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Best hybrids of 2012

Toyota Prius CIt wasn’t but a few years ago when the Prius, the first production hybrid, was seen as a strange bird. The first Prius was far from appealing to the masses;  it was expensive, slow, and not very practical in an active lifestyle sense. Times have changed, however. Now automakers are producing all kinds of hybrids, big and small. Swimming through a veritable rough sea of hybrids can be difficult so we waded in and plucked out the five best hybrids of 2012.

Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Jetta Hybrid

Although the Jetta Hybrid is a 2013 model and went on sale in late 2012, it debuted in 2012 so we’re counting it on this year’s list. Typically, we wouldn’t stray in such a way but the Jetta Hybrid was so good, we couldn’t help ourselves.

The new Jetta Hybrid is the first VW hybrid offered in the U.S. since the Touareg Hybrid, and it is absolutely fantastic. Powered by a 1.4-liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder engine coupled with a motor/generator, lithium-ion battery pack, and seven-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission, the Jetta Hybrid outdid all expectations and made us re-think hybrid driving dynamics.

Starting at $26,990 and ranging up to just shy of $32,000, the Jetta Hybrid is estimated to achieve 45 MPG on the highway making it both cheap to buy and own.

Unlike other hybrids on the market, the Jetta Hybrid is extremely smooth during acceleration, cornering, and braking. The switch from the electric motor to the gasoline engine often proves shaky and unpleasant. Not so, in the Jetta Hybrid. At stoplights the gas engine shuts off, saving gas. Up to the mid 30 MPH range, the electric motor drives the Jetta Hybrid forward. Around 38 MPH, however, the gasoline engine fires back up and takes over.

Both at shut down and restart, the gasoline TSI engine is extremely smooth. Once the TSI engine is running, the Jetta Hybrid is a virtual rocket ship with a 0-60 time of eight seconds, which is pretty good in the hybrid world.

The braking process in hybrids is usually lumpy due to regenerative braking, which forces the electric motor to run in reverse thereby gathering energy and slowing the vehicle. Here, too, the Jetta Hybrid is much more composed and polished than other hybrids.

We loved nearly everything about the Jetta Hybrid and that’s why it made our list. It was peppy, frugal, good-looking, and safe. We just hope more hybrids — VW or not — are more like the Jetta.

Toyota Prius V

Prius V

While the Prius isn’t one of our favorite hybrids, one of its variants is: the Prius V. If you’re anything like us, you’re kind of confused by the newly expanded Prius lineup. To simplify things, just think of the Prius V as the Prius wagon. It’s just easier that way.

Once you think of the Prius V as the wagon, then you might realize why we like it so much. It takes a pretty good idea: the Prius, and makes it better. It’s better because it’s bigger and more usable. Take the rear seat, for example, it can slide forward and back for improved rear legroom. It can also fold flat to improve storage. Up front, the technology is good with a screen that shows power delivery and vehicle operating data. Additionally, the Prius V includes “Entune” an infotainment system that will pair with a corresponding app on your smartphone allowing for in-car search engine operation, Pandora radio, and restaurant browsing, to name a few features — all powered by your phone’s data network.

The Prius V is big and tech-friendly but it’s also, like the other Prii, very fuel-efficient. The EPA has estimated the Prius V to achieve 44 MPG in the city, 40 MPG on the highway, with a combined score of 42. This makes it not only a very family-friendly vehicle, but a very wallet-friendly vehicle, too.

Unlike other hybrids on this list, the Prius V won’t rocket you to 60 very quickly, nor will it turn many heads as you cruise through town. No, the Prius V flies under the radar, doing everything you ask of it and nothing more. It’ll be reliable, durable, and versatile. And that’s why we dig it so much.

Infiniti M Hybrid

2013 Infiniti M Line Hybrid

We have a love/hate relationship with the M Hybrid from Infiniti. We love its power and the fact that it dares to be different. On the other hand, we hate some of those distinguishing characteristics that make it stand out from the crowd.

With a net output of 360 horsepower and a 32 MPG highway rating, the Infiniti M Hybrid sounds like the best of both worlds: gas-friendly with performance sedan power. The unfortunate part about this car is neither can be achieved at the same time.

