Back to back, I've been driving three high-level hybrids via Toyota, the Lexus GS 450h and RX 450h, plus the Toyota Avalon Hybrid for a change of pace. Together, these cars show why Toyota has been so dominant in the hybrid market, but also where there might be vulnerabilities.
First, let's say off the bat that Ford is spoiling for a fight, wants to take Toyota on in the gas-electric market. Earlier this year, Ford was trumpeted that it had achieved record hybrid sales of nearly 20,000 in the fourth quarter of 2012, and has a 16 percent U.S. market share, while Toyota's fell from 68 percent to 60 percent. Through May of this year, Ford sold even more — 37,000 hybrid Fusions and C-MAXs (up 375 percent from the same period in 2012).
That's progress, but Toyota's still reaping the rewards of being first to market with the Prius, a practical family hybrid that happens to get stellar fuel economy. And its hybrids are still pretty darn good. Of the three, I'm can get most comfortable with the GS 450h, though at $68,007 it's hardly in the affordable camp.
If it's hybrid luxury you want, the GS 450h delivers it in a leather-and-wood cabin with access to every conceivable amenity, including a heated steering wheel, rear power sunshade, a very fancy audio system, parking assist, and a $5,205 luxury package. For an effortless drive across the country, this is the car I'd pick. It's quiet, cosseting and yet fun to drive. But all those accessories add weight, and a four-cam 3.5-liter V-6 offers plenty of power at some cost to fuel economy. Today, you don't need a hybrid drive to achieve 34 mpg on the highway and 29 in the city.
Think off the Avalon Hybrid as an affordable version of the Lexus, with a 2.5-liter four in the place of that V-6. The Avalon, bottom-lining at $37,169, offers many of the same advantages as its more expensive cousin, and comes quite reasonable equipped — accessories added only about $800 to the price. And the fuel economy is a much better 40 overall (40 city/39 highway). Iff I had any beef with the Avalon, it was with its retro-without-being-retro-cool dashboard design. The knobs look like they came off a '60s Magnavox dorm stereo.
The Lexus RX 450h wouldn't be a contender for me, because I think "hybrid" and "SUV" are kind of contradictions in terms. This car has a $46,00 base price and delivers 30 mpg combined, again a so-so figure you don't need a hybrid to achieve. It feels big and boxy, and not offering a lot of interior space advantages over the sedans. I'd really like to see Toyota make a hybrid minivan — my friend Michelle was looking for one last week, and there are none on the market.
All that brings us back to Ford, and the C-Max (hybrid and plug-in hybrid). The C-MAX is a far better choice for families than the RX 450h. Toyota does offer the Prius V in this category, and it and the C-MAX are really worthwhile contenders.