Not long ago, carmakers were touting hydrogen as the silver bullet for energy independence and environmental redemption. But massive roadblocks to building the hydrogen highway forced automakers to follow detours to other green technologies. Just as no single solution will make manufacturers’ fleets green, no single environmentally friendly car will work for everyone. Clean diesels are great for long-distance highway driving, but if you have a long commute in bumper-to-bumper traffic, hybrids get the nod. Electric cars (such as the Nissan Leaf, debuting in December) boast zero-emissions driving; but if you plan to travel more than 100 miles in a single stretch, you may end up stranded with a dead battery. Meanwhile, carmakers are tweaking gasoline engines to achieve better and better fuel economy.
This kind of decision-making isn’t new to Americans, notes John Voelcker, editor of the Green Car Reports. “We’re the home of multicar households,” says Voelcker. “We have bought different types of cars based on different uses for years. People will start to do that with powertrains -- they’ll pick among the green cars based on what they’re doing.”
In addition to how you’ll use your car, there’s a financial angle. Cost is the biggest constraint for buyers considering a green car. For 2010, the premium over a comparable gas-engine car ranges from $690 to $34,350 for hybrids, and from $1,500 to $4,525 for diesels. Over five years, you’ll recoup a portion of the premium with savings at the pump. Tax incentives also help ease the sting of a higher price, but credits begin to phase out after an automaker sells 60,000 green vehicles. (Tax credits are no longer available for Ford, Honda, Lexus, Mercury and Toyota hybrids, and as of July, buyers of Audi and Volkswagen diesels are eligible for half of the tax credit.) To compare the cost of a hybrid or diesel with its gas-engine counterpart (or with each other), use our calculator.
New government mandates are pushing automakers further on fuel economy. The rules will require all the noncommercial vehicles they sell to average 34.1 miles per gallon by 2016. Cars will have to average 37.8 mpg, and light trucks and SUVs 28.8 mpg, versus 27.5 mpg and 23.5 mpg currently. As automakers scramble to meet the stricter standards, they’ll pass much of the extra cost to you. According to the National Research Council, the latest fuel-economy measures will raise the average retail cost of midsize and large cars by $2,220 for gas-engine vehicles. Each vehicle’s footprint (the area contained by its wheels) will determine its fuel-economy requirement, so U.S. highways won’t be flooded with econoboxes.
Hybrids: Best for gridlock
Hybrids have come a long way since Honda introduced the original, two-seat Insight to the U.S. in 1999. Hybrids started out as rolling science projects that appealed solely to committed environmentalists and early adopters. “They were fighting against the tide of the SUV phenomenon, when cupholders were considered more important than fuel efficiency,” says Bradley Berman, editor of HybridCars.com. Like automotive jewelry, early hybrids were worn proudly by their owners, who smugly breezed past the gas station.
After a decade of advances in batteries, hybrids are no longer considered experimental -- although their fuel efficiency is still a badge of honor for owners. They are available in every size and vehicle type and, because they use a gasoline engine as well as an electric motor, you can take them on long road trips and not worry about running out of fuel. But the best use of the technology is city driving: Hybrids capture energy when braking, which recharges the battery and allows you to use more electricity, less gas.
For the 2010 model year, 23 hybrids are available. For 2011, six new hybrids join the lineup. Honda’s CR-Z will now be the smallest model, at 161 inches long -- 15 inches shorter than the Toyota Prius. This baby ‘brid has seating for only two (much like the original Insight hybrid) and aims for performance, not all-out mileage numbers. Three driving modes -- Econ, Normal and Sport -- maximize fuel efficiency or performance, as you wish. And it’s the first hybrid to come with a six-speed manual (and an optional automatic). Powerwise, it’s about on par with Honda’s gas-engine Civic, but it gets 31 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway with the manual (35 city/39 highway with the automatic). Pricing starts at $19,950 and tops out at $23,960.
Among midsize sedans, the new Hyundai Sonata hybrid’s unique front end helps distinguish it from the gas-engine Sonata, and it will be among the first hybrids to use a lithium-ion battery -- the same technology used in cell phones and laptops -- instead of the standard nickel-metal hydride battery. Lincoln is also introducing a hybrid version of its MKZ. (Pricing for both has yet to be announced.)
To compete with the Mercedes-Benz S400 luxury hybrid, BMW adds the ActiveHybrid to its top-of-the-line 7 series. Its V8 engine and electric motor combine to deliver 455 horsepower. It rockets from zero to 60 miles per hour in 4.7 seconds -- while getting about 15% better fuel economy than the conventional 750i. Like the S400, this haute hybrid is barely distinguishable from the gas-engine model, whether you’re standing in the driveway or sitting behind the wheel. Starting price: $103,175.