Looking for an eco-friendly car as the 2011 model year heads rapidly this way is becoming an exercise in whether you go totally electric or hybrid.
A year ago, it was easy. The most eco-friendly cars on the market were probably hybrids and then only when driven in city settings (despite what the advertising might have said hybrid cars are just that, hybrids, they rely on both gasoline and electricity to get the job done – gas and battery on the highway and battery around town; having driven an Insight in battery mode around a major metro area we can say that battery is probably the better way to go but you just have to remember to stay in a mode that keeps the battery charging and not discharging, such as in high-speed long-distance highway runs, then you have another problem – you use both the gas and electric engine to keep things going).
So, what are the top eco-friendly cars today:
Leading the list would be the Nissan Leaf, now offered by various dealers. The Leaf is a totally electric vehicle; it doesn’t even have a limp-along gasoline engine to help it keep the charge up. Indeed, the Leaf requires a full eight-hour charging cycle on a 220/240 volt, specially installed charging station that a specialist from Nissan will install in your garage.
The charging station then keeps the 480-volt system charged so that you get a range of about 100 miles, which is pretty, all things considered. Yes, it does use the tried-and-true techniques of regenerative braking for low-speed city traffic where you spend most of your time on and off the brakes and, indeed, when the car isn’t in “on” mode, it is “off.” You have to hit the accelerator pedal to restart things (having driven other hybrids in similar circumstances to the point where they just shut down, waiting to start up, one can find this a bit disconcerting).
The sleekly designed leaf which will hold four is designed for city driving and is also designed to take advantage of the electrical grid’s “downtime,” from 9 pm to 6 am, when most o f the world is resting.
And, even though Nissan does advocate using its proprietary charging station at home, it does provide a “trickle charge” mode that allows you to top off the battery from a more standard outlet during the day (110/120).
Although this is a true electric, it is one with a slight difference. After charging all night so that you have the standard 40-mile electric range in the morning, the Volt, about the size of today’s Cobalt, and good for five adults, kicks into charging mode if it senses the battery is down.
The Volt does run a small, dedicated, four-cylinder gasoline engine whose job it is to keep the battery system charged. Unlike its hybrid cousins, the sleek Volt’s engine is disconnected from the driving wheels during acceleration and the only duty it sees is charging the battery system. That’s a far cry from the other hybrids on the market – now the most eco-friendly at the moment – whose gasoline engines do cut it when the vehicle is called upon to accelerate into traffic.
Aside from the Leaf and the Volt, the primary eco-friendly vehicles available are hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight/Civic, Ford Fusion/Escape, Chevy hybrids.
All of these vehicles rely on technology that has been around for nearly a decade or more and may evolve into all electric vehicles.
Of course, there’s the high-performance Tesla that promises 130-mpg or better performance, but you have to shell out some very large dollars ($100,000-plus) and Toyota is trying to beat everyone to the market with its 800 “all-electric” Prius’s – announced suddenly last summer, but the best of the eco-friendly hybrid vehicles will likely remain the the following in the next couple of years:
• Toyota Prius
• Honda Insight
• Honda Civic
• Ford Fusion
• Ford Escape
Ford has promised an all-electric version of its Transit van and GMC is experimenting with fuel-cell technology, but we have not heard much about progress on either front. So, with the exception of the Volt and the Leaf, the hybrid will be the green car alternative over the next decade.