The best Hybrid for a Car Geek….?

Unlike my poor friends in the L.A. basin, here in Northern Virginia we still have an HOV-lane exemption for Hybrid cars. Those who got in before 2006 can drive in all HOV lanes in the major arteries (I-95, I-66, Rt. 267), those who got in between 2006 and June 30, 2011 can get into the I-66 and Rt. 267 HOV lanes, and those who got in on July 1, 2011 or later can use the I-66 and Rt. 267 HOV lanes until July 1, 2012, then they are out. I originally got in early (December 2004) with a 5-speed manual Honda Civic Hybrid and had free reign of all the carpool lanes. Then I actually started carpooling and decided to drive interesting cars again. When the carpool went away in June of this year, I scrambled to get my Hybrid and corresponding plates before the June 30 cutoff, and made it by that much.

I live about a mile off of I-66. For those who do not know, during rush hours I-66 becomes *all HOV* inside the Capitol Beltway. Eastbound in the morning, and westbound in the afternoon. Non-HOV cars are not permitted on the road during that time. Good for traffic, bad for DC-bound commuters. UNLESS they drive Hybrids. By driving a Hybrid I can easily save myself 40 minutes each direction on my commute. The obvious downside is that hybrids are for ninnies with God complexes, and they’re certainly not driver’s cars for Car Geeks.

As a self-professed driver and Car Geek, I wrangled over the initial Hybrid decision, finally settling on the Civic Hybrid for two key reasons: 1) it looks like every other Civic, but with a spoiler and cool Euro-style aerial mounted just above the windshield; and 2) it came with a real, bona-fide stick shift. A must for me in any car is that it have gears. CVTs are all well and good, but they always sort of remind me of the asthmatic kid at high school football practice who wheezed his way around the field until the coach took pity on him and just told him to go and fill the Gatorade bucket.

I was thrilled when some colleagues and I discussed getting into a carpool arrangement. All of a sudden my hybrid shackles were gone and I could once again express my automotive tastes and desires. If memory serves, I immediately went out and bought a Mercedes W210 diesel. Then I upgraded to a W211 CDI (sense a theme here?), then diesel prices spiked, and I went for an E55, then there were a few assorted train wrecks, and finally I bought a 2000 BMW 540i6 sport. That was one of the BEST_CARS_EVER.

And then the carpool went away. One colleague moved and the other (who commutes practically from West Virginia) realized that it was quicker and more relaxing for him to take the bus. So then I was faced with a problem: long commute with an interesting car, or back to the hybrid? My wife typically gets about 1.5 votes for every one that I have, so the hybrid won.

Wanting to upgrade some from the Civic, I looked a several cars. Before that, however, I ruled out the “no way” cars, which were basically the Prius, because Priuses are the reason that hybrids are for ninnies, and the Camry, because, well, it’s a C_A_M_R_Y. You know the Camry, that car that sucks every last bit of enjoyment and personality from the driving process while at the same time encouraging its owner to drive as if every day was their first behind the wheel. I don’t care how reliable it is.

So looking at the VA DMV list of approved cars, along with my budget, I focused-in on a few models: the Lexus GS450h, the Honda Accord Hybrid, the Nissan Altima Hybrid, and the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. All used, of course.

My wife immediately nixed the Highlander. She told me that I am “not a Toyota guy”. While I don’t disagree, I must admit that I have been tempted lately to get an SUV or crossover just so I can see something around the moving billboard that is inevitably in front of me everywhere I go. I drove the Lexus, and it was really fast. In a straight line. The short windshield made it feel a little like I was peering out of a pillbox waiting for the Nazis to come storming through, and the steering gives new definition to the word “numb”. Beyond that, they did their best to engineer road feel into the chassis, which in this case means really firm suspension, and little else. Regardless of setting, this car was bone-jarring. Great for the Autobahn, bad for Constitution Avenue. Strike the Lexus.

Next I looked at the Nissan Altima. I once came close to buying an Altima not long after they released the 3.5. I remembered it as a fun little car, and the Hybrid can be had with all of the accoutrements you would expect from a middle-of the road Japanese car – leather, bunwarmers, AC, sunroof, etc. The problem was – and is – just like the Lexus GS and most other Hybrids: the CVT. I still hate them. No matter how hard they try to make them act like real transmissions, they wheeze. It was also tinny and fairly small, especially when compared with the BMW E39 that I was coming out of. Strike two.

I have had a soft spot for Hondas ever since I bought a Honda lawnmower in 1985. It still runs today. Then I bought the “Little Honda that Could” – the 1985 Prelude so named by my dad because we bought it with 114K miles on it and got another 110K out of it, with little more than oil changes and CV joints. It was a great little car, and with ANSA exhaust sounded pretty good, too. The Civic had been a good car, but I’ll admit, I was hung-up on the fact the I drove a Civic. Enter the Accord.

The Honda Accord Hybrid isn’t a terribly good hybrid in the strictest sense. Driven by someone who likes driving, average fuel economy is in the low-mid 20s. I’m pretty sure that the only reason it qualifies in VA for the HOV exemption is because it has auto stop (engine shuts off when you come to a stop) and it’ll run on 3 cylinders at cruise when the others are not needed. It is more powerful and quicker than a comparable Accord V6 of the same vintage (2006 in this case), and it’s no slouch in the grand scheme of things with 0-60 rolling up at about 7.5 seconds, maybe a little quicker. Not as fast as the Lexus which can pull a 5.9, but the Honda shifts gears, has virtually all the same equipment (although I opted not to find one with Nav, since I am plenty happy with my TomTom thank you), and costs about half as much.

It isn’t anywhere near as good a car as the BMW it replaced, and as newer hybrids like the Mercedes S400 come down in price, so long as the HOV exemption is still in effect, I’ll likely look around at alternatives. It is a fantastic appliance and far more reliable than most of the cars I’ve ever owned, but it also handles decently and will surprise those guys that see the Hybrid badge on the back and assume that I’m more interested in MPGs than MPHs. Silly bastards.

All that said, what is the best Hybrid for a Car Geek? What am I missing or forgetting? No matter how many times I look at the list of approved Hybrids, I just can’t come up with something better – at least not that I can afford. Thoughts?

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