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Hybrids now swimming in the mainstream

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2013 Toyota Camry Hybrid/Lexus ES 300h

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Early hybrid cars were known for two things:

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-- Good, at times great, fuel mileage.

-- Styling designers apparently intended to be futuristic but often came across as nerdy.

Performance? Not so much.

The hybrid’s fun-to-drive quotient may not have been as bad as it often was made out to be with comments like zero-to-60 times being measured with egg timers and Jay Leno making jokes in his Tonight Show monologue about a Prius driver getting a speeding ticket getting passed around.

But it still was pretty low.

Over time, though, that has changed.

It wasn’t long before both Toyota and Honda, who had started the revolution by bringing the Prius and Insight, respectively, to the U.S., began putting hybrid drive trains in other models in their fleet, and now many other manufacturers have joined them.

In fact, Ford with the C-Max and Fusion Hybrid, Hyundai with the Sonata Hybrid, Chevrolet with the Malibu Eco (a “mild” hybrid), and Kia with the Optima Hybrid account for half of the top 10-selling hybrids according to the website hybridcars.com.

Except for Ford’s C-Max, they all share one thing in common: Non-hybrid, conventionally powered versions of the same vehicle are also available.

In fact, that’s the way they started out, which means they already had been proved to have the kind of looks that appealed to the public, but now simply also offered a hybrid drive train that delivered better fuel economy.

Assuming you like the way the these models look with a V6 under the hood, the reasoning goes, you’re also going to like the way they come across as a hybrid.

Except for the Malibu Eco and Sonata, these hybrid versions stil qualify as fuel-sippers, boosting fuel economy to over 40 miles-per-gallon level in combined city/highway driving compared to the high 30s in highway driving alone for the conventional versions.

So fuel efficiency is still there, and the nerdy look has been eliminated.

But what about performance?

Yes, that has been improved, too.

That was most evident in two recent drives in the 2013 Toyota Camry Hybrid and especially the 2013 Lexus ES 300h, the latter being the hybrid version of the standard ES 350.

The Camry and ES both have a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine paired with an electric motor that combined can crank out 200 horsepower. They can run for short distances at low speeds on the electric motor alone, which helps with mileage around town.

Both are front-wheel drive and come with CVTs (continuously variable transmissions).

The result is a driving experience that falls short of that you get from so-called “sport” sedans, but they are far from laggards. Lexus clockers put the zero-to-60 mph time for the ES 300h at 8.1 seconds. Setting the ES in “Sport” mode also enhances throttle response. Toyota does not list a zero-to-60 time for the Camry, but Edmunds.com recorded a slightly quicker, 7.4 seconds for it.

Both cars offer smooth, quiet rides, especially when highway cruising. If not for the annoying whine that occurs as the engine winds down when you are slowing to a stop (typical of the genre), you likely wouldn’t even realize you are in a hybrid.

There are slight cosmetic differences between hybrid versions of the two models when compared to their gasoline-powered siblings, and both lose trunk space because of the placement of the battery pack behind the backseat. But unless you put the two cars side-by-side or compare standard equipment lists, you’re probably not going to notice them.

Toyota redesigned the Camry for the 2012 model year, and its luxury division Lexus did the same with the ES for 2013. Camry got a couple of upgrades for 2013, including a cross-traffic alert function for its blind-spot monitoring system, but gets no changes for 2014. The ES gets LED fog lams with HID headlamps and heated and ventilated front seats in NuLuxe trim in 2014 models.

Toyota really went to work on the Camry’s interior, increasing its size and using soft-touch materials throughout to give the cabin a more luxurious feel. The interior of the ES is spacious as well, and there’s no denying the overall ambiance of the best-seller in the Lexus lineup.

When it comes to pricing, you’re going to pay a premium for both the Camry and the ES hybrids over the conventional models.

The Camry Hybrid is available in LE trim (16-inch wheels, dual-zone A/C, cruise control, Bluetooth, six-speaker sound system, etc.)) for $26,140 and in XLE form (17-inch wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel, eight-way power driver’s seat, etc.) for $27,670 plus $810 for destination and delivery.

The four-cylinder Camry XLE starts at $24,855, though the XLE with a V6 is more expensive with a base MSRP of $30,465.

The ES 300h, available in only one trim (17-inch wheels, sunroof, cruise control, Bluetooth, eight-speaker sound system, etc.) starts at $38,850 plus $910 for destination and delivery. The ES 350 starts at $36,620.

For a closer look plus more features on both vehicles, check out the accompanying slide show.

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