Drive home one of the best hybrids

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Anyone who wants to be good to the environment, revel in driving vehicles with advanced technology or just go as far as possible on a gallon of gas has more hybrids to choose from than ever before.

And those choices are more affordable, too.

With the introduction of the 2010 Insight at a starting price of $20,620, Honda touched off a price war with Toyota, which just introduced its third-generation Prius.

Unfortunately, the Honda Insight is not one of our choices. Before driving it, we expected it would be great.

After living with it for a week, we decided the least expensive car isn't necessarily the best choice. What's the point in spending $20,000 for a car that disappoints in so many ways, including poor handling and an uncomfortable ride.

We've come up with three better, yet still affordable, hybrid cars.

All have four doors, making them easy to live with. All have state-of-the-art, continuously variable automatic transmissions. All are well-equipped when it comes to safety, with antilock brakes, electronic stability control and lots of air bags. All cost under $28,000, including delivery charges.

Toyota Prius

The Prius has a 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine and an 80-h.p. electric motor, for a combined 134 h.p., which is 24 more than the previous generation.

Its fuel economy is rated at 51 miles per gallon in the city, 48 m.p.g. on the highway and 50 m.p.g. combined. The previous model was rated at 46 m.p.g combined. It is the most fuel-efficient of our bunch.

The Prius comes in five grades, each of which has a different level of standard equipment.

At $22,750, the current base model (called the Prius II) costs $2,130 more than the Insight, but has a larger interior (including significantly more rear legroom), a bigger engine, a smoother ride and gets better fuel economy.

This model comes well-equipped with push-button start, three alternative driving modes (EV, ECO and Power), a multi-informational display with an energy monitor and fuel consumption history, three-CD player, MP3, cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, six-way adjustable driver seat and auto up and down on all windows. It is definitely not a stripped-down model.

Toyota wanted the Prius to showcase other technologies, too, so there are several pricey option packages that are available on some models. In fact, you can add $5,180 onto the price of the most expensive Prius, raising its cost from $28,020 to more than $33,000. That package includes a navigation system, dynamic radar cruise control, a precollision system, lane-keeping technology and parking assist.

Toyota has promised a cheaper model, the Prius I, which will start at $21,750. It naturally will lack some features that are standard on other models, but Toyota hasn't yet announced what those will be.

Toyota worked on keeping the exterior of this third-generation Prius from expanding while increasing its interior roominess. Its hatchback styling gives the Prius an impressive 21.6 cubic feet of trunk space and 39.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity when the rear seat is folded down.

Its dash and instrument panel are the most futuristic-looking of our three choices. The instrument cluster is to the right of the steering wheel in the center of the dashboard. From there, the center cluster with the multi-information hybrid display, radio and ventilation system flows from the dash into the center console.

It offers the best bang for your buck.

Honda Civic Sedan Hybrid

The Civic hybrid has a 93 h.p., 1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine and a 20-h.p. electric motor for a combined 110 h.p. It starts at $24,510. That means it costs $3,500 more than a comparably equipped Civic EX gasoline-engine version, but it gets significantly better fuel economy: 40 m.p.g. city, 45 highway and 42 combined. The EX's gas engine is rated at 25 city, 36 highway and 29 combined.

This Civic is very comfortable. After a six-hour drive, the seat still felt good and the suspension does a nice job of cushioning from the lumps and bumps of badly paved roads.

The interior has an upscale look with a deep-set, curved dashboard and a speedometer that swoops over the instrument panel. There is a lot of storage and bins and cubbies that hold cell phones and sunglasses. It has the smallest trunk, with just 10.4 cubic feet of space.

One downside is a slight vibration in the steering wheel, especially at low speeds. Another is how abruptly the automatic shut-off feature does its job. All these hybrids automatically shut off the engine so it doesn't idle at stoplights or stop signs. It was just far more noticeable in the Civic.

Of all three, this one has the greatest fun-to-drive quotient, making it even harder to understand the poor driving dynamics of the new Insight.

Ford Fusion Hybrid

Among our choices, the Fusion has the most powerful engine. With its 156-h.p., 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and a 106-h.p. electric motor, it has a combined 191 h.p. Although the engine sounds like it's being imposed upon when you get down hard on the gas for sudden acceleration, it is not underpowered.

The hybrid starts at $27,995, which is almost $3,300 more than the comparable gas-engine version. But instead of getting 22 m.p.g. in the city and 31 m.p.g. highway, the hybrid gets 41 m.p.g city, 36 highway and 39 combined. That's 8 m.p.g better than the Camry Hybrid in the city and 2 m.p.g. better on the highway.

We averaged 38.6 m.p.g. for more than 1,000 miles while driving between 65 and 80 miles per hour. If you were willing to drive a bit slower, you could probably hit 40 m.p.g. on the highway.

The interior is nicely finished with soft-touch plastic on the door and dashboard and with plenty of storage bins and cupholders. Three people rode comfortably on a six-hour trip, thanks to tons of rear legroom, the most of the bunch.

Because of the battery pack, the hybrid has 11.8 cubic feet of trunk space versus 16.5 in the gas version, and its rear seats don't fold down. That's a loss, but 11.8 is still good; on our trip, it held luggage for three easily.

Inside there are distinctive instrument cluster displays that help coach drivers to achieve better fuel economy. The data screens can be configured to show different levels of information, including fuel use, battery power, average economy and instantaneous economy.

All these hybrids have their own systems that allow you to see how efficiently you are -- or are not -- driving.

But the Fusion has the best of the bunch. It sprouts attractively designed vines and leaves, called "Efficiency Leaves" as a reward for efficient driving. The more efficient, the more leaves. It was a concept which I found soothingly Zen-like as more and more leaves blossomed on the vines.

The steering is decent; so is the brake feel. The ride is well-controlled without being stiff. It's a great all-around choice.