Not all energy-efficient cars are created equal. There are alternative cars – hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric – that don’t need gasoline to run, as well as eco-friendly and diesel cars. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.Not all energy-efficient cars are created equal. There are alternative cars – hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric – that don’t need gasoline to run, as well as eco-friendly and diesel cars. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Although alternative cars get a lot of media hype, only 3.2 percent of the 12.6 million cars sold in the United States each year are hybrid, plug-in hybrid or electric, says Gary Schwendiman, Ph.D., author of The Future of Clean Energy: Who Wins and Who Loses as the World Goes Green. Here’s a summary of each type of vehicle to help take some of the guesswork out of deciding which might best fit your needs.
More and more standard cars are now equipped with a “green driving” mode, which allows drivers to improve their gas mileage. Car manufacturers have changed some engine characteristics to help these cars guzzle less fuel.
For instance, when you stop at a red light, the engine turns off instead of idling. Although driving in green mode may dull the driving experience a bit, it will give you more miles to the gallon, says Ivan Drury, a senior analyst for Edmunds.
Diesel is a good option, Drury says. The technology is proven, he says, and it’s easy to find diesel fuel. Fuel usage is more efficient than for gas engines. In addition, the latest diesel engines are quieter and more reliable than their predecessors.
A hybrid car runs on gasoline and electricity but you don’t need to plug it in because the gasoline recharges the battery as it runs. “A hybrid isn’t any different from a regular car,” Schwendiman says. “When you need to fill it up, you fill it up.” This type of alternative car uses the most gasoline and the least amount of electricity.
- Plug-in hybrid
A plug-in hybrid is a hybrid electric vehicle that uses gasoline and batteries that can be recharged using electricity. This type of vehicle is able to run on gasoline if there is no place nearby to charge the battery or if you forget to charge it overnight.
This car runs exclusively on electricity by using energy stored in its batteries, which need to be recharged daily and possibly more often, depending on how far you’re driving the vehicle.
Mileage depends on the size of the car: Smaller cars typically go a shorter distance while larger cars, can go more than 200 miles without a charge. Keep in mind that it can take six to eight hours for electric cars to fully charge.
“You don’t want to test the waters on how far you think you can go,” Drury warns. Before buying an electric car, he suggests thinking carefully about your usage and to consider leasing instead of buying.
Understanding tax credits
Only hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars are eligible for federal and state tax credits. However, the amount of the federal tax credit depends on the size of the battery, with the largest cars getting the biggest tax credit of $7,500, Schwendiman says.
State tax credits also vary, with California providing the most substantial one of up to $2,500. You can look up your state’s tax credit at the U.S. Energy Department’s Alternative Fuels Data Center. Only new cars are eligible for these incentives.
Schwendiman cautions, however, these subsidies will eventually end and, for some models, have already ended. The federal tax credit ends once a car manufacturer has produced 200,000 of a certain model.
Often consumers will buy an alternative vehicle if they drive in a metropolitan area with high-occupancy-vehicle lanes because the state allows them to drive in the HOV lanes without a passenger or offers a discounted toll. But requirements and allowances are changing for many of these programs as well. You can look up state HOV regulations on the Energy Department’s website.
If you are interested in an alternative car, experts say you might consider leasing instead of buying so you can get a new car every three years. “If you’re going to test the waters with new technology,” Drury says, “leasing is the preferred route. You don’t want to be stuck with less than the latest and greatest.”
There are so many variables when deciding between types of cars as well as makes and models that it often takes some research to decide what’s right for you. Here are four websites that can provide additional resources: Consumer Reports, Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book and PluginCars.