With new mileage standards rolling quickly down the pike, American car buyers are finally getting a wider range of low-mileage alternatives to traditional gasoline engines. Consumers got their first real look at electric cars in model year 2011, with the introduction of the plug-in Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt -- but more companies are adding electric models for 2012, however, and new and redesigned 2012 gas-electric hybrids will also get into the high-mileage derby.
The federal government continues to promote electric cars with a $7,500 tax credit for qualifying models, and some states add their own incentives. But it remains to be seen if masses of auto buyers will pay the higher price for electrics and be comfortable with their limited range (extended by the Chevy Volt with its backup gasoline generator).
For those who want to go electric, here's a look at the new entries, plus the new and redesigned hybrids.
Next: See the new electric models
Ford redesigned its regular small-car Focus model for 2012, already on sale. It will start selling the electric version in limited areas late this year. Coming to market later than Chevrolet and Nissan, Ford is emphasizing its technological advantage, offering a more powerful, faster charger. (Executives say that the Focus can be fully recharged in three to four hours with its 240-volt charging station -- about half the time for the Nissan Leaf recharge.)
To limit so-called range anxiety, the Focus electric will also feature a dashboard display that will show the driver how long to the next charging point; it will also give advice on how to maximize the regenerative braking that helps recharge the batteries.
Ford has not yet announced the electric model's price, but it will probably be priced somewhere in between the $32,780 Leaf and the $41,000 Volt.
Next: Mitsubishi i
Mitsubishi's oddly named entry will be the smallest and least-expensive electric when it goes on sale in early 2012. For a list price of $27,900, drivers will get a 66-horsepower electric motor that's rated by the EPA at 112 "MPGe" -- the formula the agency uses to compare electric cars' efficiency with their gasoline counterparts -- in combined city and highway driving.
The EPA says the range for a fully charged model is 62 miles, compared with 75 for the Nissan Leaf.
Next: Tesla Model S
Tesla Model S
The maker of the sleek and swift electric Tesla Roadster has moved on to this luxury sedan, which has passenger room for up to five adults plus a small third seat.
In keeping with its fast-car tradition, Tesla says the model S will go from 0 to 60 mph in under six seconds. When the Model S begins production early next year, it will sell for $57,400 to $77,400, depending on the size of its battery pack; with bigger packs, the company claims its range will be up to 300 miles. That's a relative bargain: The zippy Tesla Roadster has a selling price of $108,000.
If you're still not sold on an electric-only car, you'll have more hybrid options as well in 2012.
Next: See the new hybrid models
Toyota Prius V
The best-known hybrid electric model is getting a bigger sibling. The bigger V (for versatility, the company says) will have as much cargo space as some small SUVs and 58% more cargo room than the standard Prius. Following in the tire tracks of the traditional Prius (which is rated at 51 mpg in the city, 48 highway), the Prius V is rated at 44 mpg city, 40 highway.
In a test drive for auto writers this summer, I found the V roomy and comfortable, but as a heavier vehicle than the regular Prius, it was a little clumsier on winding roads.
Toyota has not yet announced pricing for the V, which goes on sale later this year. But it will be a few thousand dollars more than the original Prius at each style and price level. For instance, the well-equipped Three level of the current Prius has a list price of $24,520 -- so a similarly equipped V will likely cost around $27,500.
Next: Toyota Camry Hybrid
Toyota Camry Hybrid
As part of its redesign of the 2012 Camry, Toyota has brought out a totally revamped hybrid versions. And early reviewers like James R. Healey of USA Today say the much-improved hybrid -- on sale in December -- is one of the best versions of the new Camry.
With swifter acceleration, the hybrid will go from 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds. And Healey notes that with this model, Toyota has almost eliminated the shudder that you feel in most hybrids when the gas engines kicks in after electric-only low-speed driving.
The gas-electric hybrid is rated for 43 city, 39 highway in its LE version($26,660), and 41 city, 38 highway in the heavier XLE style ($28,160).
Next: Honda Civic Hybrid
Honda Civic Hybrid
This hybrid is part of a redesigned 2012 Civic line that was downgraded by Consumer Reports but defended by other reviewers.
In a mileage face-off, Popular Mechanics found the Civic exceeded its EPA ratings of 44 MPG in combined city and highway driving, but still trailed the Prius. Those test drivers thought the Civic was more fun to drive, however.
Already on sale, the Civic Hybrid's list price ranges from $24,050 to $26,750 for different styles.
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