5 Hybrid and Diesel Cars: MotorTrend’s Fuel Efficiency Shootout

Chevrolet Cruze Diesel

With the upswing in alternative fuel vehicles, the debate has started as to which is truly more efficient: hybrid vehicles that use a combination of gasoline and electricity, or diesels, which run exclusively on diesel fuel. Although hybrids have proven to be quite popular domestically, offering commendable mileage for a price that’s reasonable relative to the industry, the latter has long been considered a ‘dirty’ method of energy, especially in the U.S., where regulations greatly restrict the importing and production of numerous diesel models that the majority of the world enjoys.

However, new breakthroughs in technology have allowed select diesel vehicles to meet federal requirements, and have been approved for sale in the U.S. Some, like Volkswagen’s TDI system, have been around longer, while others, like the Chevrolet (NYSE:GM) Cruze, are just being released. As diesel options expand, those seeking a more fuel efficient car will face an increasingly difficult decision.

Fortunately, publications like MotorTrend spend a great deal of time putting these cars through their paces, and presenting their findings in a comprehensive report like this one. This time around, they featured the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, the Toyota (NYSE:TM) Prius, the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, and the Honda (NYSE:HMC) Civic Hybrid. Here’s how they all stacked up.

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5. Chevrolet Cruze

Coming in fifth (last place), was the Chevy Cruze, General Motors’ latest stab at the compact sedan market that has actually done exceptionally well for the company. “‘Respectable’ sums up the Chevrolet Cruze’s performance,” MotorTrend says, adding that, “It’ll buzz to 60 [miles per hour] in a not-embarrassing 8.5 seconds. The Cruze [also] realized several mpg above its EPA figure.” The site also noted that although drivers will enjoy thorough amounts of headroom, the cramped back seat posed some issues. In conclusion, “live next to the freeway? Only ever drive on the freeway? Never have to use the back seat? This is your car.”

2013 Honda Civic

4. Honda Civic Hybrid

Here’s a fun fact: the Honda Civic’s hybrid system — the battery and motor — collectively weigh just 91 pounds. That being said, an EPA-only ranking of the vehicles would put the Civic in third, MotorTrend notes. The hybrid compact instead took fourth. However, it performed like a “fish out of water with a last-place 37 observed mpg over a 280-mile evaluation loop consisting mainly of 40-70-mph, cruising with a handling section thrown in.”

On the brighter side, the Civic managed a Good rating in the IIHS frontal overlap test, making it a Top Safety Pick. Overall, “mating any of the other four powertrains to the package would be a tremendous boost for an otherwise nicely thought-out car.”

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3. Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Volkswagen is in an unusual spot as it has both a hybrid and a diesel version of its Jetta in the running. But this test shows that the two are not necessarily equals. In third is the hybrid, which managed a combined 40.3 miles per gallon over the test, second overall for mileage.

More impressively, “Volkswagen’s Jetta Hybrid had the most total power in reserve of the five cars,” but that couldn’t offset some other issues with the car. “One editor declared the Jetta Hybrid’s braking feel an instant deal-breaker. It didn’t matter that the rest of the car was enjoyable.” Cost of ownership, depreciation, and insurance costs didn’t help it’s case. ”If you disregard the brakes and mammoth depreciation and insurance costs, this one is a favorite and worth every penny.”

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2. Toyota Prius

Toyota’s venerable Prius performed well enough to reach second in MotorTrend’s trials, and not without the help of the $3,699 Plus Performance Package’s added 17-inch forged wheels, sport springs, a rear anti-roll bar, and even some added aero bits. “In return, the ride goes from apathetic to uncharacteristically sporty, unafraid to communicate even the slightest road shock into the noisy cabin. Handling is enhanced by reduced pitch and roll and better cling to the road. Steering remains a monotonous task, but the tool is accurate. We’re attributing our weirdly pleasant reaction to the novelty of a sporting Prius.”

On a mileage-only basis, the Prius ranked first, submitting a combined figure for the test of 41.3 miles per gallon. Moreover, the fact that the Prius was the priciest of the bunch was largely offset by superb cost of ownership numbers. Ultimately, “the group’s wizened eco-warrior isn’t as impervious as its EPA ratings suggest. Luckily, the modified suspension makes it less bland.”

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1. Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Finally, in first, the VW Jetta TDI, the diesel-fueled version of its third-place hybrid sibling. The battery- and electric-free car managed 39.7 miles per gallon in combined testing, placing it just over the Cruze, though within a stone’s throw (or less) of the hybrids. The TDI fell in the middle as far as cost of ownership, with a third place finish. However, “the first-place Jetta TDI punches above its weight, delivering beyond its stated ability. It’s easy to live with and always satisfying from behind the wheel. It does more with less, which ultimately is the definition of proper efficiency.”

Moreover, buyers of the 2014 or 2015 models can expect the Jetta TDI to only get better. “Note to competition: The Jetta TDI added content for ’14. And a more powerful, more efficient TDI engine is due for ’15.”

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