In recent years, consumers have been swamped with a potentially confusing array of green automotive technologies. With input from Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the Green Car Journal and CarsOfChange.com, we explored currently available planet-friendly vehicle types.
The best-known and best-selling alternative fuel technology in America, gasoline-electric hybrids marry an internal combustion engine to an electric motor to achieve wallet-friendly mpg numbers. Hybrids are particularly fuel frugal during urban motoring, since electric motors are notably efficient at moving a vehicle from a standstill and hybrids’ regenerative braking systems recapture energy from stop-start driving. The 2013 Toyota Prius, for example, achieves 51/48 mpg city/highway.
“Hybrids often cost more than conventionally powered models but typically deliver much higher fuel economy,” Cogan explained. “Most hybrids offer a typical and seamless driving experience.”
As the name implies, plug-in hybrid batteries can be charged by connecting to a home charging station or outlet. Their battery packs are larger than those in conventional hybrids, allowing for longer battery-powered drives before a switch to hybrid or internal combustion mode is necessary. The Chevrolet Volt, which was introduced in 2010, is the plug-in category’s global best seller. Toyota’s Prius Plug-in Hybrid arrived last year.
“In cars like the Chevy Volt, drivers can travel for the first 25 to 50 miles on battery electric power,” Cogan said. “A gasoline internal combustion engine-generator then creates onboard electricity to power the car’s electric drive motors for unlimited driving range, as long as there’s gas in the tank.”
The big plus of pure electric vehicles, which are propelled exclusively by battery electric power, is that they produce zero local emissions and, of course, use zero gas. But for now at least, there are downsides to this potentially greenest of automotive technologies.
“Its major drawback is limited driving range of about 100 miles to a charge, and charging usually takes four to eight hours,” Cogan said. “Battery electric vehicles use costly batteries, so their price is higher than gasoline vehicles, although purchase and lease incentives are bringing payments for some electric models to a very affordable level.”
Since first appearing in 2010, the Nissan Leaf has become the world’s top-selling highway-capable all-electric car.
Fuel cell electric
“Fuel cell vehicles are in their development and demonstration phase, with the exception of Honda’s limited production Honda FCX Clarity that has been leased to a relatively small number of consumers,” Cogan explained.
“Fuel cell vehicles are similar to battery-powered rides, but instead of using a battery that needs to be charged, these employ an onboard fuel cell which electrochemically creates electricity, without combustion, from hydrogen.”
Long the ugly stepsister of American motoring, the diesel engine was revolutionized by the arrival of ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel. Since 2007, most diesel fuel sold at U.S. retail locations falls into this category. Though clean diesel cars cost more than their gasoline-powered equivalents, diesel engines have long lives and, as a result, tend to hold their value well.
“Unlike the diesel of past decades, today’s clean diesel models are quiet and meet 50-state emissions requirements,” Cogan said. “New-generation clean diesel vehicles achieve high fuel efficiency and are typically fun to drive because of diesel’s substantial low-rpm torque.”
Volkswagen has long been a market leader in diesel-driven cars in the U.S. and currently boasts a range of TDI Clean Diesel models. But General Motors is returning to the segment for the first time since the mid-1980s with the release of the Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel this year.
High-MPG internal combustion engines
Automakers are milking more mpg out of internal combustion engine-powered cars through the use of turbochargers, direct injection, higher gear-count automatic transmissions, improved aerodynamics and low-rolling resistance tires, and the use of lightweight materials. Though all this technology has pushed up the purchase price of gas-thrifty rides, many are now offering over 40 mpg (the Chevrolet Cruze Eco, for example, is rated at 42 mpg highway).
“The auto industry recognizes that the vast majority of vehicles sold in the foreseeable future will be conventionally powered, so incredible effort is going into developing technologies that will make combustion engine vehicles much more efficient,” Cogan said.
Though hybrids will likely continue to sell in large numbers and plug-ins may gain market traction, it is these advanced internal combustion engine-powered vehicles that will continue to dominate showrooms over the coming decade, according to Cogan.
“Efficient gasoline and clean diesel vehicles can be built much more affordably than vehicles with more exotic or costly technologies,” he said. “There’s no reason why fuel economy won’t soon surpass 50 mpg and higher for many high-mpg models.”
Green Car Journal is presenting its latest Green Car Tour ride-and-drive during the first two days of Dwell on Design, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22, attendees at Dwell on Design can drive some of the latest “green” vehicles, including electrics, hybrids, hydrogen-powered cars, high-mpg gas vehicles and clean diesels.
—Paul Rogers, Brand Publishing Writer