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The New Fast: Want Ultimate Performance? You Need a Hybrid - The Big Picture

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 7/30/2014 Angus MacKenzie
2015 Porsche 918 Spyder© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder

For years now, Toyota's Prius has been the punch line to a car guy's joke. And, in truth, that's a little unfair, because viewed objectively in terms of its intended function the Prius is an absolute home run. There is no other C-segment family hatchback on the market that is as roomy inside or as frugal at the gas pump. It does exactly what its designers intended.

2014 Toyota Prius© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Toyota Prius

The Prius is Toyota-tough, too. I recently rode from JFK to Manhattan in a six-year-old Prius taxi whose owner-driver couldn't stop waxing lyrical about it. "I love this car," said the 40-year veteran cabbie. Sure, the Prius felt a little rattly from the back seat and the interior was well-scuffed, but NYC cab miles are like dog years, and this thing had 169,000 of them on the clock. "It still has the original brakes, shocks, and bushings," the cabbie enthused, "and I've never replaced the transmission fluid. It needs far less maintenance than a Crown Vic, and the money I've saved on gas has paid for it."

I glanced at the fuel consumption display glowing on the dash: Over the past 299 miles, this dog-eared Prius taxi had averaged 41.5 mpg.

For automotive engineers, the Prius' enabling technology -- Toyota's innovative and highly efficient hybrid powertrain -- is a thing of beauty. But for car guys the Prius is simply a bore to drive, with lethargic throttle response, numb steering, poor grip, and indifferent suspension. Its distinctive silhouette and faintly space-age interior signal to even the least car-literate person that this Toyota's phenomenal gas mileage is because of something very different going on under the hood. The Prius has, therefore, become the definitive hybrid car. And, by definition, hybrids have been deemed boring.

2014 Mclaren P1© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Mclaren P1

Let me run a couple of numbers by you: 0-60 mph in 2.4 seconds, and the quarter mile in 9.8. These are the fastest acceleration times we've ever recorded in 65 years of instrumented testing here at Motor Trend. And they were set, respectively, by Porsche's 918 and McLaren's P1, both cars with hybrid powertrains. Boring? Not so much.

I suspect, when auto historians of the future look back at 2014, they'll say it was the year "hybrid" became the new fast. The three new road-going hypercars launched this year -- the 887-hp Porsche 918, the 904-hp McLaren P1, and the 950-hp Ferrari LaFerrari -- have all set new performance benchmarks using hybrid powertrains. And, of course, this is the year the world's elite racing category, Formula 1, switched to hybrid power units. (I know there's been some moaning about the flat, muffled exhaust note of the new hybrid F1 racers, but I'd happily trade noise for the opportunity to watch the world's best drivers attempt to tame cars that are clearly a real handful, thanks to instant-on torque and low rear-end grip.)

We're already starting to see the concept of using batteries and stored electric power to boost performance trickle down from the stratospheric worlds of F1 and million-dollar sports cars to more affordable performance vehicles.

With a sticker of about $137,000, BMW's futuristic new i8 sports car cost about as much as a modestly optioned Porsche 911, even though it only has a 228-hp, turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine mounted amidships. But with a 129-hp electric motor able to drive the front wheels and a small 8-hp electric motor at the rear to help spool up the combustion engine's turbo, it is expected to turn a similar sub-4-second 0-60-mph acceleration time.

2015 Porsche 918 Spyder© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder

Meanwhile, Porsche is reportedly working on hybrid versions of the 911 Turbo S and Panamera Turbo S that will deliver 700-plus hp. The next-gen Acura NSX will be a hybrid, too. Fast-forward a decade or so, and hybrid technology will almost certainly be making performance Chevys and Volkswagens and Hondas go quicker.

The Toyota Prius deserves its reputation as a car for people who don't particularly care about driving. But don't blame the technology under the hood. Remember, hybrid is the new fast.

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