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What’s the Alternative?

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Nissan Altima HybridThe super-popular Toyota Prius and Smart ForTwo are the obvious choices when it comes to reducing your pain at the pump. But let’s focus instead on some other great alternatives to conventional gas-guzzlers.
 

Nissan Altima Hybrid

The gasoline-powered Altima is one of the most fun mid-size sedans to drive that’s not named BMW, Audi or Lexus—and none of its zippy performance is compromised in the fuel-thrifty hybrid version. No patience to wait in line for a Prius or Camry hybrid? No worries. Nissan has licensed Toyota’s dependable Hybrid Synergy Drive technology until its ready to launch its own system (announced for 2010 and rumored to include a luxury Infiniti G35 sedan).

And so, for now, it’s Toyota technology under the hood, with features the Prius doesn’t have—like a push-button start and a rear-view camera. The navigation system’s colorful real-time energy-flow display is hypnotic. Get your fill of monitoring the switch from gas to electric and back again as you drive around an empty high school parking lot some weekend afternoon, then forget about it when you’re in rush-hour traffic.

The Altima is a certified AT-PZEV (advanced technology partial zero emissions vehicle), so tailpipe emissions are 90 percent cleaner than those of the average gas-powered car. That qualifies you for a tax credit, the calculations for which are too complicated to figure out unless you’re a CPA or a car salesman. Leather seats, a roomy interior, and bright, easy-to-read gauges make this hybrid a winning choice. Get it in red to match the LED lighting around the gauges.

MSRP: $26,650
Alternative choice: Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
 

2009 Cadillac Escalade HybridCadillac Escalade Hybrid

If you need a seven-seater and do most of your driving at stop-and-go speeds, the world’s first large luxury hybrid SUV is definitely worth considering (the Lexus R330h SUV has just two seat rows). While the gas-powered Escalade gets only 12 mpg city, the hybrid version does nearly twice as well. An EPA fuel economy rating of 20/21 mpg city/highway makes it comparable to a smaller vehicle with a smaller engine.

The Escalade Hybrid incorporates two revolutionary technologies that work together to save fuel. One is a two-mode electric system based on the one in use in hundreds of GM transit buses across North America. It allows the vehicle to operate with electric power only, engine power only, or in combination (for acceleration). Another system enables the hunky Vortec V8 engine to operate on just four of its cylinders to save fuel. The other four kick in for passing, towing or climbing a steep mountain road.

This model is offered as a total package, including nearly all available luxury and technical features, at $3,600 over a comparably equipped gasoline-only Escalade. The two extra-cost options are four-wheel drive and power running boards.

MSRP: $71,685
Alternative choice: Mercury Mariner Hybrid
 

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Mercedes BlueTEC Diesel

“Blue is the new green” goes the Mercedes mantra. And if the thought of a diesel conjures up images of a loud, unreliable, smoke-spewing beast, get your mind out of the ’70s. Things have changed. This is a quiet, dependable, efficient and environmentally friendly new technology with the world’s cleanest catalytic converter, able to remove up to 80 percent of nitrous oxide, a major component of smog, and turn it into harmless nitrogen and water vapor. The new BlueTECs are so green they can be sold in all 50 states, including California and Vermont, which have the toughest emission regulations in the country.

These Mercedes diesels are sophisticated enough to start with a push button, and they have enough tough torque to haul you up a hill without groaning.

Still need convincing? Try to tell the difference in performance and cabin quiet between a regular Mercedes and its BlueTEC sibling. But the real selling point is the fact that these new diesels can get up to 33 percent better gas mileage than conventional gas engines. That actually makes it less expensive to drive a car that burns pricier diesel fuel.

It may be a tough concept to grasp, but in Europe, where fuel is close to $6 a gallon, diesels account for as much as 40 percent of new car sales. Mercedes estimates you’ll pay back the higher cost of a diesel in less time than you would with a hybrid, in part because they produce so many that they can keep the premium for diesel models at around $1,000.

The diesel version of the large-size GL SUV gets the same miles per gallon as a smaller, less luxurious Subaru Outback. Or let’s put it another way: These V6 engines are as fuel efficient as a four-cylinder and give you lots more power.

The E320 BlueTEC sedan has been available in the U.S. since 2006; for 2009, Mercedes is adding the ML320 mid-size SUV, the GL320 large-size SUV and the R320 crossover. While new on the Main Line, they’re a common sight in Europe. We’re just late to the diesel party.

MSRP: R320 BlueTEC, $48,825; GL320 BlueTEC, $57,625; ML320 BlueTEC, $48,125
Alternative choice: Volkswagen Jetta TDI sedan and Jetta SportWagon
 

Tesla Roadster

This sexy, red convertible does zero to 60 in a blistering 3.9 seconds and redlines at 13,000 rpm. With its Lamborghini chassis, this plug-in gets you 220 miles down the road before you need to recharge. That’s more than far enough to make your neighbors green—or red—with envy. After all, you’re driving the same car as George Clooney, Jay Leno, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Tesla is the brainchild of a bunch of Silicon Valley dot-com zillionaire techies who are also car enthusiasts. Not for the timid, but definitely for those who can afford it—and don’t mind a 220-volt generator in their garage.

MSRP: $109,000, including $5,000 reservation fee and $55,000 to lock in a production slot
Alternative choice: None
 

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Honda FCX ClarityHydrogen Power

While there’s a whole traffic jam of manufacturers testing a few hundred cars with corporate and government fleets, there are just two in public distribution: the BMW Hydrogen 7 Series sedan and the futuristic-looking Honda FCX Clarity sedan. But you can’t buy them—yet.

Beemer and Honda are leasing the vehicles to carefully selected consumers—none whom could be described as ordinary—like environmental activist Jamie Lee Curtis, and politicians who can write the laws that give hydrogen tax breaks. This is how Toyota introduced its then-revolutionary hybrid technology, in the now-retired Insight.

BMW’s Hydrogen 7 Series is a bi-fuel model with a regular gas tank, a hydrogen tank, an engine that can run on either, and a lever on the dashboard so you can switch. If you run out of hydrogen before you find a refill station—which are still scarcer than the proverbial hen’s teeth—just switch to gas for a 600-mile pad.

The hydrogen Honda uses the dominant hydrogen technology: an electric motor that runs on electricity generated by the hydrogen fuel cells. The only thing that comes out of the tailpipe is water. Honda’s compact fuel-cell stack design allows for placement between the two front seats, under the console.

Because the motor in the hydrogen Honda is so small, the front hood slopes toward the pavement like a sexy sports car. The front window starts further ahead than most sedans, giving the driver and front seat passenger a glorious open feel. It’s a beautiful sedan that just happens to get the equivalent of 74 mpg, and a range of 280 miles. And the thing drives so quietly that it’s easy to forget to shut it off.
 

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