What Kind of Green Car Should You Buy?

What is a “green car” anyway? Is this a contrived term?

Well, no, not necessarily, but in cases it may be if it doesn’t do much for the environment, but many cars now do offer significant improvements.

This therefore is a clue to a working definition of “green” however we are not stuck on verbiage. A “green car” may also be known as an “alternative energy” passenger vehicle or “advanced-tech” or “eco-friendly,” or what have you, but we’ll be the first to admit terms and choices are debatable.

Especially debatable, it would seem, is that second one – car technology choices.

Before we dive into this primer on various approaches, it should be observed that many opinions abound among those following this subject, and we respect that.

Most people will at least agree a “green” car emits less or even no greenhouse gases, travels more efficiently on fuel, and, therefore helps reduce dependence on oil.

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It’s been said the U.S. is “addicted to oil” and evidence abounds that this is true. People who recognize this may become passionate about the best solution to wean society off of the hard stuff, and we recognize the merits of points made for and against various technologies.

Without taking sides, this will highlight just some of their pros and cons and link you to further reading if any technology looks interesting to you.

Choosing a new car can be stressful, and a big deal. It would be great to be able to say it’s simple, and it can be, but if you wish to delve deeper, there is information to at least be mindful of.

A “green car,” just like any car, is actually a best compromise, just as there are compromises in so many other aspects of this world we live within.

Like any car purchase, you’ll want to calculate the total cost of ownership, including purchase price or lease payment, estimated fuel costs, taxes, subsidies if available, insurance, and anticipated resale value – and how you like the way the thing looks, and makes you feel.

Technologies considered are the ones HybridCars.com covers monthly on its sales Dashboard: Hybrids, Plug-in Hybrid, All-Electric, Diesel – and Compressed Natural Gas, and soon enough there will be Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles also.

Following are brief salient points, and we’ll link to further reading for your consideration.

Hybrid

Within context of the modern era – and not historical cars that came and went – hybrids are arguably the oldest, most-established tech in consideration. Toyota developed its Prius in 1997 and brought it to the U.S. in 2000. Honda was here with its Insight at the end of 1999.

This choice is thus a conservative one, as bugs have been worked out, mechanics know how to fix them, and they operate essentially like a conventional car.

Indeed, they have internal combustion engines and no lifestyle adjustments are needed to drive them, really.

Toyota Prius Liftback.

Toyota Prius Liftback.

There are now a few dozen hybrids in every shape and size being sold in the U.S. The top sellers are the ones that tend to get better mileage within respective categories. A “full hybrid” and not a “mild” hybrid is more efficient.

We wrote a piece a while back on whether a hybrid can pay for itself – as they usually command a premium over comparable conventional vehicles.

In short, yes, most do, but variable is how many miles you must drive, and how much time it therefore takes. Some hybrids may not fully pay back in strict dollars and cents.

People may still opt for them as they are environmentally cleaner and use less fuel. They also may provide a quality of driving experience unique to that car.

Who should buy one?

Pick a high-mpg hybrid if you want the simplest choice in an established market with the least lifestyle changes.

Plug-In Hybrid

Presently, there are a half-dozen plug-in hybrids, including the original of the type, the “extended-range electric” Chevrolet Volt launched in December 2010.

In common with these cars is they are quasi electric cars but have gas engines and can drive with or without you plugging them in.

They truly do emit less or nothing when powered by their electric traction motors and lithium-ion battery packs varying in kilowatt-hour capacity.

These are a nice compromise that let a commuter drive some or purely electrically but with gasoline backup as needed.

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For those wanting to do more to wean away from petroleum, this is a worthwhile technology. At the extreme, some drivers (who make every effort not to exceed electric range) report not filling up at the gas station for months on end.

All-electric range varies from a low of six miles to as much as 38 or more, but all plug-ins have tradeoffs.

The car with the longest range is the Volt and this one is unique given that when you press the accelerator to the floor, the gas does not come on to add power as is the case with all the others.

It operates as a pure EV until the battery runs out, but working against it being the hands-down winner is it’s a four seater, compact sized, and others on the list are more spacious with more passenger capacity.

All of the plug-ins offer pros and cons. If you would like to read more about whether one would be a wise choice, see “Should You Buy a Plug-in Hybrid?

Another look is provided by “Should You Buy or Lease a Plug-in Car,” and “Is There a Best Plug-in Hybrid?

