unless they are powered by renewable energy such as solar.
The EPA lets you figure how upstream emissions look also, but the short answer is regulators and scientists have generally agreed in most cases electric drive is more efficient and cleaner than gas.
Hybrid Hatchback – Toyota Prius 52/56 MPG
When people think “hybrid,” they often think of the Toyota Prius, and not without reason as it’s been on the market longer than any car on this list. Introduced in the U.S. in 2000, it saw its fourth generation come along in 2016.
This year, two variations are sold – one, the Two Eco with 56 mpg combined, and another with 52 mpg combined available in five trim levels.
A midsized vehicle merging a highly efficient 1.8-liter gas engine with electric motor assist, the Prius is an established benchmark.
Observers however have noted it seems to play second fiddle of late to plug-in vehicles, and that may be so in fans’ minds, but it still has not translated to a significant dent in that bottom-line marker, sales.
Despite Prius sales being down 10 percent over last year, through July, it’s sold 58,405 units just in the U.S. In July alone it recorded 9,930 units – more in one month than the cumulative year-to-date sales of any other plug-in car except the Tesla Model S (14,100), and Chevy Volt (12,214).
Hybrid Sedan – Honda Accord Hybrid – 48 MPG
The midsized sedan class is tightly packed with relatively competitive vehicles, but the revised 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid tops all.
A unique virtual transmission comprised of electric motors simulating a CVT combined with very efficient 2.0-liter Atkinson cycle engine enable this relatively large-in-class car to be the bee’s knees in MPG.
It was just introduced last month after a hiatus for the 2016 model year. Honda found a way to tweak the prior model which had only been launched in 2014. The new motor also does away with rare earth metals bypassing trade conflicts with China.
That’s good for Honda. For us, there’s belief this technology is on its way to more vehicle types to enable more choices.
Hybrid Crossover/SUV – Lexus NX 300h FWD – 33 MPG*
The Lexus NX comes with an asterisk as it only barely nudges out its Toyota cousin the RAV4 Hybrid AWD by a nose in the city mpg category. Specifically, the NX is rated 35 city, 31 highway, and 33 combined. The RAV is rated 34 city, 31 highway, and 33 combined.
The Lexus which was introduced before the RAV4 Hybrid – otherwise shares its platform, and 2.5-liter hybrid powertrain, but may gain some efficiency in that the model in question lacks AWD and costs more. The AWD NX is rated behind the AWD RAV4 by 1 mpg combined.
And otherwise, the market has spoken for the RAV in a big way, as now it sells at close to half the volume of the Prius, having pushed formerly second-best selling midsized sedans out of the way.
Plug-in Hybrid Car – 2017 Chevy Volt – 106 MPGe, 42 MPG, 53 Miles e-range
Although at other times official General Motors’ online materials have put the Volt generally in the class of “hybrid” and “plug-in hybrid,” it offically prefers to draw a distinction by calling it an “extended-range electric vehicle.”
You can call it what you like, but we call it the most fuel-efficient, full-range and power plug-in gas electric car available.
To GM’s point, its powertrain operation is different from “blended PHEVs” like the Ford Fusion Energi, Toyota Prius PHV, etc. A major difference: A full press of the accelerator does not kick the gas engine on as the vehicle has a powerful enough all-electric drive capability to serve as an effective electric car for the entire 53 estimated miles of its battery range.
And make no mistake – it is the 53-mile range that sets this vehicle above others in its class. Even if other PHEVs compete in MPG and MPGe measurements, the Volt runs so much farther than the next-nearest blended PHEV – the 27-mile e-range Hyundai Sonata PHEV – that it is an effective fuel saver.
The only other car that arguably competes is the BMW i3 REx. Worth a mention, the extended-range EV can go 72 miles on all-electric energy. However, its diminutive gas tank allows for just 150 miles total gas-plus-electric range versus over 300-400-plus for PHEVs. Also, power from its 600cc twin gas engine repurposed from a scooter has limited oomph in range-extended mode on highways and up hills.
Other PHEVs are as carefree as regular gasoline cars in all modes of operation, with full power and range, and among these, the Volt is tops in fuel-saving capability.
PHEV Crossover/SUV – Volvo XC90 AWD PHEV – 25 MPG / 53 MPGe
This is one of a growing class of European PHEVs that include also the closely competitive BMW XDrive40e which narrowly beats it in the electric efficiency department with 56 MPGe versus 53, but is edged out in gas hybrid operation at 24 mpg versus 25.
Admittedly, it’s a near toss up, but given EV range is just 14 miles for either, and a foot to the floor may reduce even that, their EV range is relatively low and real world usage stands to see more miles logged in gas operation, so we gave the nod to the slight mpg leader.
For those of you hoping the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV would get here and lead the charts at a lower price point, it has been again delayed until Summer 2017 as Mitsubishi and Nissan consummate a tie up this year.
There is otherwise lots of room in this class for down-market vehicles, but to date, the upscale Euros including the Porsche Cayenne S e-Hybrid and Mercedes GLE550e are all that’s available.
All-Electric Car – BMW i3, 124 MPGe Combined, 137 City, 111 Highway
BMW’s lightweight and super advanced subcompact i3 takes the gold here, far surpassing other competitive electric cars in energy efficiency.
Its 81 miles EV range is on the low side, but that is being remedied as we speak with the 2017 model’s increased range thanks to an updated battery.
All-Electric Crossover – Kia Soul Electric 105 MPGe Combined, 120 City, 92 Highway
The EPA calls this technically a “small station wagon,” but the Kia Soul EV qualifies within the loose definition of a “compact crossover” as much as anything (such as the pending 2017 Chevy Bolt).
The Soul EV has decent range of 93 miles, and is a neat functional car with five-passenger capability with respectable storage capacity.
An upscale alterative – and at this stage the only crossover in the EV segment – is the Tesla Model X. Its 93 MPGe combined is less than the Kia’s, its 238-miles range for the 75D is significantly more, and so also is the price tag.
For now, the humble Soul constitutes more frugal wheels in the scheme of things, with enough range for many people, and it’s otherwise competitive overall against the array of EVs for sale at this time.