April 15, 2010 at 4:37 pm EDT | by Joe Phillips
Hybrids go upscale

Ten years ago, the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius landed on U.S. shores. With dweeb exteriors and dawdling engines, these first hybrids were as dull as “Herbie: Fully Loaded.”

Now almost every major automaker has at least one hybrid in its lineup, and there are more than 40 different models available in showrooms. Still, most hybrids aren’t exactly head-turners, and they make up less than 4 percent of all vehicle sales.

Expect that to change soon. Just a few weeks ago, EPA upped the federal mileage standards by 10 mpg—or almost 40 percent—by 2016. More important: a slew of luxury hybrids hitting the streets this year are as fast and furious as, well, “The Fast and the Furious.” 

Audi Q5 Hybrid
Mpg: 21 city/26 highway (est.)

Audi’s Q5 Hybrid arrives late this year or in 2011. Using a lithium-ion battery, this compact crossover will have hybrid gear similar to that on the VW Touareg and Porsche Cayenne (both due next spring).

Other Audi hybrids: A8 Hybrid (fall 2010). 

BMW ActiveHybrid 7
Mpg: 15 city/22 highway

Better late than never. It’s been three years since Lexus began offering its top-of-the-line LS 600h L hybrid. Now BMW rolls out its own full-size eco sedan. The ActiveHybrid 7 gets 15 percent better fuel mileage than the regular BMW 750i and bursts from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.7 seconds—faster than the 750i or the Lexus. Top speed: 150 mph. But this is a mild hybrid, so the electric motor runs the car mainly at stoplights, not when the vehicle is in motion. It also means a smaller battery pack, which allows for more trunk space. For $3,000 more, you get an extra 5.5 inches of rear legroom in the long-wheelbase model.

Other BMW hybrids: ActiveHybrid X6, ActiveHybrid 5 (fall 2010), ActiveHybrid X5 (fall 2010). 

Infiniti M35 Hybrid (winter 2010)
Mpg: 19 city/27 highway (est.)

Due late this year, Infiniti’s first hybrid is a rear-wheel-drive, high-performance midsize sedan that mates a feisty V6 to an electric motor. Based on the conventional M35, which just had a boffo redo, the hybrid model sports a lithium-ion battery pack that is the same size as conventional batteries but with twice the power. 

Lincoln MKZ Hybrid
$39,000 (est.)
Mpg: 41 city/36 highway

Using the same gas engine and electric motor as the popular Ford Fusion Hybrid and Mercury Milan Hybrid, the MKZ Hybrid sedan can go up to 47 mph on electric power alone. It also boasts better fuel mileage than the recently introduced Lexus HS 250h (which can only go to 25 mph in electric mode). Question is, will consumers choose an MKZ Hybrid over the less-expensive Fusion and Mercury models? 

Lexus HS 250h
Mpg: 35 city/34 highway

Lexus adds a compact hybrid sedan to join the midsize GS 450h and full-size LS 600h L. But the HS 250h is pure sport sedan, not a gussied-up Prius. The 0-60 time is a decent 8.7 seconds, with solid passing, braking and cornering ability. Two models: base and premium, which adds heated/cooled seats, rain-sensing wipers, and power steering wheel.

Other Lexus hybrids: GS 450h, LS 600h L, RX 450h, and CT 200h (winter 2011). 

Mercedes S400 Hybrid
Mpg: 19 city/26 highway

The new Mercedes S400 targets the large Lexus LS 600h L, of course, not the smaller HS 250h. So what’s the result? The Mercedes is a bit slower (0 to 60 mph in seven seconds) but gets better gas mileage. The Lexus has more rear-seat legroom, but less cargo space (16.3 cubic feet vs. 11.7). The Mercedes combines a V6 with a lithium-ion battery pack, while the Lexus uses a V8 and old-school nickel-metal hydride batteries. But the Lexus has a smoother ride, yet costs $18,000 more. In the end, it may be easier to just go with a BMW ActiveHybrid 7. 

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