From what I understand about the new hybrid SUVs is that, yes they do get better mileage compared to regular SUVs, but not necessarily to a normal 4wd sedan. In addition you may save money on gas [not as much as you might think] but you -must- replace the battery at 70-90k miles [depending on the manufacturer/model] .. apparently the new batteries are grossly expensive and offset any savings you make on gas. A recent article I read brings the TCO of the hybrids in as more expensive than a comparable non-hybrid vehicle. The best bet, in my estimation, is to buy a mid range SUV with decent mileage and just suck it up.
We own a Nissan Xterra SE which serves us very well. We kayak, bike, offroad, and, of course, ski ... the 'X' gets us everywhere we want to go with efficiency and no fuss. At 4 years and counting we have 95K on it with absolutely no problems [knock wood] and when it dies we will replace it with another X. Actually I'm drooling over the new 'Offroad' X that Nissan is offering this year. What a machine! www.newx.com
. Our other car is a Subaru Outback 4wd which is good enough for local trips on pavement ... and the mileage isn't all that much better than the X.
So, if what you want gas efficiency, an SUV is not the way to go. On the other hand, if you want a vehicle that is a too cool play toy and can get you practically anywhere off the beaten path, then I can unreservedly recommend the Nissan Xterra 4x4.
Oh and about the driving in the HOV lanes? .. seems Virginia is on track to terminate that privilege. From what I have read, it looks like this spring will be the end of the HOV line for hybrids. Maryland never did offer that perk for the hys.
If you only intend to use the SUV for play and not commuting then a manual transmission is a good deal otherwise if you commute in the beltway like I do, a stick is totally out of the question unless you have nerves of steel, and right quads/shins of iron.
Finally, if you buy an Xterra 4x4 let me know, there are a bunch of us that do offroading trips to Shenandoah, OBX etc. ... we'd luv to have ya!