Secondhand Gems: $25K Hybrids That Don't Suck

By Christopher Smith

June 16, 2011

As much as it pains us to say it, petrol north of $3.00 per gallon is looking more and more like the new norm, never mind the $4.00 per gallon prices most of us are paying right now. The good news is that, unlike the 1970s when manufacturers abandoned virtually all bastions of horsepower and performance in the name of emissions and fuel economy, today we live in what could well become the golden age of performance—a time when even family sedans and V-6 pony cars make 300 horsepower. The bad news is that most of these sedans and modern fun machines still often return combined mileage ratings in the low 20s, despite being laden with advanced engine controls and more system sensors than the Millennium Falcon. And achieving those figures typically requires you to spend most of the time driving like your great uncle Floyd, faithfully observing minimum posted limits while perpetually signaling a left turn.

That combined mileage figure also relies heavily on a good mix of highway travel. If you conduct regular urban crawling activities or often find yourself in stop-and-go rush hour traffic, fuel mileage will drop to the point where even a thrifty mid-size V-6 sedan will struggle to crack 20 combined mpg. At that rate, fuel expenditures would reach $2400 per year, based upon the industry-standard 12,000 miles per year and fuel prices at $4.00 per gallon. Bump that mileage to a more realistic 15,000 per year and annual fuel costs jump to $3000; enough to by an early-90s Mazda Miata in decent condition. On the other hand, doubling your mpg will cut fuel costs in half—that’s not exactly chump change, and that’s why, in the face of expensive fuel, even auto enthusiasts are starting to use the H word in their search for a fresh vehicle, especially if family responsibilities factor into the equation.

There still exists plenty of animosity among auto enthusiasts toward hybrid vehicles, especially used hybrids, and we understand that. They’re expensive, oddly styled, numbing to drive, and for most shade tree mechanics they don’t lend themselves well to Saturday afternoon tinkering. At least those are the perceived issues regarding hybrids. Reality is a bit different—time and the continued development of hybrid technology have brought prices down, and not all hybrids feel the need to advertise their green credentials with sci-fi styling. Nor are all hybrids lifeless econo-machines; in fact we’ve been fondly chatting up the likes of the Honda CR-Z and Lexus CT200h, though both vehicles are too new for Secondhand Gems material and they’re not the most practical machines on the market. As for the wrench heads among us, oil changes and brake jobs are still simple do-it-your-self procedures, even for hybrids. And if you’re worried about battery packs, know that most hybrids—including the pair we’re about to discuss—offer generous battery warranties that last at least 100,000 miles or longer.

If you’re an urban dweller with a family who wants to get aggressive on saving fuel without downsizing to a tiny hatchback, we have a pair of mid-size hybrid sedans that price out in the low-to-mid-$20,000 range that just might surprise you. They aren’t going to tear up a road course or leave 300-foot strips of sizzling rubber from a stoplight, but they do administer the basic essentials driving connoisseurs seek while also offering the practicality and efficiency modern families demand.

2010 Nissan Altima Hybrid
Oh, Nissan, we can always count on you to deliver us from the mediocrity of mundane motoring, even if you don’t always get the details exactly right. In this case, the details would translate to a pseudo-sporty mid-size family sedan that isn’t much with the refinement. The Altima’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder and electric motor combine to generate 198 horsepower, and there’s no mistaking when the gas engine kicks on and off. It’s a bit noisy as well, and we’re not talking the cockles-of-your-heart kind of noise that inspires full-throttle acceleration runs. It’s not overpowering, but combined with the Altima’s continuously variable transmission turning the front wheels, getting up to speed becomes the epitome of drone. This combined with higher-than-expected wind and road noise makes the Altima Hybrid a somewhat vocal companion. It’s not loud, but it’s not exactly quiet either.

Nor is it exceptionally adept at squashing out rough surfaces. Credit a suspension that doesn’t offer quite as much give as its competitors, but the flip side to this is a 3500-pound hybrid sedan that actually corners pretty well. Body roll doesn’t overwhelm the senses and driver feedback is quite satisfying, but tire scrub at relatively light loads is a constant reminder that this is no sport sedan. It does feel a bit ponderous and out of its element when pushed hard, but considering this spacious five-passenger sedan can turn an EPA-rated mileage of 35 city and 33 highway, the tradeoffs are more justifiable. And we haven’t even touched on the best part—the Altima’s very un-hybrid-like acceleration, which can propel driver and occupants to 60 miles per hour in a bit over seven seconds. It may not deliver the greatest soundtrack under full steam, but for such a fuel miser of this size to even have some steam is definitely gem-worthy.

