Green Cars: Five Surprising, Affordable Choices

Last Updated Sep 14, 2010 4:00 PM EDT

American car buyers want to be green, but their motives are mixed. In a recent survey by car-shopping site Autobytel.com, 57% of those surveyed said they are likely to consider a hybrid or other green car in the next year and 75% would consider it in the next 2 to 5 years. Of that group, about half said their lean toward green was for economic reasons or higher gas mileage, some 40% for a combination of environmental principle and reducing dependence on foreign oil -- with the balance liking cool new technology. Whatever your reason, if you want to save money while reducing tailpipe emissions and oil use, hybrids are not your only choice.

One disadvantage of hybrids is that they generally cost more than their gas-only counterparts. "The price premium for hybrids is still a deterrent for most car buyers," says Michael Omotoso, senior manager for power train issues at J.D. Power and Associates. He expects hybrids to rise from their current 2.5% of total sales to about 9% by 2016 ( See What You'll be Driving in 2016).

A recent setback makes one alternative fuel less likely to gain buyers. Hydrogen fuel cell cars drive much like a standard vehicle and put out no emissions except water. But an August explosion at a General Motors refueling station for its prototype fuel cell cars near Rochester N.Y. has created new doubts. "This may cause many communities to say they don't want a hydrogen filling station in their back yard," notes Omotoso.

Most of the enviro-hype this year has been about plug-in electrics such as the Nisan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt, which also has a backup gas-powered generator. (Last month I explained why leasing a Volt or Leaf was a better deal than buying one.) But hybrids and electrics are not the only environmentally friendly options -- you can also do the earth a good turn by driving a high-mileage gasoline-powered car or a modern, low-emission diesel. Here are five choices -- two hybrids, two gas-powered cars and one diesel -- that make economic sense and have won praise from green or energy-efficiency groups.

Toyota Prius The most recognizable hybrid, the Prius ranks second (behind a natural-gas powered Honda of limited availability) on the greenest cars list compiled annually by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). The list takes into account both mileage and emissions. Prius is one of the few hybrids where the savings on gas mean a short payback period on its price premium over a comparable gas car. ( See Hybrids Costing the Same as Gas Cars or Close). Its mileage rating is 51 mpg in the city, 48 on the highway. (Hybrids have a special advantage in city driving, where they can run at low speeds on the electric engine only with the gas motor turned off). Reviewers praised the redesigned 2010 Prius for adding interior space and increasing gas mileage without losing performance. Few changes have been made in the 2011 model, available later in the fall. The base version of the Prius sells for an average of $21, 732, according to Edmunds.com.

Ford Fusion Hybrid The Fusion Hybrid, which Ford likes to tout as the highest-mileage mid-size sedan available (the Prius is a hatchback), was named the 2010 North American Car of the year by the automotive press. With mileage ratings of 41 mpg city, 36 highway, Fusion Hybrid is sixth on the greenest cars list. Reviewers especially like its driving feel, which is more akin to a conventional car than most hybrids. The 2011 Fusion Hybrid, pictured here and available now, is selling at an average $26,824 -- comparable to the high-end version of the Prius, which Ford argues is not in direct mileage competition because it is a hatchback.

Mini Cooper The Mini first showed that Americans would buy a well-appointed small car with eye-catching looks and fun-to-drive handling. It is almost a bonus that its gas engine is rated for 28 mpg city, 37 highway and it ranks ninth on the greenest car list. The 2011 model (at right) available later this fall with no major changes, lists for $18,950. That's more than a lot of small cars, but you are getting style, handling and high mileage.

Honda Fit The Fit also has been a small-car hit. While not as sporty as a Mini, Fit is more practical. It can comfortably carry four people and its fold-down rear seats give it remarkable cargo capacity for its size -- eighteen inches shorter than a Honda Civic. With mileage ratings of 28 mpg city, 35 highway, it is 12th on the greenest cars list. The 2010 model ranges from an average selling price of $15,228 for the base model with manual transmission up to a Mini-like $19,310 for the fully-loaded model, according to Edmunds. The 2011 Fit, available later this year, adds electronic stability control as standard equipment but has few other changes.

Audi A3 TDI Diesel New-style diesels -- almost all of them German -- have left behind the noisy, noxious image of old for clean-burning, high-mileage power with great acceleration. The Audi A3 got a different green designation -- 2010 car of the year from the Green Car Journal. A small station wagon, the A3 has the luxury interior you would expect in an Audi. And the green-car jury especially liked the mileage rating of 30 mpg in the city, 42 on the highway. The A3 will save you money on fuel, but its price is in the low end of the luxury range. The 2011 model is selling at an average $30,775, according to Edmunds.

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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