Once again, the 2012 Toyota Prius hybrid wins the laurels for having the highest EPA gas-mileage rating of any gasoline car sold in the U.S. It's rated at a combined 50 mpg, made up of 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway--and most owners say that 50 mpg is a realistic number.
With the expansion of the Prius line into new models for 2012, the classic Prius five-door hatchback is now known as the Liftback model, to distinguish it from the Prius V wagon, the Prius C subcompact hatchback, and the Prius Plug-In Hybrid (which resembles the Liftback but has a larger battery pack that can be recharged by plugging it into a wall socket).
Every time gas prices rise, Prius sales soar. At a starting price of $24,000, it's far from the least expensive high-mileage car, but its interior space and stellar real-world gas mileage make up for that. This year, Toyota has rebuilt its operations in Japan, which had been damaged by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, limiting Prius supplies globally--so the Prius should be much easier to find at U.S. dealers.
The Prius liftback was entirely redesigned for 2010 and continues relatively unchanged in its third year. Its aerodynamic wedge shape and high tail give it a distinctive, easily recognizable profile, complete with a vertical glass pane in the tailgate to improve visibility through the rear-view mirror.
Inside, five adults can ride comfortably, and the Space Age styling extends to the so-called flying buttress console. That high plastic shelf has an open space beneath it, though it's hard to get to, and the console's most visible feature is the little blue-tipped "Prius stalk" used to put the car into Drive, Reverse, or Park. The interior features lots of hard plastics, though, and while they're patterned, it's far from a luxurious feel.
The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is tuned to complement Toyota's characteristic Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which uses twin motor-generators that charge the battery pack during regenerative braking and engine overrun, then use the stored energy to deliver added torque--requiring the engine to burn less fuel. Together, the combustion engine and electric motors put out 134 horsepower. At low speeds and under light loads, one motor propels the Prius solely on electricity up to about 30 mph, for up to 1 mile.