A Green Car for Every Driver
Which fuel-efficient vehicle is right for you? That depends on how and where you drive.
By Jessica L. Anderson
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.)
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.
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Hybrids: Best for gridlock
Diesels: Torqued up
Electric: Unplug and go