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Green Car Shopping Tips

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author photo by Doug DeMuro May 2017

If you're thinking about buying a fuel-efficient new vehicle, you're not alone. Green cars are becoming more and more popular, with new hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles seemingly released every day.

But the green car market can be complicated, with a wide range of propulsion systems and a wider range of available vehicles -- and price points. So which green vehicle is right for you? Which ones should you consider? And which ones will fit your lifestyle? These are all good questions -- and we've done our best to answer them with some helpful shopping tips for drivers interested in a fuel-efficient new vehicle.

Shopping for a Gas-electric Hybrid Car

A gas-electric hybrid car uses a conventional gasoline motor in tandem with an electric motor that's hooked to a battery pack. The idea is that the electric motor takes a lot of the stress off the gasoline motor, resulting in superior fuel economy -- especially in urban driving.

There are two basic kinds of gas-electric hybrids that you should be aware of. The most popular kind, which we'll call the conventional hybrid, uses the electric motor primarily as a supplement, so it can't really drive on electric power alone -- at least not for any great distance. Examples of the conventional hybrid include the Toyota Prius, the Honda Accord Hybrid and the Ford Fusion Hybrid.

The other kind, known as the plug-in hybrid, can drive solely on electric power until the battery pack runs out of juice. At that point, the gasoline engine automatically takes over -- but even then the gas engine and electric motor still work together. Examples of plug-in hybrids include the Chevrolet Volt, which can travel 53 miles on electric power before the gasoline engine kicks in, and the Toyota Prius Prime, which can go 25 miles before its combustion engine takes over. Either way, that's more than enough range for many drivers in an average day -- and the gasoline engine is always there for longer trips.

If you're shopping for a hybrid car, there are a few important tips to keep in mind.

First, there's no way around the higher price of new hybrids relative to similar non-hybrid vehicles. It typically takes years to earn back those extra dollars with what you're saving on gasoline. As such, we recommend taking a close look at used hybrids, since depreciation can definitely help close the price gap. With that said, many new models are really widening the fuel economy gap between hybrid cars and standard gas-powered vehicles. The new Toyota Prius, for instance, returns up to 58 miles per gallon in the city and 53 mpg on the highway -- huge numbers which only seem to be improving with each redesign.

Second, with regard to used hybrids, don't worry too much about reliability issues -- at least not with more recent hybrid models. Hybrid components generally have long warranties that should transfer to used hybrid cars. When these long warranties expire, however, all bets are off. Older Honda Civic Hybrid models, for example, have developed a reputation for burning out battery packs -- at $2,000 to $4,000 a pop. Therefore, we strongly advise looking for a used hybrid with significant time remaining on the hybrid-component warranty.

Third, the driving experience of hybrid cars varies widely from model to model. The original Prius, for example, may have given hybrids a bad name with its grabby brakes and strange engine noises, but newer hybrids are much better. Examples include the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid and Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, along with the latest Prius. We recommend driving as many hybrids as you can to get an idea of what they're like on the road.

Finally, think hard about plug-in pros and cons before signing on the dotted line. Cars like the Volt are pricey -- even with the federal government's tax credit -- so buying one will not likely be the most frugal decision you can make. The technology is awesome, no doubt, but just remember that it doesn't come cheap. With that said, many electric vehicles -- like the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf -- are more affordable when you check the lease deals.

Shopping for a Diesel-powered Car

If hybrids seem like a bridge too far, we suggest diesel vehicles as a more down-to-earth alternative. Diesel fuel, if you're wondering, is a less-refined kind of fuel that's sort of like heating oil. In other words, it's no more exotic than the stuff that keeps snow-belt residents warm in the winter. Also, diesel engines generally last longer than gasoline engines.

Diesel-powered cars and trucks are more fuel-efficient than their gas-powered counterparts. That's why they're part of the green car conversation. In fact, cars like the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel and BMW 328d can be even more fuel-efficient on the highway than popular hybrids. Compared to hybrids, however, diesels get worse fuel economy in the city -- something to keep in mind if urban driving is a big part of your routine.