Yes, in Sport mode, the M hybrid is a rocket ship capable of putting down every one of those 360 horses through the rear wheels. It — and the driver — will have a blast doing it, too.

In Eco mode, the M Hybrid might very well achieve its estimated fuel economy ratings but you might not care. You see; Infiniti engineers got a bit tricky with Eco mode in the M Hybrid. When popped over into Eco mode, the M Hybrid doesn’t just electronically limit throttle response, or increase the range of the electric motor before switching to gasoline power like most hybrids, instead a motor in the accelerator pedal pushes back. Yes, you read that correctly: the gas pedal pushes back against the driver’s foot, limiting throttle application. It won’t let go, either. The harder you push, the harder it resists. It’s absolutely out of this world. It must have been far more difficult to engineer a way to anger the driver with physical force rather than simply using throttle mapping.

Disregarding the bizarre throttle behavior of the M Hybrid, we really liked it. It’s sporty both in and out but also nicely luxurious without mimicking the German drabness of its competitors. The M Hybrid is a little uncouth, a little wild and we like that.

With a starting price of $54,200 the M Hybrid claims to be the fastest accelerating full hybrid on the market. We think this sort of misses the point of a hybrid entirely. But, hey, if you want a sporty hybrid, this is the one.

Toyota Prius C

Prius C

If we hadn’t driven the Jetta Hybrid late this year and fallen in love, we would have named the Prius C, the smallest member of the Prius family, our favorite hybrid of the year. Starting at $19,000 , the Prius C is dirt-cheap. Capable of 53 MPG in the city, 46 MPG on the highway, and a combined mpg rating of 50, the Prius C is the ultimate small car for those living on a tight budget.

Based upon the Toyota Yaris, the Prius C is bigger than you might think, at least on the inside – where it counts. The Prius C offers 104 cubic-feet of interior volume. We liked it because even taller drivers, their friends, and some stuff can all pile in for a fuel-efficient trip.

Under the hood, the Prius C has a 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder gasoline engine coupled with a 73 horsepower electric motor for a net power output of 99 horses. This might not sound like much, but for a little hybrid like the Prius C, it’s plenty.

Typically, hybrids don’t quite live up to their fuel economy estimates but the Prius C does. During very careful driving, we were actually able to squeeze 77 MPG out of the Prius C. This absolutely upset the other drivers on the road with us but we were tickled pink with the results.

Toyota has sold every single one of the Prius Cs that it has built, which makes it an absolute success, especially in the hybrid market, which only makes up for around two percent of the total vehicle sales market. We know why: it’s fantastic.

Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid

2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 HYBRID

Starting at $92,350, the S400 Hybrid is by far the most expensive hybrid on this list and one of the most expensive hybrids on the planet. The S400 is a mild hybrid powered by a 3.5-liter V6, seven-speed automatic transmission, and a three-phase external rotor magneto, which is powered by a lithium-ion battery pack. With a combined power rating of 295 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque, the S400 will go 0-60 in 7.2 seconds. The S400 has been estimated to achieve 19 MPG in the city, 25 MPG on the highway, with a combined score of 21.

Mercedes-Benz is widely considered the preeminent automaker and accordingly the S-Class is considered by some to be the greatest car on the planet. It would stand to reason then that the S400 is the greatest hybrid on the planet. We are not going to deny these claims. The S400 doesn’t do one thing better than its competitors; it does everything better. It’s smoother, more refined, more poised, more confident, more striking to behold, and more fuel-efficient. The S-Class says to the world that you’ve made it and that you value the finer things in life. Hybrids say that you care about the environment. The S400 says, then, that you have it all and want to give a bit back.

The S400 is perhaps the most technologically advanced vehicle on the planet, in addition to being the world’s most refined hybrid. Nearly every new tech feature that is pioneered in the automotive world first debuts on the S-Class. If you want to know what will be standard tech on a Chevy in ten years, look at the S-Class today. Nearly any technology you can imagine in a modern-day luxury sedan, the S-Class has it. In fact, the center satellite navigation screen can display two images at once. Not a split screen, mind you, but rather directional. From the driver’s angle a satellite navigation map is displayed, but for the passenger a movie can be shown — all from the same screen.

It is this refinement and cutting-edge attention to detail that earned the S400 a spit on our list of best hybrids of 2012.