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Mr. Green Car: Best green cars of 2011

July 27, 2011

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

Recently, I was passing some time in Loves Park’s North Suburban Library by reading the June/July 2011 issue of Mother Earth News magazine (probably no surprise, eh?). By chance, it contained an article titled “Best Green Cars.” So, I of course had to have a look at what their opinion was on green transportation.

They chose the following six cars representing six different categories:

Chevrolet Volt — Best Plug-in Hybrid;

Toyota Prius — Best Family Hybrid;

Nissan Leaf — Best Electric Vehicle;

Ford Fiesta — Best Gas Only;

Honda CR-Z — Best Sporty Hybrid; and

Volkswagen Jetta TDI — Best Clean Diesel.

The article lists some specifications, prices and features — then “pros” and “cons,” followed by comments by auto press experts and a final “verdict.”

I’ll dare to boil it down to some quick synapses of each, starting with the Chevy Volt.

The Volt is available to buy now, though you may need to go to one of the six states where it is presently available with your $41,000 to get one. Once you buy it, you’ll be eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit. If you happen to live in a state giving further tax credits, it may even be less expensive. But what you’ll have is a plug-in electric hybrid sedan that can travel 25 to 50 miles on electricity without recharging. When the electricity runs out, an onboard engine starts up (using premium gas or E85) that provides electricity to keep you going and recharge the batteries. Total driving range with electricity and gas is 375 miles. Recharging time is four hours on 240-volt power (like your clothes dryer) or 10 hours on 110 volts (like your cell phone). If you don’t drive much in a given day, you may never use any gasoline, although Chevy wants you to use at least one tank a year to keep the engine fresh. It is a great start for General Motors — it really is an innovative vehicle, and it’s built by Americans in America. Nationwide availability is expected in 2012. They’ll be hard to spot on the road — as the styling is much like most other sedans on the road today.

Nissan’s Leaf is an all-electric car, or EV. The Leaf can go 62 to 138 miles on a full charge of its batteries. Although use of the electric heater will drop your range dramatically — better to dress warm — maybe a snowmobile suit in winter. Don’t laugh, that’s what the early adopters will do. It can haul five people around and not use any gas — it can’t. It might burn some coal if that’s where your electricity is coming from, but studies have found electric vehicles are still considerably cleaner with coal power than is a gasoline-burning vehicle. Got renewable energy? It won’t get much cleaner to drive than a Leaf. They figure the cost of refilling empty batteries to be $2.75. Not bad for 100 or so miles of driving. Like the Volt, it is not available nationwide yet, and there are plentiful tax credits to take the sting out of its $33,360 base price. They will be built in Tennessee for national distribution in 2012. I personally find the styling odd — but could learn to love it.

They give the best hybrid nod to the gorilla in the room — the 2011 Toyota Prius. Its 50 mpg overall mileage is sweet at the gas pump, even if it does not run on pure electricity. You see them everywhere (1 million sold in the U.S. so far), so the jury of consumerism has spoken: it’s a great car. They are available in all 50 states for a base price of $24,280. Although tax credits for them pretty much have dried up, they can still be a bargain in the long run with an annual estimated fuel cost of $1,125 — you’ll have some change left over for other things in life. 2012 will bring us the Prius V — a station wagon version, and the Prius C a compact all-wheel drive version that’s not quite an SUV. There is a Prius SUV in the works, though, for those who need to get out of a long, snowy driveway.

Just want a nice, inexpensive car? They chose the Ford Fiesta, with a base price of $15,090 ($16,890 for SE trim) as the best gas sipper of the lot. Estimated annual fuel cost is $1,705. Doing a little math — it would take 16 years to make up the difference in price between a Fiesta and its 40 mpg gas sipping (at current gas prices), and the Prius. It’s a fun, very safe car, having won the first “Top Safety Pick” for a mini-car by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It’s green cred is notable, too. No reason to drive anything bigger? Here’s a decent choice. Mr. Green Car likes the styling, particularly the green hatchback.

The Honda CR-Z is a sporty two-seat hybrid that pulls off getting 39 mpg on the highway (no better than the Fiesta), but is “the most fun to drive.” One of few cars available anymore with a true manual transmission — its available six-speed stick can up the fun level several notches. This $20,745 car may be just the ticket for those who need a regular adrenaline rush their lives — while saving on gas.

Lastly, for you long-distance commuters — the Volkswagen Jetta TDI diesel. The TDI technology has been around a long time, and diesel fans are very loyal to it. Best at highway economy where the diesel performs best, it is rated at 42 mpg. I’ve met an awful lot of folks who claim 50 mpg with their TDI diesels. Most have several hundred thousand miles on their car, still running like new. That’s diesel for you. The higher mileage offsets, the higher cost of the diesel fuel. With a 500-mile range, you’ll need to make potty stops more often than fill-ups. Jettas have been around quite a while and are proven, well-engineered and executed automobiles. Anyone with a daily drive of more than 100 miles should seriously consider one of these $24,865 sedans that compare very favorably to the Prius — except on the air pollution and greenhouse gas scores of 5/8 (Jetta) to 7/10 (Prius) — (higher scores = better).

Not a bad batch to choose from. However, nearly all vehicle manufacturers are on the bandwagon with hybrids, electrics, clean diesels and other efficient vehicles. Gas guzzling is so 1980s. A careful shopper can find other equally nice and efficient cars similar to most of the above, but for right now, the Chevy Volt stands alone in its field.

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