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Best hybrids for the money

The Toyota Prius c is the smallest

The Toyota Prius c is the smallest member of the growing Prius family, which includes the familiar hatchback that is synonymous with hybrids, a larger wagon and a plug-in model. The budget-friendly c offers up to 53 mpg in city driving, seating for five and more cargo space than its subcompact dimensions might suggest. Credit: Getty Images

Gas prices remain high as we approach the summer driving season. That adds even more relevance to our annual look at how much money today's hybrids actually save buyers versus gas-only cars.

While high mileage figures may seem like they'd impact your family's budget in a positive way, you also have to look into the efficient car's sticker price to know if making the switch would be a wise decision.

To determine if the added cost is worthwhile, we devised an efficiency-cost rating to reflect efficiency bang for your overall buck.

It's simply the combined city/highway mpg divided by the base MSRP. We then multiply that number by 1,000. This formula can be applied to any vehicle type, hybrid or not. A high mpg rating and low price provide a high efficiency-cost rating.

We don't account for equipment levels, quality judgments, cost of ownership or any variances from EPA mileage estimates. The goal here is to pay the least for the most mileage, barring other considerations.

While we break down the picks by segment below, one new player stands well above the rest in terms of bang for the buck. Toyota's new subcompact Prius c returned a score of 2.64, the highest in the five years has ranked these vehicles. It returns the same combined mileage as the traditional Prius liftback model while costing thousands less, thanks to its smaller footprint.

Subcompact Cars

2012 Toyota Prius c
MSRP: $18,950
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 53/46 — 50
Efficiency-cost rating: 2.64

After the success of the original Prius and considering all the forms that hybrids have taken since its introduction (including everything from trucks to luxury cars), many have wondered why a hybrid hadn't yet arrived in a smaller package. Well, technology caught up to that premise with the new Prius c subcompact, proving it was a smart question to ask. The base model at this price comes well-equipped, but we'd expect most shoppers to opt for the $19,900 Prius c Two. Even at that higher price, its 2.51 rating would top the hybrid field.

Compact Cars

2012 Honda Insight
MSRP: $18,350
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 41/44 — 42
Efficiency-cost rating: 2.29

It may not be our favorite hybrid to drive, but the numbers don't lie: The Insight is the best bang for your buck in this price class. It also beats its stablemate, the Honda Civic Hybrid, and its 1.83 score.

Midsize Cars

2012 Toyota Prius
MSRP: $24,000
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 51/48 — 50
Efficiency-cost rating: 2.08

The Prius packs a surprising amount of interior volume for its thrifty fuel numbers. But that added size adds to the price, pushing it beyond the smaller Insight and smallest Prius c. Even though the Prius seems pedestrian these days, its third-best efficiency-cost rating is hard to ignore.

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid
MSRP: $25,900
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 43/39 — 41
Efficiency-cost rating: 1.58

Getting the size and ride comfort of a traditional family sedan with a hybrid powertrain has meant a big drop in the efficiency-cost rating. The redesigned Camry Hybrid offers best-in class mileage at a reasonable price, besting the Kia Optima Hybrid at 1.44. The Kia starts for $200 less than the Camry, but its 37 mpg combined is 4 mpgs lower than the Toyota.

Compact Crossover

2012 Ford Escape Hybrid
MSRP: $30,570
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 34/31 — 32
Efficiency-cost rating: 1.05

Ford's all-new 2013 Escape will hit roads later this year, but the automaker has not yet announced a hybrid version. Before you rush out to get one of the last Escape Hybrids on dealer lots, you should take a look at efficient gas-engine options like the 2013 Mazda CX-5, with an efficiency-cost rating of 1.31 with an automatic transmission. The Escape Hybrid is the only hybrid compact crossover, but the aged model illustrates how the technology doesn't always pay off.

Midsize SUV/Crossover

2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
MSRP: $38,540
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 28/28 — 28
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.73

The Highlander Hybrid remains the only option in its segment with a hybrid powertrain. This default winner mirrors last year's pick. While the Highlander Hybrid's mileage remains the same, the cost has gone up, dragging down its efficiency-cost rating of 0.75 in 2011. But the Highlander Hybrid still defeats even the most basic Honda Pilot with all-wheel drive, which returns a rating of 0.68.

Full-Size SUV/Crossover

2012 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid
MSRP: $51,970
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 20/23 — 21
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.40

Let's face it — there aren't many reasons for green-conscious folks to pick the Tahoe Hybrid over a Highlander Hybrid unless they need the capabilities a full-size SUV brings: interior space and towing capability. The Tahoe Hybrid can tow up to 6,200 pounds with rear-wheel drive, so for those who take their boats to pristine lands, this is the greenest option.

Pickup Truck

2012 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid
MSRP: $39,640
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 20/23 — 21
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.53

While the Tahoe Hybrid might offer a hard-to-find combination of capability and efficiency, the Silverado is less unique. It remains the only hybrid pickup truck on the market, but Ford's new EcoBoost F-150 returns combined mileage of 18 mpg at a base sticker far below the Chevy's price to return a rating of 0.70. The Ford also out-tows the Silverado Hybrid by some 5,000 pounds. Truck buyers may focus on that number more than the EPA's fuel-economy numbers on the sticker.

Luxury SUV

2012 Lexus RX 450h
MSRP: $45,235
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 32/28 — 30
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.66

If you want a hybrid and a lush SUV, there are a few choices that serve that dual purpose well, but the Lexus RX 450h's efficiency-cost rating outperforms the rest. Even with all-wheel drive, the RX 450h at 0.66 outdoes the Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid at 0.34 and Porsche Cayenne Hybrid at 0.30, both of which come standard with all-wheel drive … along with $60,000-plus price tags.

Luxury Car

2012 Infiniti M35h
MSRP: $53,700
Gas mileage (city/highway — combined mpg): 27/32 — 29
Efficiency-cost rating: 0.54

Like the Lexus RX, the Infiniti M35h surpasses a crowded field of large luxury sedans in terms of efficiency-cost. That's mainly due to the competitors' extreme prices – all start over $90,000. But the Mercedes-Benz S400 (0.23), Porsche Panamera S Hybrid (0.26), BMW ActiveHybrid 750 (0.21) and Lexus LS 600h (0.18) fall far behind in combined mileage, as well.

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