Which Hybrid? We Compare the Best from Honda, Toyota, Mazda, and VW

By Matthew Askari | Photos By Rss | March 07, 2014
There's something about the pairing of an engine to an electric motor that has Americans in an absolute frenzy. While the presence of diesel passenger cars has been expanding in the U.S., there's still a grandiose appetite for hybrids as a more fuel-efficient alternative to regular gasoline-powered cars. Just one look around Los Angeles--aside from all the fancy pants cars--and you'd think this was some sort of Toyota Prius utopia. But, let's be honest, the Prius is pretty boring. In fact, if we were looking at hybrids that we would drive or recommend, it wouldn't even make our staff's list. If fuel economy is your sole concern (and you have little concern for your soul), the Prius delivers all day. For our tastes though, we wanted to find a car that--yes, had us going farther on a gallon of gas--but was also desirable. Does it look good? Is it practical? Can you actually have fun driving a hybrid? It's important to note that this is not a traditional comparison. Our lofty contenders included the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid, Toyota Camry, and Mazda6 i-Eloop. For starters, the Jetta Hybrid is in the class below in terms of size, and it's the only one with a turbocharged engine. But we loved its zippiness and found it a blast to drive when we tested it, at times making you forget that you were driving a hybrid. Also, the Mazda6 isn't actually a hybrid. It does however have something called i-Eloop available as an option, which stands for intelligent energy loop. Basically, it uses capacitors to harness excess energy when you apply the brakes, and reuses that energy to do things like power some of the electrical components of the car. What that translates to, is improved fuel economy. Not hybrid fuel economy, but paired with this goofy sounding regeneration system, it'll deliver the best midsize sedan fuel economy in its class. And the Camry Hybrid and Accord Hybrid are more fuel efficient versions of the two best-selling sedans in America. So we thought it was important to include them as well. Also take into consideration that Hyundai and Kia were changing out their models in the fleet, and we weren't able to get a 2014 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid or a Kia Optima Hybrid in time for our test. Kia did however offer up an available 2013 model, which we didn’t take, in order to ensure each model tested was the latest available. Ford was unable to accommodate a Fusion Hybrid for our test, and considering some of the strong contenders that were playing, we understand the hesitance. We looked at a long list of criteria when testing and determining our winner, including things like price (kinda important), style inside and out, build quality, ergonomics, ride comfort, and of course that "gotta have it" factor that really plays a large part in most people's purchase decisions. Which one would we actually want to drive ourselves, or recommend to someone shopping the segment? With a full day, we set out in notorious LA morning traffic--where hybrids really earn their keep--and logged a generous amount of both city and highway mileage, as we cruised on up north of Santa Barbara. Considering hybrids are generally mild-mannered cars, we felt quite strongly about a few things with each model. So, what exactly did we find?

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid

Expectations were high for the Honda Accord Hybrid, as the non-hybrid came away our top sedan in our midsize sedan comparison last year. But this time around, Honda's four-door was up against a very different competitive set. Priced north of $36,000, our Touring model was by far the most expensive model, more than $3,000 above the Jetta Hybrid and Mazda6 i-Eloop models, and about $9,000 more than the Toyota Camry Hybrid that we had. That's significant. But there's also a lot of content, including leather seats, LED headlights, navigation, lane departure warning, and more. The Accord uses two electric motors, and when paired with the four-cylinder engine, puts out a combined 196 hp. We found it to be sufficient for most driving situations.
There were a few things we particularly liked about Honda's fuel sipper. One, is just that: it really sipped the fuel. With a final recording of 41.3 mpg, the Accord Hybrid was the second most fuel-efficient car after the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid. Considering the Accord is larger and roomier, that's impressive. Not the 47 mpg combined city/highway figure that Honda touts, but above the 40 mark, which is still impressive in real world conditions. The Accord Hybrid is also comfy, handles well, is roomy, and has a solid build quality. But it's not all roses. The interior features three different screens--from different manufacturers--with different graphics, colors, and pixilation. The interior also lacks cohesion, with a mish-mosh of materials, textures, and colors. Trunk room is significantly less than the Camry Hybrid, if that's a consideration in your purchase. While the styling won't turn heads, the Honda Accord Hybrid is also inoffensive, but modestly handsome in its own way.

2014 Mazda6 i-Eloop

Well before it arrived in the U.S., we had a chance to test the 2014 Mazda6. We were quickly enamored with its styling--the 6 added a dose of attitude to a segment that until then, saw its best looking cars coming out of Korea--and were equally pleased with its balance of fuel economy and fun. Here was a midsize sedan you could actually enjoy driving. Fast forward to our comparison, and our editors were singing its praises, saying it was the most refined, fantastic looking inside and out, and just plain fun. But the Mazda6 i-Eloop also has a disappointing navigation system, and a small, 5.8-inch screen (we liked the new 7.0-inch one we had on the 2014 Mazda3). While the bucket seats are sporty and look great, a few editors found them less than comfortable compared with the cushier Camry and Accord seats. And while its final 29.1 mpg reading was impressive for a midsize sedan, it came in last place, and more than 10 mpg behind the true hybrids. The Toyota Camry Hybrid's 39.5 mpg was good for third place.

