Cars that once seemed confined to science fiction now sit on dealership floors, and even more sleek, silent hybrid and electric vehicles are right around the bend. The eco-car industry is experiencing a “gold rush,” with upstart car companies pitching new products against America’s Big Three, Japan’s automotive dynasties and Europe’s stalwarts.
The future isn’t all the way here yet—there is no perfect, ecologically friendly, uncomplicated, long-range, ultra comfy car. Consumers have to make choices, sacrifices and reconsider how they get from place to place.
To help, here are the top picks from the alt-fuel crop.
Sedan: Toyota Prius
The Prius isn’t the most exciting option, but its no-nonsense practicality has made it the king of eco-cars. It has a familiar, not-too-futuristic shape that the average car buyer relates to. Four doors and a hatchback make it the perfect family vehicle, with an interior tough enough to withstand a youth soccer team and comfortable enough for their parents. But most of all, its listed MPG blows away its hybrid competitors.
Cost: $21,000-$27,000 (USD).
MPG: 48 city/45 hwy (estimated).
Pro: Great gas mileage; not too weird looking.
Con: Uses petroleum; kind of boring.
Sport: Honda CR-Z Hybrid
The new CR-Z is one of the most affordable hybrids on the market, and its styling echoes Honda’s popular and affordable sport car, the CR-X, which ended production in 1991. Combine its stealthy looks with racer-boy options like paddle shifters, fuel economy that outpaces gas-powered drag racers and the maneuverability of a two-seater, and the CR-Z is the perfect gateway drug to bring sport-car fans over to the green side.
Cost: $19,200-$23,210 (USD).
MPG: 35 city/39 hwy (best estimated).
Pro: Sports car looks without the price.
Con: MPG could be better for a hybrid.
On sale in US Aug. 24
Compact: Smart Fortwo Electric Drive
A fixture in Europe and a craze in the US, Smart Cars are made for navigating and parking in congested city streets. Europe already has limited numbers of the Electric Drive version, while the U.S. and Canada will see it in October. It seems Daimler hopes scarcity will drive demand, and, in the US, will be offering leases at $599 a month. If consumers can swallow the price, they’ll plug into a car that charges to 80 percent capacity in about four hours, has a range of about 80 miles, and can park in places no family sedan will ever squeeze into. And it doesn’t use a drop of gas.
Cost: Four year lease at $599 per month = $28,752.
Charge: 3-5 hours for 80 percent; 8 hours for 100%
Range: 80 miles.
Pro: Doesn’t use gas; Cute!
Con: Big price tag on a small vehicle.
On sale in US in October
Coupe: Nissan Leaf
Excitement surrounding Nissan’s egg-shape hatchback is high. The exterior straddles the line between cute and common, while the interior promises room for five passengers plus luggage. Its slew of conveniences—such as a nav system, cruise control and a Bluetooth hands-free phone system—speaks to the “house on wheels” customer segment, much more so than the bare bones Smart. The Leaf claims a 100-mile range and an eight-hour charge time on a 220-volt outlet. Charging and other specifications can be set from a laptop or smart phone. Best of all, there are no tailpipe emissions. There’s not even a tailpipe.
Cost: $26,200-$25,300 (USD) (after Tax credit).
Charge: 8 hours on 220-amp outlet (will “tickle charge” on 110-amp US household outlet in about 20 hours).
Range: 100 miles.
Pro: No gas; lots of toys.
Con: Without tax rebate, price increases by $7,500.
Available December 2010
Mercedes F-Cell B-Class
Hydrogen cars are on the cusp of practicality, and the hatchback F-Cell is the most usable of the bunch. Regenerative electric braking and a lithium-ion battery support the car’s hydrogen fuel system and give it a range of 250 miles, which is better than the best electric cars and cousins such as BMW’s Hydrogen 7. This is good, because owners will probably have to drive extra miles to find a scarce hydrogen fuel station. It’s a Mercedes, so it has the build and the creature comforts that come with the brand, and nothing exits the exhaust but water vapor.
Cost: Limited leases in US and Europe.
Fuel: Three 700 bar hydrogen tanks; one lithium-ion battery.
Range: 250 miles.
Pro: More than double the range of electric vehicles.
Con: Hydrogen supply infrastructure lacking.