New Cars 2011: What to Look for in Hybrid and Electric Cars

Last Updated Aug 31, 2010 6:15 PM EDT

This is the final installment of the series on 2011 car models and your money. In addition to an overview, MoneyWatch has broken out details for Small Cars, Mid-size Cars, Small SUVs, Mid-Size SUVs, Minivans and Luxury Cars.
When higher mileage is the refrain, electric cars and hybrids are the rock stars. And, of course, the buzz is louder than a vuvuzela for the Nissan Leaf (the first plug-in electric) and the battery-powered Chevrolet Volt with an auxiliary gas generator, both due out later this year. Meanwhile new 2011 entries from Honda, Hyundai, Lincoln, Porsche and Volkswagen are joining earlier gas-electric hybrids. Interestingly, the hybrid Lincoln MKZ sedan is the first hybrid to be priced the same as its gas equivalent. (See Hybrids Costing the same as Gas Cars (Or Close.) New hybrids coming later this year or in 2011 include the Audi Q5 small SUV, the Infiniti M luxury sedan, and the Kia Optima sedan.

Mileage is a tricky concept for electrics. The Leaf --with a 100-mile battery range--uses no gasoline and the Volt sips gas only if you drive beyond its 40-mile range from one battery charge. So the EPA is continuing to refine its mileage-equivalent numbers for those cars. And some environmentalists question how green electrics really are if their charge is generated by a power plant burning coal or other polluting fuel.

Here's a closer look at the two new electric cars and the latest gas-electric hybrids:

Nissan Leaf-If you have an adventuresome spirit and live in the right place, you might consider the ungainly-looking Leaf. Though the car's list price is $32,780, Nissan is offering a three-year, $350-a-month lease. (See Electric Cars: Buy or Lease? ) Nissan has just begun taking actual orders from those who had made reservations in the Leaf's initial sales areas: California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Tennessee. Those reviewers who have driven the Leaf note its smooth acceleration and braking and seating for five plus a roomy trunk. Nissan and municipalities have invested in public charging stations, but Nissan's $2,200 charging station for home garages is really a necessity (cutting full recharge time in half to eight hours vs. regular home current).

Chevrolet Volt-General Motors says the Volt's gas generator will alleviate the "range anxiety" that could have electric car owners worrying about where their next plug-in is coming from. Reviewers haven't yet had the car long enough to test this proposition, but found in quick test drives that the Volt accelerated easily to highway speed. The Volt seats four and has a small trunk that will only hold a small amount of luggage because the battery pack takes up space. Priced at $41,000, Volt offers a $350-a-month lease similar to Leaf. The lease price figures in the $7,500 federal tax credit, but as with the Leaf, you could get other state tax breaks depending on where you live. If you're intrigued by electrics but want the security of the back-up gas generator, the Volt could be for you.

Honda CR-Z-Honda, with the Civic and Insight hybrids already in its lineup, has added this sleek sports car as a hybrid-only model. The 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gas engine and the electric motor combine for 122 horsepower. But some reviewers grouse that CR-Z has sluggish acceleration and that the estimated 35 mpg city and 39 highway is disappointing for a two-seater hybrid. (They think it ought to closer to Toyota Prius-like numbers of 51 city, 48 highway.) CR-Zs, on sale now, range from $19,200 for the base model up to $23,210 for the best-equipped. If sporty looks and pretty good mileage but without neck-snapping performance sounds good to you, check out the CR-Z.

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid-Hyundai's mid-size sedan is already on sale, but its hybrid version, available later this fall, has slightly more aerodynamic styling for better mileage. Its batteries are weight-saving lithium-polymer, which are commonly used in consumer gadgets but new to hybrid autos. Hyundai expects the Sonata Hybrid's mileage ratings to be 39 mpg highway, 37 city. Early test drivers found that its six-speed transmission helped the Sonata Hybrid drive more like a gas-powered car than some hybrids. At $24,900 to start, you might find this car a better bargain than a competitor like the Ford Fusion Hybrid (which has better mileage but costs about $3,000 more).

Lincoln MKZ Hybrid-- Following up on the gas-electric Ford Fusion, this luxury Lincoln hybrid will go on sale later this fall. The EPA has certified it as the highest-gas-mileage luxury sedan sold in the U.S., with ratings of 41 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway. That beats hybrid competitor Lexus HS250h. If you like Lincoln sedans, why not buy the hybrid listed for the same $35,180 as the gas model, which is rated at just 18 mpg city, 27 highway?

Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid-Though best known for its sleek sports cars, Porsche sells more Cayenne SUVs than any other model. So to boost mileage, this sporty SUV hybrid, available in early 2011, will combine a 3.0-liter V-6 with an electric motor for a combined 374 horsepower. That will produce Porsche-like acceleration of zero-to-60 mph in about 6.7 seconds. Porsche projects U.S. highway mileage of 24 mpg and doesn't yet have a city mpg number. That sounds like so-so mileage for a hybrid, but it's a big improvement over the 2010 Cayenne S at 14 mpg city, 20 highway. You'll pay Porsche prices, of course, with an estimated list price of $67,700.

Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid--Volkswagen, which has interlocking corporate ownership with Porsche, will use the same fuel system as the Cayenne for its hybrid SUV. Available next spring, it will cost $50,000. Though much less than the Porsche, that's still a lot of money for a Volkswagen, especially when you could get a Lexus RX 450h hybrid SUV starting at $43,560.

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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