2014 Toyota Camry Hybrid

When it comes to the Toyota Camry, there's a veritable disconnect between the American public and the automotive media. The Camry is America's best-selling sedan, but you wouldn't necessarily be able to tell that from what you read. But what about the 2014 Toyota Camry Hybrid? First, let us give credit where it's due: The Camry Hybrid we tested--as provided and equipped in LE trim--was by far the least expensive model in our comparison. $9k less than the Accord Hybrid, and about $5.5k less than the Jetta Hybrid and Mazda6. And to its credit, the Camry was very comfortable, offered unexpected performance and handling, and was the only car to actually achieve its combined fuel economy rating. At 39.5 mpg, it finished a half mile above the EPA estimate, a rare, pleasing occurrence. That number also rarely wavers. In the city and on the highway--impressively--we were always around that 40 mpg mark.
There's also a simple, "easy to use," nature to the Camry that warrants appeal. It's the kind your parents can get in and drive off, without having to figure anything out. Everything is intuitive and there's a feel of quality that is apparent. So what didn't we like about the Camry? Quite simply, it's uninspired. The interior feels seven years old, and it's a brand new car. As far as styling is concerned, it's far and away the most boring. Glancing at each car in the rearview mirror, there was something to like about each. The Jetta has gorgeous LED front headlights, and looks very sporty and aggressive. The Mazda6 is sensuous and easy on the eyes, and even the Accord Hybrid Touring featured an attractive LED band as part of its daytime running lights (DRLs). The Camry, with its yellow bulbs, looked dated. Every part of the interior and exterior was lacking panache. We wouldn't be surprised to find a few hard caramels tucked away in the glove compartment. With the Toyota Camry Hybrid, you're getting a mixed bag.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

The 2014 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid--like the Mazda6 i-Eloop--is a definite oddball in this comparison. The VW Passat is far bigger, roomier, and directly competes in the same class as the Camry and Accord. But the Jetta Hybrid, with its 1.4-liter turbocharged engine paired with electric motor--good for 170 hp--and smaller frame, offer a measure of sportiness and fun that you can't get in the Honda and Toyota competitors. The exterior features sporty styling, and the interior offers a clean, cohesive, and enticing aesthetic. Music lovers will also appreciate the great Fender audio system. We loved how this car handles, and with the Jetta Hybrid, you don't have to compromise on performance; As far as appeal, there's plenty of it. Even being the best driver in the group, the Jetta also was tops in fuel economy the entire way, and finished with a 41.7 mpg rating.
But the Jetta Hybrid has its faults too. A couple of our editors complained about the punchy brakes, which take some getting used to; Some of us acclimated after an hour, but others said even after a couple days with the car, they weren't used to them. You're also getting vinyl seats on a car that costs more than $32k.

Winner, and Finishing order

It's clear to see that our varied competition made picking a winner a difficult task: Two cars shared an equal amount of first place votes. One car seemed to be everyone's second choice. One model was unanimously last. So, how did it all pan out?
All editors agreed there were things to like about each car, and no car was without faults. And in many ways, buyers should consider what factors are most important to them, which can really skew a purchasing decision. But after spending a couple weeks with these four fuel sippers, and back to back (to back to back) testing of each, here are our results: One car had to be fourth, and once our scores were all tallied, there was one car that lagged far behind: The 2014 Toyota Camry Hybrid. While it's easy to use, comfy, economical, and its fuel economy is the real deal, it’s also wholly uninspired. In the end, bland styling and a lack of anything that especially stands out proved to be the Camry Hybrid's downfall. Our third place finisher was fun to drive, beautifully styled inside and out, and was well-liked by everyone. But like the Camry Hybrid, it didn't garner even one first place vote. While there was much to appreciate, in the end, this is a hybrid comparison, and the 10 mpg discrepancy behind the third most efficient vehicle proved to be too much for the Mazda6 i-Eloop. We salute Mazda for offering up the 6, knowing it was going against true hybrids. The fact that it came into a hybrid comparo with such a disadvantage, and even beat out one of the competitors, says much. Deciding second place was no easy task. First place votes were split among two models, and the two remaining hybrids were really quite different. We loved the fun, sporty nature of the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, and found it had large appeal. But, there can only be one. And in the case of the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid, the combination of great fuel economy, comfort, quality, and practicality notched it to our top spot. Our editors would recommend the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid above any of the models we tested.

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"What's the best car?" It's a question we get asked constantly, and it's a question we ask ourselves, too. The only way to find out is to get them together, put them head-to-head, and pick a winner. That's what we'll do, but with a twist. We won't tell you which minivan is faster around a racetrack, or which economy car is quicker from 0-60 mph. Instead, we'll tell you which is best in the real, day-to-day world of high-speed highways, low-speed commuting, and the rest of the daily grind we all live in.
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5 comments
Automotive.com
Automotive.com

Eric, We had the Nissan Altima in our midsize sedan comparo (linked in this one), and it finished 4th out of 5. Our editors found the Altima to have an excellent chassis and drivetrain, but it was lacking in refinement, and with a sub-par interior. This is a different pool, but we weren't compelled to test it this time around. As automakers update lineups, we're constantly looking at new comparisons, and contenders. We wouldn't be surprised if you see a Nissan featured in one of our upcoming tests. -Matt

Automotive.com
Automotive.com

Our staff was really taken with the Mazda, José and Bret. The Mazda6 i-Eloop is not technically a Hybrid, but uses capacitors to harness excess energy, to power things like the electrical components. It's also fun and looks good. Ultimately, it's 10 mpg disadvantage against the true hybrids was too much to overlook. -Matt