For most cars, it’s tough to make a giant leap in fuel efficiency. Automakers have been carefully calibrating their cars engines, transmissions, weights and aerodynamics to inch up their gas mileage, but progress tends to be incremental.
The exception is cars that use batteries and electric motors to reduce or eliminate gasoline usage. Battery tech, less mature than the internal combustion engine, can still sometimes see rapid gains.
We see this most prominently in the rapidly growing range per charge of all-electric cars. For example, when the popular Nissan Leaf debuted in 2011, it could travel about 73 miles before needing to recharge. Just eight years later, the Leaf’s maximum range has nearly tripled to 226 miles.
But even if you don’t want to commit to an all-electric car, you can enjoy many of the same advances in gas-electric hybrid vehicles. Two recently tested midsize sedans offer spacious cabins, graceful styling, and upscale refinement, along with rapidly decreasing fuel usage.
These two sedans are the Toyota Camry Hybrid and the Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid. Both were pioneers in their respective classes that have since spawned many imitators.
Between the two, the Camry masters the art of no-compromise fuel savings, while the plug-in Fusion offers the ability to eliminate gasoline altogether in short trips.
We’ll start with the Camry, which is surely familiar to many D.C. residents; even those who don’t own one may have ridden in one of the District’s many Camry Hybrid taxis or Ubers.
Its appeal is instantly clear for city driving. Like most hybrids, the Camry can operate gas-free while idling, cruising at a steady speed, or even accelerating gently. The battery then recharges itself during the times the engine runs or by using braking friction. Meanwhile, the Camry has a roomier cabin and a more upscale look and feel than the famous Prius.
Best of all, gas mileage soared with the Camry Hybrid’s most recent redesign in 2018. The 2017 Camry Hybrid achieved EPA ratings of 38 to 40 miles per gallon in mixed driving, depending on the trim level. That’s phenomenal for a big sedan, but competing midsize hybrids had overtaken it.
The current Camry Hybrid leapfrogged the competition to provide a Prius-rivaling 52 mpg in mixed driving on the base LE model and a still-impressive 46 mpg on the rest of the lineup. That’s a gain of as much as 30 percent.
Unlike most hybrids, the Camry achieves better EPA ratings on the highway than in the city. However, during a weeklong test, its trip computer reported less than 44 mpg on the freeway and above 50 mpg in stop-and-go conditions — that’s likely because the EPA’s highway test runs at lower speeds than a typical Interstate, and electric motors can contribute more at lower speeds.
In another boost for the new generation, Toyota managed to package the hybrid batteries so they wouldn’t rob trunk space — a notable flaw in competing gas-electric sedans. And it still shares its pleasant ride and handling with other Camry models.
Prices for the 2019 Camry Hybrid start at $29,180, a price premium of about $4,000 over the gas-only four-cylinder Camry. But city fuel efficiency improves from a maximum of 29 mpg with the gas Camry to 51 mpg with the hybrid, which should help defray the cost.
However, Toyota does not offer a plug-in hybrid version of the Camry, leaving that field to Ford, Honda, and a Hyundai/Kia partnership.
Honda recently shook up the midsize plug-in hybrid sedan class with the new Clarity PHEV, which can travel a whopping 47 miles per charge before needing its gasoline engine. But if its futuristic styling isn’t to your taste, the more conventionally attractive Ford Fusion Energi boasts new improvements that make it more appealing than ever.
Citing improvements in its battery chemistry, Ford boosted the 2019 Fusion Energi’s all-electric range from 21 miles to 26 miles per charge. That’s a 24 percent improvement, which makes it that much more likely that you’ll be able to avoid gasoline between recharges. After all, 26 miles covers a lot of ground within D.C.
The Fusion Energi can recharge fully in about 2.5 hours using a 220-volt car charger, or seven hours using a standard 110-volt household outlet. And when you don’t get a chance to charge it, it achieves the same 42 mpg in mixed driving as the non-plug-in Fusion Hybrid sedan.
All Fusion models have less interior room and tighter outward visibility than the Camry, sacrifices made for its sportier styling. The hybrid batteries also rob trunk space, especially in the Energi, whose 8 cubic feet of trunk space is barely half the Camry Hybrid’s 15 cubic feet.
The Fusion’s interior design dates back to 2013, but Ford has improved the control layout and the infotainment system over the years. Its 8-inch touchscreen supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration, an advantage over the Camry, which only accommodates the latter.
Fusion Energi prices start at $35,590. That may sound lofty, but keep in mind that all plug-in hybrid Fusions come in the fully loaded, opulently equipped Titanium trim. Buyers can also claim a $4,609 federal tax credit. If that’s still too steep, or you don’t have a way to plug into the grid, the standard Fusion Hybrid starts at $28,550, but its Titanium model rivals the Energi at $35,480. All Fusion models regularly sell with generous discounts off the sticker price.