Who should buy one?

Pick a plug-in hybrid if you want an electric car but need a vehicle that can drive unlimited distances on gas when needed.

All-Electric Car

Arguably the “greenest” of all is all-electric vehicles (EVs). Also known as “battery electric” these cars emit nothing as they have no gas engines.

True, the power generating station to your local grid – assuming you don’t use renewable energy – does create a varying amount of emissions, but studies have shown in most cases an EV is cleaner than a comparable gas-powered car.

Also, the grid is getting cleaner year by year as more renewables come online, and old stations go offline.

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EVs are smooth, quiet, have full torque from a standstill, but they are limited in range.

Except for the Tesla Model S with 208-265 miles rated range, EVs are usually limited to under 100 miles. This is enough for most daily driving, and the advantage is you can plug in at home to a 240-volt charger you install or public charging can also add to daily range.

Typically these cars cost more to buy, but may be cheap to lease. In either case, they may actually pay for themselves given electric energy on average costs one-fifth what gasoline does.

Reasons abound why EVs is a great choice that more people ought to consider, and you can learn more in “Should You Buy An Electric Car.”

Who should buy one?

Pick an EV if you are most committed to making a difference, can live with range, charging, and can see benefits that outweigh the trade-offs.

Clean Diesel

Diesel is called “clean” by the federal government – and not just marketers – because it uses ultra low sulfur diesel and a host of extra emission controls.

CO2 emissions tend to be lower, mpg tends to be higher, but this has been a controversial choice in America, if not overseas. In Europe, diesels may comprise 50 percent of purchases as they have accepted the argument that it is “green,” even if some now are having second thoughts.

Diesel fuel and the vehicles themselves cost more than gas-powered counterparts, but turbo diesels are the most thermally efficient internal combustion engines. So, they may balance out. They tend to have large fuel tanks and long ranges of 500-800 miles. Diesel engines, built to withstand high internal pressures, can be robust – usually, though not always.

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More on this technology can be found in “Is America Ready For more Clean Diesels.”

Who should buy one?

Pick this if you want the drive experience of a torquey, but relatively frugal car, particularly if you are high-mileage driver.

More Choices

Honda is the only company now delivering a compressed natural gas car, a version of its Civic. Some light duty trucks are now offering it as an option.

Natural gas burns super clean but fuel availability and range are issues to weigh against.

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The Honda is available in 37 states, but natural gas is also not without controversy due to fracking.

Loosely related are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles – insofar as Honda has offered the only fuel cell car, the FCX Clarity, and typically hydrogen is derived from natural gas.

In later years, hydrogen proponents say other “feed stocks” are predicted to come online in later years to create the hydrogen toward a more green equation.

The FCX Clarity is limited to lease only in California. This year Hyundai will have its Tucson, and in 2015 Toyota is expected to have a fuel cell sedan for sale or lease in California and eventually other states as well.

Toyota says the well-to-wheel analysis shows FCVs as better than EVs, but this science has been disputed.

California however rewards fuel cells as zero emission vehicles with the practicality of internally combustion vehicles.

Toyota FCV Concept.

Toyota FCV Concept.

According to California’s carrot-and-stick Zero Emission Vehicle rules, FCVs get nine ZEV credits. The largest battery equipped Tesla Model S now only gets four.

A raft of info is available from two articles we did interviewing Toyota here, and here.

And, Toyota last month further explained why it says this may be the technology the world relies on for “the next 100 years.

Simple, Right?

Alternative energy cars have grown as niche products and interest and choices are expanding more quickly now due to federal and overseas regulations, and increased awareness for their need.

Both Chevrolet and Toyota – among others, no doubt – have conceded their plug-in cars are not always understood by many consumers, or considered even by those who could benefit from them.

However, none of this stuff is extremely complicated, even if the technology behind them may be. Consumers don’t need to know how a fuel cell or plug-in hybrid operates any more than they may need to know how an internal combustion Otto Cycle engine operates. The main question, is will it meet their needs?

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The technologies available are different to a degree from what most people are familiar with, but we’re talking cars that are only differentiated by what makes them go.

Choosing the right one can be as complex as you wish to make it, but need not be overly hard. You can click through to other reading to fill in the blanks, as needed. Also, our Dashboard shows what’s selling the best, and this shows what the market is already selecting as better choices in respective technology types.