People who buy hybrid vehicles clearly want to cut their fuel consumption and, just maybe, reduce emissions and help save the planet.

But buyers seem to fall into two categories: those who don’t worry about the magic happening under the hood and simply enjoy their payoff at the fuel pump, and those who want the car to validate their choice by telling them how well they’re doing.

The challenge for hybrid designers is to satisfy both groups when they lay out the vehicle’s instrument cluster.

Hybrids combine electric motors with conventional gasoline or diesel engines to reduce fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions.

How much of these goings-on does the driver need or want to know?

Toyota’s iconic Prius had a big, colourful display in the centre of the dashboard with an animated graphic showing, among other things, whether the electric motor, gas engine or both were driving the car.

For the third-generation 2010 Prius, Toyota has actually ditched the big display in favour of a blue LCD screen on its instrument panel.

Drivers can use a steering wheel-mounted button to toggle through screens showing everything from the familiar Prius power diagram to minute-by-minute slices of fuel consumption and recent economical trips.

“The first converts to Prius were people who really were trying to make an environmental statement or do something different,” says Stephen Beatty, Toyota Canada's managing director. “Having the large display on the dashboard that actually told you what was going on underneath the hood was very important because at the time 10 years ago, the notion of having two powerplants under the hood and computers switching back and forth was a very alien notion.”

Honda’s new Insight, which outwardly resembles the Prius, created something called Eco Assist, aimed at teaching the driver to eke the best performance from the car.

Manuel Santos, a dedicated hypermiler who owns several hybrids, loves the setup.

“The most important tool to Eco Assist is in your line of sight,” he says. “The speedometer changes the background colour and that’s basically your primary tool.”

A green tinge to the speedo means optimally efficient driving. Otherwise, it's shades of blue.

As additional encouragement, green drivers are rewarded with a growing garden of flowers on the Eco Guide display. The greener you drive, the more leaves and flowers it sprouts.

Perhaps the most visually interesting display is found on the hybrid version of Ford's midsize Fusion sedan, dubbed SmartGauge.

Like the Insight’s display, it offers economy and power readouts but with a high degree of driver-programmable flexibility that allows as much or as little information as desired.

And, like the Insight, the Fusion rewards the efficient driver with greenery — this time a spreading tangle of vines growing on the instrument cluster’s right side.

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