With a wide array of eco-friendly cars hitting showrooms in 2010, automakers are proving they're serious about going green. At this year's auto shows, even more fuel-efficient vehicles were launched, everything from hybrids to alternative fuel types to the traditional gas motor variety. Our top list reflects the several paths now available on the road to sustainable transportation, and you don't have to sacrifice an engaging driving experience to achieve a greener lifestyle.
30 City / 42 Hwy
In the U.S., diesel cars gained a bad reputation for being loud, hard to start, foul smelling and dirty. But with today's "clean diesel" technology providing cars hybrid-like fuel mileage and performance every bit as good as their gas-powered competitors, Americans can once again embrace diesel engines for more than just our trucks. The Jetta TDI (30 city/41 hwy) has a clean turbocharged diesel engine that turns out 236 lbs.-ft. of torque at modest RPM, providing more get-up-and-go than a hybrid could ever dream of. And proving that diesel is no longer a dirty word, the direct-injected diesel engine reduces greenhouse emissions to just 0.67 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile.
40 City / 43 Hwy
After an almost four-year gap, Honda is reviving the Insight as a four-door. The more practical five-seater hatchback looks a lot like the Toyota Prius on the outside, but that's where the similarities end. The Insight operates and drives more like a standard car. Gauges are behind the wheel and controls are more conventionally placed. Its hybrid system is less obvious, mainly because the gasoline engine runs almost constantly, and the car always starts off under the gas engine's power. And thanks to Honda's shrewd package design of the battery pack, cargo space is not sacrificed. The Insight returns well over 40 mpg - less than the Prius - but costs a couple grand less. This is the way to ease into a hybrid.
51 City / 48 Hwy
The pioneer in hybrid engine technology is still at the top of its game when it comes to fuel economy, with an official EPA-estimated 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway and 50 mpg combined. Redesigned for 2010, the third-generation Prius offers more interior space, smoother handling and livelier engine performance. The vastly improved hybrid powertrain pairs a larger 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with an electric motor and battery pack for a combined power rating of 134 hp. The improved quality of the seats, dashboard design and door panels create a clean, contemporary feel. And there are plenty of high-tech options, including, Bluetooth capability, an Advanced Technology Package with radar cruise control, a park-assist system and more.
28 City / 35 Hwy
Going green can mean going smaller, but with the Honda Fit it doesn't feel like much of a sacrifice. This subcompact delivers more than great mileage (27 city/33 highway). It packs in a lot of surprises for such a small car. The interior volume is quite impressive - there's enough space for five adults and all their stuff. And incredibly flexible rear Magic Seats create instant cargo space to rival that of a small SUV. The sporty 1.5-liter engine and taut handling make it fun to drive. The best part? The loaded Fit Sport comes in under $20,000.
41 City / 36 Hwy
Winner of the 2010 North American Car of the Year, the Fusion Hybrid makes it fun to achieve terrific gas mileage (41 city/36 highway). The cleverly designed power-tracking LCD display called Smart Gauge with EcoGuide invites people to set personal records in miles-per-gallon. It's actually possible to keep the vehicle in electric mode all the way up to 47 mph. (Most hybrids can pull off the electric-only trick only as high as 25 mph or so.) And when you do drive efficiently, you'll be rewarded with a vividly colored vine that grows leaf by leaf on the display. But what really sets the Fusion apart from other hybrids is its decidedly un-hybrid like personality. This midsize family sedan looks and functions just like a regular car - only with excellent gas mileage.
23 City / 36 Hwy
Forget everything you think you know about diesels - this is a performance car. BMW's 3-series has been hailed by the automotive press for decades for its outstanding performance, and the 3.0-liter turbo-diesel is no exception. It displays all of the nimble characteristics of its gas-burning siblings while achieving better fuel mileage (23 city/36 highway). With 265 hp and a locomotive-like 425 ft.-lb.of torque, the 335d is as quick as you'd expect a BMW to be. Consider the 335d a low-key kind of green, indistinguishable from the gas 3-series, save for a "d" on the deck lid. Unfortunately for enthusiasts, the turbo-diesel is only available in the sedan body style with an automatic transmission in the U.S.
19 City / 25 Hwy
Who says you have to give up your heated and ventilated seats with massage just because you want to go green? With a long history in engineering fuel-efficient models, especially diesels, Mercedes understands that luxury and efficiency are not mutually exclusive. The German automaker's first hybrid utilizes a mild hybrid system with a 3.5-liter V6 gas engine. With a combined output of 295 hp, the electric-gas combo allows Mercedes to maintain its high-power profile. Furthermore, the S400 Hybrid is the first mass-production vehicle to utilize a lithium-ion battery, which happens to be the size of a shoebox. Translation: trunk capacity and generous S-Class interior dimensions remain unchanged, while the entire system is more efficient, lighter and quieter. Automatic start-stop and regenerative braking (which charges the battery and powers the vehicle's electrical systems) help this hybrid achieve near compact-car fuel economy at 29 mpg, according to Mercedes.
28 City / 37 Hwy
When you think of the Mini Cooper, think of the three F's: functionality, fuel efficiency and lots of fun, all wrapped up in a pint-sized package. Mini's claim of "go cart handling" does not disappoint. This short-wheelbase car delivers a sporty, brisk drive every time. Yet it's easy on the gas. From the base Cooper to the turbocharged Cooper S, the Mini returns mileage in the high twenties to low thirties. And maybe it's corny to say, but the Mini also returns myriad smiles per gallon. The iconic styling and novel interior décor give it so much personality that you barely even mind the cramped rear seats. The driver that wants a fun, well-equipped and unique car with a more efficient conventional gas-powered engine will be right at home in the Mini.
30 City / 42 Hwy
Don't you love it when something you've always liked just keeps getting better? That's kind of how we feel about the Golf. This year, VW is offering its 2.0-liter, direct-injection turbo-diesel (TDI) four under the hood. The Golf TDI, which produces 140 hp and 236 lb-ft torque, may be just a shade slower than the regular Golf, but it wins in fuel economy: 30 mpg city and 42 highway. Plus, the TDI Clean Diesel engine decreases up to 95 percent of all sooty emissions. But the benefits don't stop there. The TDI shares some of the same characteristics as the GTI, including firmer suspension tuning, more precise steering and a more upgraded fit, finish and interior design than the regular Golf.
Throughout the history of the automobile there have always been more fuel-efficient options, but never before have our choices looked so good. From high-tech hybrids to luxury Autobahn cruisers and loaded compact cars, drivers no longer have to settle for an ugly, cramped econobox just to save money at the pump.
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