Cars.comparison: Green Cars

If you count yourself as a fuel-miser, one of these three cars can help you further your pursuit: the redesigned 2010 Toyota Prius, the 2010 Honda Insight or the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI (clean diesel).

 = Category winner
The Contenders
2010 Honda Insight EX2010 Toyota Prius II2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Zoom Zoom Zoom
(eligible for $1,300 tax credit)
Price as tested
Lukewarm. Actor Richard Dreyfuss owns one but after that the ranks are pretty thin. Dennis Quaid's character drives a prior-gen Insight in 2004's "The Day After Tomorrow," but that's a role — and a movie — we'd rather forget. Red-hot. Leonardo DiCaprio is a big Prius proponent — and the "Titanic" star is just the tip of the iceberg. Other alleged owners include Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt.Still waiting to catch on. Actress Daryl Hannah and singer Willie Nelson are bullish on biodiesel, so the Jetta TDI may yet have a shot.
Gas mileage (city/highway mpg)
40/43 51/4829/40
Observed gas mileage* (overall, mpg)
53.7 mpg 63.1 mpg47 mpg
Emissions (Federal air pollution, greenhouse gas scores w/10 being best)
Air pollution: 9, Greenhouse gases: 108, 106, 8
It's a leisurely start if you leave the Insight in the drivetrain's Eco mode, which is the default. A slowish CVT and pint-sized engine preclude any spontaneous highway passing. The redesigned Prius' larger engine produces plenty of passing power, but the sluggish drivetrain — several editors noticed accelerator lag — loses out to the Jetta TDI's diesel power. The torque produced by the Jetta's diesel engine means the car jumps off the line, and the sedan still feels strong at higher speeds.
Ride and handling
The Insight has sportier steering than the Prius, but its ride quality is firmer. You'll definitely feel bumps, and on the highway, the steering wheel has more jitters than a 6-year-old at a violin recital.The Prius has the most sedate and uninspired steering and handling. It's clear the Prius is all about max mpg, not max fun. The nimble Jetta provides a level of driving entertainment the hybrids can't offer. If you care about sporty handling, this is what you want.
Seat comfort
There's a bulge on the driver's backrest that you feel in your lower back, which didn't sit right with some testers.
The seats are comfortable and the cabin is spacious, feeling more open than either the Insight or Jetta. The velour-like seat fabric? Meh.
The Jetta's firm and supportive (and well-bolstered) bucket seats jibe with the Jetta's sporty persona, but one staff member was sore after a long drive.
MP3-player friendliness
EX models have a USB connector for iPods. Being able to control an iPod with steering-wheel buttons is a huge plus.Our test car has only a universal analog input jack, but there are plenty of storage pockets to keep the iPod within easy reach. You can get Bluetooth streaming music and a USB input, but you'll pay. Like the Prius, the Jetta only has an MP3 jack. An iPod connection kit that replaces the MP3 jack will cost you.
Space for stuff
The hatchback and folding backseat make carrying cargo easy. The Honda is smaller on the outside than the Prius and it shows in its cargo area, at 15.9 cubic feet. Similar in shape to the Insight, the larger Prius has a roomier cargo area, measuring 21.6 cubic feet — and there's good space under the cargo floor. The compact Jetta has a competitive 16-cubic-foot trunk, larger than those of some midsize sedans. A 60/40-split folding backseat with a separate pass-through adds to its usefulness.
Overall value
Honda delivered on its promise of a hybrid under $20,000. The base model is slim on features, but another $1,500 gets you some much-appreciated things — including a USB/iPod interface and stability control — in the EX. Based on features, the Insight beats the Prius, though Toyota will offer a $21,000 model, called the Prius I, that could turn the tables. However, if high mileage is your objective, the Prius II is already the best value.The TDI's $22,270 starting price is the highest in the group, but you get niceties like heated faux-leather seats. It's also eligible for a $1,300 federal tax credit, and its interior quality is a step or two above.
Editors' choice
The Insight's EPA-underestimated mpg is not the only advantage it has over its non-hybrid competitors. Still, it can't overcome the Prius' sucker-punch pricing.The previous Prius was an impressive car and the redesigned 2010 model ups the ante. While it's nice enough, the sense of driving detachment won't appeal to some shoppers. Maybe it's the Jetta TDI's gobs of torque, its sporty handling or its premium interior, but this is the one we'd want to drive, day in and day out.
*According to onboard computer readings recorded from an approximately 300-mile trip. Full details are available here.
© 11/2/09
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