On Autos: Hybrid midsize sedans offer painless fuel savings

The Ford Fusion is one of several midsize sedans that are offered with gas-electric hybrid powertrains. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Midsize sedans have long been popular for their combination of spacious interiors, comfortable and quiet rides, reasonable prices and good gas mileage. Buyers of many such models have an option to tweak that formula, though, by paying a few thousand dollars extra to turn their family car into an outstanding fuel-sipper.

The trick isn’t a new one: a gas-electric powertrain, like the one seen in the Toyota Prius hybrid that has been around for the better part of two decades. You can now buy hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Toyota Camry that boost EPA fuel economy ratings by about 10 to 15 mpg.

In most cases, the improvement is even greater in city driving. There, a good hybrid can rely heavily on its electric battery to keep the car running while idling at a light, coasting to a stop or even accelerating gently from one residential four-way stop to the next. It’s the opposite for gas-only powertrains, which are at their worst in city conditions.

For buyers, hybrid midsize sedans demand little sacrifice. The primary hit is to the pocketbook: They cost several thousand dollars extra to buy, and from a purely financial standpoint, city dwellers who drive rarely may never put enough miles on their hybrids to offset the upfront expense. There are few gallons of gasoline to be saved if few are being burned to begin with.

Buyers who like to accelerate hard would also see less benefit from a hybrid, and may be frustrated by their engine response. A final drawback to consider is that the electric components usually take up a few cubic feet of trunk space.

But if you’re still interested, three recently tested updated hybrids are potentially appealing — in different ways. The updated 2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid offers sleek, modern styling; lots of premium features; and an EPA fuel economy rating of 42 mpg. The reintroduced 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid offers ample interior space, excellent visibility and class-leading gas mileage: an EPA-estimated 48 mpg. And the redesigned 2017 Kia Optima Hybrid has a quiet ride, user-friendly interior and long warranty.

The 2017 Kia Optima PHEV has a charging port on the driver-side fender where you can plug it in to get 29 miles of electric range. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The tested Kia Optima has a further trick up its sleeve: For the first time, it’s offered as a plug-in hybrid, meaning that you can charge it up at an outlet to get an EPA-estimated 29 miles of all-electric range. After that range is depleted, it operates like a normal hybrid. The tested Optima PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) even beat its range estimate while driving gas-free around D.C. streets.

The PHEV can cost quite a bit more than the standard Optima Hybrid — a base price of $36,105 rather than $27,285. But sticker shock diminishes if you count the PHEV’s extra standard features, as a similarly equipped Optima Hybrid starts at $32,280. Furthermore, the plug-in Optima is eligible for a $4,919 federal tax credit.

The 2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid combines fuel efficiency and style. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Two other midsize sedans are also offered as plug-in hybrids: the Hyundai Sonata — a mechanical twin to the Optima — and the Ford Fusion. The Ford’s plug-in range is rated for just 21 miles instead of the Optima’s 29, but both can cover a lot of ground within D.C. between charges.

If you prefer a standard hybrid without worrying about plugging it in, the Fusion Hybrid — priced from $26,170 — trumps the Hyundai and Kia for their city mileage. Most hybrids get better mileage in the city than the highway, but the Optima and Sonata are the reverse. Ford’s 43 mpg city rating trumps their 39 mpg, though they do better cruising gas-free at high speeds. But they also offer more intuitive controls and longer warranty coverage than the Ford, and slightly more interior space.

The 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid combines class-leading fuel economy with excellent interior space. (Brady Holt/The Current)

For the most interior room, the Honda Accord Hybrid offers stretch-out rear seat space and an airy cabin. Its excellent visibility trounces the Fusion’s, as the Ford’s styling leaves thick roof pillars and small windows. Honda also offers a handy “EV” button that lets you accelerate harder in all-electric mode, at least until the small battery is depleted. The Fusion’s hybrid system makes all of its own decisions, as does the Accord’s if you don’t press “EV.”

The Honda doesn’t have all the slick technology found in the Ford, though. Instead of the Fusion’s clever and fun displays charting your fuel efficiency, the Accord has fairly basic displays. Its dated-feeling dashboard touch screen is also fussy and slow, and there’s a shorter list of available features. Lastly, the Accord Hybrid isn’t offered in a relatively affordable base version like the Kia and Ford; while it has more standard equipment, its base price is a fairly steep $30,480.

But all three of these recently tested hybrids impress in some way or another, and all achieve the same underlying objective: to boost gas mileage with minimal compromise to the normal experience of a pleasant midsize sedan, especially in low-speed city driving. They’re all worth considering alongside the all-new 2017 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid and an upcoming redesign of the Toyota Camry Hybrid — though today’s Camry, while pleasant to drive, is a little behind the rest of the class’s fuel efficiency.