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What's the best stripped-down hybrid?

Fuel economy tops retiree's checklist, then comfort -- but no extras

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Toyota Camry Hybrid

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Ford Fusion Hybrid

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Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

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2011 Toyota Camry for $15,999

2011 Toyota Camry

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When they first came out more than a decade ago, gasoline-electric "hybrid" cars definitely saved more fuel compared to their gas-only counterparts. But their low-volume sales numbers meant automakers were obligated to sell hybrids at premium prices. That's no longer the case.

The near doubling of the price of gas in the past eight years -- and more stringent government fuel-economy standards -- have forced more and more automakers to offer more and more hybrids, and that added supply has meant the price of a hybrid has never been cheaper.

This month's Dear John letter-writer, John Woodsmith from Burlington, Ont., is well aware of the decreasing cost of owning a hybrid. John first looked at purchasing a hybrid sedan five years ago, but the least-expensive offering was the 2008 Toyota Camry, starting at $32,000. Instead, he bought a then-new, four-cylinder Camry. But now, with an eye toward a new car, John has his eye on a hybrid again.

Compared to 2008, when John's only other choice was the $33,998 Nissan Altima Hybrid, the mid-size, five-passenger, four-door hybrid sedan market has blossomed. The Altima Hybrid has disappeared, but along with the Camry, you can also buy hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima twins -- well under the '08 Camry Hybrid's price.

John has been very clear about what he does and doesn't want from his new hybrid sedan. As a retired high school teacher, John spends his active retirement volunteering as a hockey coach in the winter and golfing in the summer. Weekends are spent at a family cottage north of Toronto. In total, he says he drives about 24,000 kilometres a year.

From his new hybrid sedan he expects "good highway comfort." He realizes that compared to their gas-only counterparts, all these hybrid sedans sacrifice rear trunk space for their battery packs. Yet John still needs plenty of trunk space for his hockey and golf gear, and good rear-seat passenger room for taking friends and family to the cottage.

What he doesn't need is a lot of "bells and whistles." He says he's buying a hybrid to "save fuel at the pumps" and doesn't want to "spend extra on luxury or convenience options" he doesn't need.

Alphabetically, my first hybrid-sedan candidate is the new-for-2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid, part of a growing number of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and pure-electric vehicles from the American automaker.

The new Fusion Hybrid's gas four-cylinder engine has shrunk from 2.5 to 2.0 litres, making 141 horsepower and 129 pound-feet of torque, aided by an electric motor rated at an additional 118 hp and 117 lb.-ft. of torque. New lithium-ion batteries and an electronic continuously variable transmission send power to the front wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission.

My second recommendation is from Korea's Hyundai. Although it shares the same gas-electric hybrid system as its Kia Optima platform-mate, the base-model 2013 Hyundai Sonata hybrid sedan starts at $2,000 less than the Kia's $29,995 asking price.

For that money, you get a 2.4L gas four-cylinder. But instead of a torque converter, the Hyundai hybrid has an electric motor that can be disconnected from the gas mill via a hydraulic clutch during electrical operation. Combined, the gas and electric motor make 206 hp and 193 lb.-ft. of torque and send power to a six-speed autobox.

My last hybrid-sedan candidate is the 2013 Toyota Camry hybrid. Compared to the 2008 model John looked at five years ago, the current version is a second-generation model, which, along with the rest of the gas-only models, received a thorough refresh for 2012.

The first to be dropped from my list is the Hyundai hybrid. Although its $27,999 asking price is competitive, the Sonata gets demerit points for the least amount of trunk space (only 10.7 cubic feet compared to the leading Camry's 13). Besides its higher 5.4 L/100 km city and 4.9 highway rating, the Sonata's grabby brakes and non-linear throttle response make it the least refined to drive.

If all John is interested in is excellent fuel economy, he should go for the Fusion. With a 4.0 L/100 km city and 4.1 highway estimates, the Ford hybrid is the most parsimonious here. Unfortunately, the Fusion hybrid's $29,999 starting price means you'd have to drive more than normal to see those savings. And just like gas-only Fusions, the hybrid version suffers from a claustrophobic rear seat and hard-to-figure-out centre dash controls.

So that leaves John with the hybrid sedan -- or at least its modern equivalent -- you originally wanted: the 2013 Toyota Camry hybrid.

Starting at $27,710, the Toyota is the least-expensive car to purchase of this trio, offers excellent fuel economy (4.5 L/100 km city, 4.9 hwy.), a comfortable rear seat and the largest trunk.

The Toyota also offers the most refined hybrid driving experience of this trio. You'll barely notice the changeover from electric to gas -- and vice versa -- and its regenerative brakes are the least intrusive of the lot.

-- Postmedia News

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