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Passing on Gas
Fuel-efficient vehicles are booming—and it’s about time.

Hybrids have been getting tender loving attention since the Toyota Prius made these combo gas-electric vehicles fashionable. Willie Nelson is doing the same for bio-diesel, long an alternative for farm vehicles close to the source of veggie power. And the same manufacturers churning out ever-larger wheels for U.S. owners have also been making economical small cars that are best-sellers in European and Asian markets, where they’ve been living with caviar-priced gas since before GM gave America the Hummer. Here’s what to expect by category:

HYBRID
Nissan Altima:
Instead of developing its own hybrid, Nissan has licensed the technology of competitor and hybrid leader Toyota-Lexus for its first sedan, arriving in late fall as a 2007 model. It’s a win for both manufacturers, since it saves Nissan untold millions of R&D expenses and gives Toyota some payback on its own substantial hybrid investment. The Altima Hybrid continues Nissan’s best-selling car’s performance tradition (think 350Z) with a hybrid powertrain mated to a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with CVT (continuously variable transmission), so it behaves like a six-cylinder without increasing fuel use or tailpipe emissions. The switch from electric motor to gas engine and back again is seamless. The only way you’ll notice is to keep an eye on the power meter on the dash, which is dangerous to do on the road (I drove around an empty parking lot until the “When does it switch?” question was answered.) Pros: fuel economy; tax credits. Cons: batteries not recyclable. MSRP: $25,000.


NATURAL GAS
Honda Civic GX: Compressed natural gas purchased at a refueling station is approximately 30 percent less expensive than gasoline. Unfortunately, it’s tough to find a CNG station, so Honda has introduced both a natural gas Civic and “Phill,” an appliance smaller than a washing machine, which taps into your home’s propane supply so you can fill up the car in your own garage—and less expensively than at an elusive commercial refueling station. A further bonus is a federal tax credit of up to $5,000 for choosing ultra-clean wheels with nearly zero emissions. The Civic is no slouch in the performance and safety departments. It’s consistently top-rated in both. And when it comes to value and safety, there are side-curtain airbags, unusual in a compact sedan. The new CNG version means best-selling Honda Civic is available in three “tastes”—regular gas, natural gas and a hybrid. Pros: fuel less expensive; tax credits. Cons: tough to find a CNG station. MSRP: $24,440.


DIESEL
Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD: Diesels are so widely accepted in Europe they’re just another model choice, not simply labeled “alternative fuel.” So, it’s no wonder the new diesel version of the Grand Cherokee borrows the technology of its DaimlerChrysler sibling, Mercedes-Benz, which has been producing them ever since Rudolph Diesel and Gottlieb Daimler teamed up more than a century ago. The Grand Cherokee will be the first full-size diesel SUV in the US when it arrives this winter as a 2007 model. The new diesel technology will surprise those who remember the old, noisy, tough-to-start diesels that belched black smoke. This generation is quiet and clean thanks to electronic controls, higher fuel pressures and advanced after-treatment systems. There’s plenty of power, too: It’s a V-8. Pros: 20-30 percent better mileage than gas engines. Cons: heavier; pricier; emits more nitrogen oxide than gas engines. MSRP: Expect to pay up to $3,000 more than the $27,415 non-diesel price.


E85
Chevrolet Tahoe Flexfuel:
This 2007 SUV can run on ethanol, gasoline or any combination of the two. E85 is the best mix—85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline—for high octane and low emissions. The Chevrolet Tahoe FlexFuel is one of a growing number of E85 models from GM, which seems to have overlooked the word “hybrid” in its technology dictionary. In the U.S., ethanol is typically produced from corn and other grain products (Brazil uses its excess sugar crop). In the future, ethanol may be produced from forestry waste. Most of the 600 E85 stations here are in the Midwest, close to the farms that grow it. The V-8 engine features something called “active fuel management,” which provides the oomph of all eight cylinders when you need it and the economy of four when you don’t. There also are two FlexFuel Chevy sedans: the Impala and the Monte Carlo. Pros: reduced emissions. Cons: fewer miles per gallon; tough to find a filling station (but the network is growing). MSRP: $34,190.

SMALL AND SMALLER
Toyota Yaris: The Yaris is Toyota’s best-selling model in Europe, and it’s doing brisk business here since it was introduced to these shores this past spring. Its popularity is driving (forgive the pun) other manufacturers to do the same. Minis, slightly larger than upholstered roller-skates, are being spiffed up with luxury touches such as leather seats and moon roofs. Look for down-sized versions from upscale names including BMW, Audi and Mercedes, who haven’t wanted to muddy their image in the U.S. with downsized, low-priced models. But market share always trumps prestige. Pros: 30-plus miles per gallon; inexpensive; easy to park. Cons: manual transmission; may be uncomfortable for large drivers and passengers; below the sight line of large SUVs and trucks—a danger on highways. MSRP: $13,425.


ELECTRIC
GEM e4:
They’re being called NAVs, for (“neighborhood alternative vehicles”), GEM is shorthand for Global Electric Motorcar, and it’s not golf cart but a street-legal vehicle (if only on roads up to 35 mph) with such safety features as seatbelts and hazard lights. It can travel 30 miles before they need to be plugged in overnight to recharge, using any 110-volt outlet. A study of 15,000 owners in California shows that using NAVs instead of the big family car for short, local trips and errands cut the state’s total ozone-forming tailpipe emissions by 8.5 tons a year. That’s good. So is getting a tax credit for buying one. Ditto being able to customize this little gem—doors can be added in your choice of canvas or hard; rear cargo carriers are open like a tiny flatbed truck, or closed like the trunks on the back of 1930s roadster. You can even build in a stereo system and heated seats. There’s also a smaller two-passenger model and a new, longer six-passenger version. Pros: inexpensive; costs pennies per mile. Cons: limited range; not for highways. MSRP: $8,995.

 


Enviro-Friendly Four-Wheel Elite So you’re not quite ready to make the leap to an alternative fuel vehicle but still want the most fuel-efficient, least polluting car of its kind. Lots of auto-savvy publications and websites rank vehicles by how many miles they squeeze out of a gallon of gas. But only the Environmental Protection Agency considers air pollution and greenhouse gasses in its rankings. Here are EPA’s top two choices in the most popular vehicle categories:

Compact: Mazda 3, Saturn Ion

Mid-size: Kia Spectra, Honda Accord

Full-size: Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Avalon

Small Wagon: Volvo V50, Pontiac Vibe

Midsize Wagon: Ford Focus, Subaru Legacy

Small SUV: Subaru Outback, Toyota RAV4

Medium SUV: Saturn Vue, Lexus RX330

Minivan: Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest

Find the entire list online at www.fueleconomy.gov.

Evelyn Kanter is a longtime automotive and travel journalist whose vehicle of choice is the subway.

 

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