On the other side of the fence, the Altima would do well to offer a bit more personality and less monotony in the cabin, both in materials and finish, but that’s pretty much always been a universal Altima trait. These cars can get optioned up pretty well with navigation systems and the like, but that’s going to reflect big time on the price, and frankly, it’s just not worth it. Stick with light options, and a 25,000-mile Altima Hybrid can be had for reasonable 20 grand. At that price you’ll still have the balance of Nissan’s three-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty as well as a ten-year/150,000-mile warranty on its battery pack. The big downer will be finding one—Nissan continues to only sell new Altima Hybrids in the handful of states that follow California emission standards, and that’s where the used models will be concentrated. There’s also no guarantee that, if you find a good used Altima Hybrid outside one of these states, your local dealer will be able to properly service it should problems arise with the hybrid-specific systems. Still, it’s the price and flat-out performance champion of this pairing, so if you’re jonesing for an affordable hybrid a with some hair on its chest, tracking down an Altima will be worth the effort.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
Much has been said about this car since it debuted for the 2010 model year, and rightfully so. While adding a bunch of batteries and reducing horsepower generally zaps the bits enthusiasts love most—notably feedback, driver involvement, and performance—Ford not only managed to keep some of the driving magic with its hot-selling mid-size sedan, it added a whole new level of cool with its selectable information displays that can be as simple as electronic “leaves” growing on a vine to represent efficient driving, or a dizzying cornucopia of real-time power usage and fuel consumption figures that would drive number nerds to ecstasy. Just a minute behind the wheel with what Ford calls its “Smart-Gauge with EcoGuide” instrument cluster, and even quarter-mile burnout heroes will be hooked into making the leaves grow, or keeping the little power meter in the electric bracket as long as possible. Done carefully, the Fusion Hybrid will reach 47 miles per hour on the electric motor alone, as long as there’s ample power in the battery pack. This might not sound like much fun on paper, but trust us, in execution it’s more addicting than buttered popcorn at a movie theater.

If this was all the Fusion Hybrid had to offer, well, we might still put it on our list. Thankfully, Ford saw fit to not engineer out some of what makes the standard Fusion such a popular mid-size sedan. It still corners quite well for something not wearing R or GT badges, never mind chrome hybrid emblems. Roll control and bite are quite similar to the racy Altima, but the Fusion offers a bit more composure when pushed despite toting an extra 300 pounds. Driver feedback is admirable, but not quite as communicative as the Nissan, but then again the Fusion Hybrid exhibits considerably less bump and thump over rough roads. In fact, it’s a much easier car to live with every day, and not just because of its composed manners. Refinement is the key word here; the Ford relies on a 2.5-liter four-cylinder mill and electric motor mated to a continuously variable trans- mission just like the Altima, creating a combined 191 horsepower. But the Fusion’s bits function in a seamless harmony that’s a far cry from the raucous tone and clunky engagement of the Nissan. And though the Fusion is about a second slower to 60, it cracks 41 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway—easily trumping the faster-but-gruffer Altima.

Mechanical refinement on the Fusion is matched by a rich interior, though it does suffer just a bit from tacky plastics that still befall many American brands. It’s by no means unattractive, and with a set of very comfortable seats facing that standard-issue hybrid techno dash, we’re hard pressed to identify a better all around secondhand hybrid. Ford backs the Fusion Hybrid with a typical three-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and five-year/60,000 powertrain coverage, while their hybrid battery is covered for eight years or 100,000 miles. These cars are holding their value well, with average prices checking in around the $25,000 mark for a machine with roughly 20,000 miles. A check of eBay Motors, however, uncovers a curious truth—despite being sold in all 50 states, there seems to be considerably fewer Fusion Hybrids on the market compared to the limited-market Altima. A curious truth perhaps, but consider- ing the general awesomeness of the Fusion Hybrid, it’s not necessarily a surprising one.

The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight are without question the two cars people associate with the word hybrid, and their odd styling cues paired with uninspiring performance clearly weren’t meant for everyone. The Altima Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid, however, are designed for everyone, and as nearly new vehicle investments, they offer affordable, efficient, and entertaining transportation to a wide audience. Until we get the flying cars sci-fi writers said we’d have by now, it’s comforting to know that hybrid doesn’t have to be a four-letter word. That is, unless that four-letter word happens to be cool.