Buyers seeking maximum fuel efficiency are very familiar with the Toyota Prius, the nation's best-selling hybrid vehicle – a car with both a gasoline engine and a self-charging electric motor that reduces fuel use.
But you can also get that same technology in a variety of spacious, refined, stylish midsize sedans, which boost EPA fuel efficiency ratings to the 40s, representing improvements of about 15 mpg over comparable gas-only versions. With little to no visual changes compared to their gas versions, these hybrids quietly save on fuel without telegraphing the driver's hybrid choice like the instantly recognizable Prius.
Two of the best midsize hybrids are the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord, both of which were updated for 2017. And these two sedans fill complementary sections of their market niche.
Both the tested Accord and Fusion hybrids were well-equipped models loaded up with plush leather seating, plus safety technology that includes emergency automatic braking. Both ride smoothly, feature great seats, and offer Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, which can integrate a smartphone's navigation app and some other functions with the car's dashboard touchscreen. Both have relatively small trunks, with some space sacrificed to their electric components.
The two have key differences, though, that will help buyers choose between these two excellent models.
The Accord Hybrid, for the most part, is the sensible choice. A high roof and big windows give the driver a great view out, lend an airy feel to the cabin, and improve rear-seat space. The standard Accord is an excellent family car for these same reasons, and they're retained in the hybrid. Moreover, the EPA projects that the Accord Hybrid's fuel economy trumps the Fusion's – 48 miles per gallon in mixed driving compared to the Ford's 42 mpg – though the Ford beat its EPA estimate during a weeklong test, with 46 mpg, whereas the Honda was dead-on at 48 mpg. (Admittedly, conditions were not scientifically replicated during these tests like they are in an EPA lab.)
But the Accord also lacks the Ford's pizzazz. Exterior styling is more plain. The dashboard's touchscreen graphics look dated and plain, the screen is small and sometimes slow to respond, and the audio controls are fussy to use. And the Fusion Hybrid is full of spiffy graphical representations and useful data about your driving habits, everything from explaining why the engine is on as opposed to just the electric motor, to telling you how many miles you've driven in all-electric mode.
The latter is the key to unlocking a hybrid's potential. To truly make the most of these cars, owners should learn exactly how quickly they can accelerate in their hybrid without needing the gas engine's assistance – a driving style that uses no gas for as long as it lasts. (Friction from braking and, when it needs to turn on, energy from the gasoline engine recharge the electric battery as you drive.) Without attention, your mileage experience is less likely to impress.
The Fusion Hybrid's data spell this clearly. During the car's weeklong test, I averaged 46.0 miles per gallon in 155.3 miles of mixed driving – everything from stop-and-go congestion to interstate cruising. Thanks to careful monitoring of the throttle, nearly half of those miles – 74.3 – were achieved in gas-free driving. But in the hands of other media drivers before me, the Fusion Hybrid had averaged just 37.9 mpg over more than 3,000 miles – and just 33 of those miles used electric mode.
The Honda didn't track this data, but note that it's slightly easier to have electric-only driving in the Accord Hybrid because you can push an “EV” (electric vehicle) button to activate it in most conditions; this mode lets you accelerate harder without the gas engine, but also burns through the car's limited electric range fairly quickly. The Fusion Hybrid also has the advantage of staying electric-only right when you start the car as long as you drive gently, while the Honda insisted upon running its gas engine to warm it up – burning gas unnecessarily when it just needed to be moved a few feet to free another car from the driveway.
There's also a plug-in hybrid version of the Fusion, called the Energi, which lets you charge a larger electric battery from a power outlet to travel up to 21 miles at a time in all-electric mode before the car switches to normal hybrid operation. A comparable version of the Accord Hybrid was discontinued a few years ago after slow sales.
Prices for the Fusion Hybrid start at $26,170; the Accord Hybrid starts at $30,480, but it has many more standard features and the two cars cost about the same when comparably equipped. Competitors include hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Toyota Camry.