Another concern that many people have about diesels is air pollution -- especially after Volkswagen's recent diesel emissions scandal, when it was found the automaker was cheating on EPA testing to make its diesel-powered vehicles seem cleaner than they were. Given the penalties (including criminal prosecution of executives) faced by Volkswagen, and the fear that other automakers likely have of similar punishment, we strongly believe the diesel models on the market today meet the U.S. government's strict emission regulations -- meaning they're clean.

With that said, compliance with the U.S. government's strict diesel emissions regulations is pricey -- so most diesel models sold here are expensive luxury cars, such as the BMW 328d and 528d and the Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTEC, and diesel-powered versions of luxury SUVs like the Range Rover, Jaguar F-Pace and BMW X5. Since Volkswagen has withdrawn its diesel-powered vehicles from the U.S. market, very few affordable diesel models (like the Chevy Cruze Diesel) remain available.

It's also worth noting that diesels generally offer an excellent driving experience. Diesel engines have superior torque, for one thing, which means you get a nice shove off the line when you punch the accelerator -- just the way most drivers like it. But more than that, diesel vehicles are otherwise like any other car -- so the steering, brakes and all the rest will be just like what you're accustomed to in your current ride. That's why we say diesel vehicles are a great way to "go green" without much of a compromise on driving experience.

One caution, though: Self-serve diesel pumps in the U.S. aren't as common as gasoline pumps, so you'll want to make sure you know of at least a few gas stations near your residence that sell diesel.

Shopping for an Electric Car

Despite all the press they've received, pure electric cars still account for less than one percent of all vehicles on the road in the U.S. -- and that's unlikely to change much for the foreseeable future. So if you decide to go electric, you're definitely taking the road less traveled.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. Electric cars such as the Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model S have a lot to offer, including quiet, smooth "instant-on" power that can make fossil-fueled vehicles feel clunky and archaic by comparison. Also, electric cars have fewer moving parts, which should translate to reduced maintenance costs over the long haul.

But there are good reasons electric cars don't have more of a presence on our roads. First, their limited driving range effectively takes long road trips out of the equation. Even though charging stations are starting to appear along heavily traveled highway routes, you'll still have to wait a long time for that depleted battery pack to recharge: up to six hours with a 240-volt outlet in your home, and well over 30 minutes with even the most recent "fast charging" systems available in some new models.

Then there's the issue of price. If you thought hybrids were expensive, wait until you price electric cars. To be fair, the Chevy Bolt offers an amazing 238 miles of range for just $37,500 with shipping -- but that same figure could buy you a new BMW with more power, better performance and a more traditionally appealing design. As for the aforementioned Tesla Model S, it's a beautiful car inside and out, but even the base model will set you back around $80,000. Yes, there are tax credits to sweeten the deal, but you'll still end up paying a lot for any electric car.

Our advice to electric-car shoppers, therefore, is simple: Budget accordingly -- and unless you never have to drive long distances, make sure you've got access to another car. But if you can cover both those bases, hey, there's no doubt that electric cars are really cool and ultra-efficient.

Hydrogen Power: Another Alternative?

One more "green car" alternative worth noting is the continued expansion of the hydrogen-powered vehicle segment. While hydrogen cars are only on sale in a small trickle, a few are available: the Toyota Mirai, the Honda Clarity and the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell can all be purchased or leased by shoppers in Southern California. These cars seemingly offer the best of all worlds, as they can be quickly refueled (like a gasoline car) and they don't pollute environmentally harmful emissions (like an electric vehicle). But they currently don't have much infrastructure support, and they're expensive to purchase. Nonetheless, they may be of interest to certain California-based shoppers especially willing to dabble in futuristic green car technology.

Our Take

When shopping for any environmentally friendly car, first examine your needs. If you have a long commute, a pure electric car might not work for you. Those who spend a lot of time solely on the highway might be happiest with a diesel-powered car. Hybrids are sort of the catch-all for people who want to use less fuel and don't mind paying a little extra to buy the car in the first place. And if your "green car" goals involve adhering to a strict budget, certainly consider a used vehicle instead of a new one.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Green Car Shopping Tips - Autotrader