If you are looking to cut down on fuel costs, want to help reduce our dependence on foreign oil or are just horrified about the environmental impact of deep sea oil drilling, then maybe it is time to look at a more fuel efficient car. But don’t think that just because you are buying a fuel efficient car that you will have to give up on driving pleasure, luxury features or family hauling utility.
The three vehicles being compared here, the diesel powered VW Golf TDI, Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid, are all models that I have had the privilege of testing for a 7 day period. In those experiences I found three very different answers to the problem of improving automotive fuel efficiency.
All three of these models excelled in different areas but they all did as was promised on the label and returned over 40 miles per gallon during my testing. And that is mighty impressive given the fact that I intentionally never drove these vehicles with any accelerative restraint. Hey, just because you are driving a hybrid or a diesel doesn’t mean you can’t go fast.
So if you are in the market for one of these three cars or just like to watch a good fight, I have boiled down the most important aspects of these cars into five distinct categories (with rankings of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place). The winner here might just surprise you.
This is the section that is most subjective to personal preference and therefore carries the least weight in the judging process. While I realize many people like the way the Prius looks and the fact that you always “know” it’s a hybrid, I just find the 2010 redesign took away all of the “cute” factor from the previous generation’s styling. It just looks mad now.
The Civic Hybrid, as it is in essence just a Civic sedan with really cool saw-blade style alloy wheels, looks great to my eyes and still hasn’t aged even after four years on the market. I have to admit a bias, however, towards the styling of all VW Golfs whether they are TDI models or not. And if you’ll notice, no matter how old a VW Golf or Rabbit may be, they just never seem to look dated. That is the hallmark of good exterior design. (1st Place-VW Golf TDI, 2nd Place-Honda Civic Hybrid, 3rd Place-Toyota Prius)
Interior Styling and Utility
Here are the statistics for cargo hauling capability of these three models as shown by their trunk/hatchback space: Toyota Prius-21.6 cubic feet, VW Golf TDI-12.4 cubic feet, Civic Hybrid-10.4 cubic feet. It’s clear the Prius is the winner but does it tell the whole story here?
While the Civic Hybrid does give up some cargo space to its batteries, do keep in mind the trunk is very usefully shaped and will probably suit most people’s needs just fine. Also, the Civic has easily the most spacious feeling passenger compartment so if you carry people more often that cargo then it still makes a wise choice. (Note to car shoppers: the interior of the Civic Hybrid feels incredibly luxurious when equipped with the optional leather/navigation package.)
The 2010 VW Golf TDI has the deepest and most usefully square cargo area of all three vehicles but keep in mind that the aforementioned reading was done with the rear cargo cover in place. Fold down the rear seats and remove the cargo cover and the Golf TDI turns into a mini moving van. Thanks to the upright roofline, the Golf TDI will be able to carry large, bulky items with more ease than the sloping tailed Prius.
The Prius and Golf TDI are evenly matched, however, when it comes to passenger space and comfort. (Note: The Golf TDI comes as a two door but we are talking about the four door version here to make things fair.) But when it comes to interior design these two cars couldn’t be more different.
Where the Golf TDI is all soft touch plastic and elegant understatement, the 2010 Prius is “whiz-bang” futuristic techno-dazzle with a lot less soft touch plastic. Even with leather seats the Prius never feels all that “luxurious.” The Golf TDI does feel like something that costs twice as much even with decidedly more environmentally friendly cloth seats. (1st Place-VW Golf TDI, 2nd Place-Toyota Prius, 3rd Place-Honda Civic Hybrid)
Here are the EPA estimates for these three models: Toyota Prius-51 city/48 highway, VW Golf TDI-30 city/42 highway, Honda Civic Hybrid-40 city/45 highway. It should be easy to tell who wins according to these numbers but, again, this doesn’t tell the whole story.
As follows is the as tested fuel economy I experienced with each model over a week long period: 2010 Toyota Prius-43.7 miles per gallon, 2010 VW Golf TDI-41 miles per gallon, 2010 Honda Civic Hybrid-47 miles per gallon. As this last bit of information can’t be verified or recreated by every driver, we will keep things simple and order the winners according to EPA estimates. (1st Place-Toyota Prius, 2nd Place-Honda Civic Hybrid, 3rd Place-VW Golf TDI)
All of these cars come as standard with all the features any driver could need including air conditioning, power everything, decent audio systems and much more. These are the base prices for all three models: Toyota Prius–$22,800, Honda Civic Hybrid–$23,800, VW Golf TDI–$22,354.
But just as they have long lists of standard features, some of these models have equally long options lists that can push the price past the point of logic. My fully loaded (leather, navigation, premium audio, no Aux-input for iPod) Prius stickered at $33,000 while my Golf TDI stickered at a little over $27,000 (navigation, sunroof, premium audio, HID (High Intensity Discharge) headlamps, great iPod integration).
The Civic Hybrid, however, wins the day with a fully loaded leather/navigation model priced at only $25,000. That is impressive and beats out the TDI even with VW’s offer of 3 years/36,000 miles of free maintenance on all 2010 models. (1st Place-Honda Civic Hybrid, 2nd Place-VW Golf TDI, 3rd Place-Toyota Prius)
Fun to Drive
To me, no matter what you use a car for it absolutely must be enjoyable to drive. We spend far too much of our lives behind the wheel of automobiles for there to be no joy in the process of getting from point A to point B. Much like life, the essential part isn’t “getting there” but rather what we experience on our journey.
Simply put, the VW Golf TDI is not only one of the most efficient cars I have ever driven but it is also one of the best driver’s cars available today. My tester had a six-speed manual transmission (both the Honda and Toyota use CVT automatics only) which had a positive, meaty feel to the shift action that always left me hungering for another drive. The engine pulls strongly in all gears and the steering/handling/ride calibration is divine perfection.
As for the other two models, it is the Civic Hybrid that proved to be more fun to drive than the Prius even though it has less power. This is thanks to the typical Civic virtues of precision steering feel and go-cart style handling. No matter if you are cruising city streets or battling city streets, the Civic Hybrid always feels sporty without giving up much in the way of ride comfort.
The Prius, on the other hand, is not the car you would think to take for a Sunday drive on a winding mountain road. Also, on heavy inclines the CVT automatic tends to make an odd droning noise that sounds a bit like a cow mooing. Yes, you read that right.
The 2010 Prius, however, is a peerless freeway commuter that offers a serene and zen-like driving experience in even the worst traffic situations. It makes sense for that kind of use but if you are looking for driving thrills look elsewhere. (1st Place-VW Golf TDI, 2nd Place-Honda Civic Hybrid, 3rd Place-Toyota Prius)
If you are looking for an affordably priced, fuel efficient family you absolutely must put these three models on your shopping list. Because who knows, perhaps your needs are different from mine. But taking everything into account after three weeks with these cars, I have to say that the VW Golf TDI is the car I would spend my own money on.
The Civic Hybrid comes second thanks to its low price, value, style and fun to drive nature. And although the Prius did come in last in this test, if utility and driving serenity are all you care about then by all means see your Toyota dealer. Just make sure you don’t live near too many hills.
Honda Motor Company
Toyota Motor Corp.
VW of America