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Hybrid horses, different courses: The fuel economy factor

Sections: Fuel Economy

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2014 Toyota Prius V Photo Shoot 021

The Toyota Prius V handily beat its EPA city score of 44 MPG by turning in this 46-MPG result by week’s end. (Lyndon Johnson photo)

We introduced you to our three recent back-to-back-to-back hybrids a few days ago. Now, let’s talk about how they compare in terms of fuel economy.

It must be said up-front that the Hybrid Synergy Drive system found in our 2014 Toyota Prius V, 2014 Lexus RX450h, and 2014 Toyota Avalon Hybrid was very similar across-the-board. Each had a different gasoline engine component from the others — the Prius V a 1.8-liter four-cylinder, the Lexus a 3.5-liter V6, and the Avalon Hybrid a 2.5-liter four. But beyond that difference, Hybrid Synergy Drive acts much the same. Here’s how Toyota’s Australian site matter-of-factly explains it:

The intelligent energy management system seamlessly synergises the car’s petrol engine with its electric motor. So that each power unit either supports the other or takes over completely, depending on the driving situation.

Unlike some other hybrids, the electric motor in our Hybrid Synergy Drive®  system generates enough power to drive the car on its own. This means the petrol engine isn’t needed at ignition or low speed. It kicks in whenever you call for more power when you accelerate hard, or cruise at high speed.

And because the battery is kept charged through normal driving and recaptured energy from braking and deceleration, it provides all the power the electric motor will ever need, without ever plugging into the mains.

2014 Toyota Prius V

2014 Lexus RX450h Photo Shoot 021

The Lexus RX450h turned in an end-of-week MPG of 31. Not bad considering the SUV’s overall size and weight. (Lyndon Johnson photo)

The 2014 Toyota Prius V in “Three” trim was by far the least-luxurious hybrid in our trio — the only one with cloth seats, for instance. There’s something about it that fairly screams “utilitarian,” though I can’t pinpoint any one element that makes me think of that word every time I drive a Prius V. Which is something I’ve done twice before, by the way — here and here. Maybe it was the relatively flat seating surfaces. Or maybe it was the hard plastics notable on some surfaces — especially the steering wheel. The back was fairly cavernous, with good legroom for backseat occupants and plenty of room to haul cargo behind that seat. That’s definitely a utilitarian trait.

Regardless, the Prius V perhaps not-so-surprisingly returned the best fuel economy of the three hybrids tested, netting 46 MPG at week’s end. This is better than I’ve done in previous drives with the Prius V last year. I thought perhaps Toyota had tweaked the programming of the Hybrid Synergy Drive system, but I could find no reference to that in the 2014 model year’s press materials either in print or online. Maybe I’m just getting better at knowing that the Hybrid Synergy Drive system wants from me.

The mileage is duly impressive because we took the 2014 Toyota Prius V to the drive-in movies. I quickly figured out the best strategy for taking a hybrid to the drive-in is to just leave the ignition in the “run” position. With the Prius V’s auto stop-start feature and its hybrid battery pack under the rear seat, the car was able to run our only required accessory — the radio — for at least half an hour before needing to idle the gasoline engine for a few minutes. Once the hybrid battery was recharged, we could go another 30 or more minutes before another engine start-up. Had we been running the HVAC system a lot, that would have made start-ups more frequent, I’m sure.

2014 Lexus RX450h

As my last experience with a Lexus RX was with the somewhat ridiculous RX350 F-SPORT, I was left feeling like the baby SUV in the Lexus lineup was perhaps not refined enough compared to newer cars that wear the big L badge. That car’s harsher suspension and its bigger wheels with short-sidewall tires really conspired to make it ride rougher than I thought it should most of the time.

Thankfully, the 2014 Lexus RX450h was the exact opposite of the F-SPORT model. It was more softly sprung — just what it needed — and had far more supple sidewalls on its tires. Interestingly enough, the RX450h is more powerful, at 295 horsepower, than the RX350 F-SPORT, at 270 horsepower. That’s what happens when you take the same basic engine setup and tack on a hybrid battery pack and electric motor, I guess.

2014 Toyota Avalon Hybrid Photo Shoot 021

The 2014 Toyota Avalon Hybrid for a short time looked as if it might eclipse 40 MPG during our test week, but we never got there for more than a few seconds coasting downhill. By the end of the week, the mileage receded even further back from that magic 40-MPG number, ending at 38 MPG. (Lyndon Johnson photo)

Again, we took the RX450h to the drive-in — hey, they’ve had a pretty awesome run of movies this season — and we found that it behaved wonderfully with the ignition button in the “run” position. That being said, we had to run the defroster quite a bit to keep mist from forming inside the windshield, so our fuel economy suffered a bigger setback than did the Prius V near the end of our test week. Still, our fuel economy was a mighty-impressive-for-a-heavy-luxury-SUV 31 MPG.

2014 Toyota Avalon Hybrid

The 2014 Toyota Avalon Hybrid shares a lot of its DNA with the Lexus ES300h, right down to its powertrain. Based on the Camry’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine combined with the equally proven Hybrid Synergy Drive setup, you know it’s bound to be reliable for years and years. This time, Toyota sent us a Limited trim. Last year we got an Avalon Hybrid tester that wasn’t as nicely equipped. The difference is palpable, with the lighter color interior working much better than the dark materials we had last year.

The Avalon Hybrid was the only vehicle in our trio that didn’t go to the drive-in movies, so it had a de facto advantage in the fuel economy races. I was interested in seeing if I could do better than I did in last year’s Toyota Avalon Hybrid.

Indeed I did better than last year’s Avalon test, which netted me 35.5 MPG. This time around, I managed to hit 38 MPG after a brief couple of days where I saw the indicated average fuel economy flirting with the magical 40-MPG number. Alas, that indicated average never hit 40 for more than a few seconds — mostly when coasting downhill — and it then rolled back to 38 MPG on the final day of testing.

There were a few small things that annoyed me about the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, but a car of this considerable size and heft that can get close to that magical 40 MPG figure ought to be able to overlook them. We’ll get into those annoyances when I return to talk about the three different flavors of infotainment, all of them wrapped in the jacket of Toyota Entune/Lexus Enform.

Disclosure: Toyota and Lexus provided the vehicles, insurance, and three tanks of gas — one for each vehicle.)

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  • John

    I have a 2013 Avalon Limited, and when I first got it I tried to optimize my fuel consumption and averaged 38.5 mpg. Since then (last 7 months) I drive normally and have averagd 41.6 – 41.7 mpg.