By Joe Wiesenfelder on March 15, 2012
1. Labels don't guarantee results
Do you want to buy a hybrid or just burn less fuel? The two aren't necessarily linked. Most hybrids are versions of gas-powered models, and the hybrid badge doesn't guarantee results. The hybrid might be more fuel efficient than the car on which it's based, but how about when compared against similar non-hybrid cars? Some manufacturers have leapt ahead of others with efficient non-hybrids.
2. Keep your eye on the green
There are certainly buyers who go green to produce less pollution or carbon dioxide, but a dirty little secret about clean motoring is that it's driven as much by a desire to save greenbacks as to save the environment. Ironically, few cars viewed as green actually deliver on saving money, and none do so immediately. Expect to pay more for any alternative fuel or powertrain, including those detailed below, and don't assume you'll earn the investment back. Look at the price and the rated mileage, and compare them against conventional vehicles.
3. Consider a quarter horse
If you want to save fuel — and especially money — look no further than a good-old gas-powered car. Well, actually a good new gas-powered car, because mileage has increased substantially in the past few years with no performance tradeoffs and no premium pricing. That's right, the quarter horse of American motoring is probably a better choice than a Lipizzaner — or any of the other exotic options. Several compact cars boast EPA highway ratings around 40 mpg, and they're roomier and better-appointed than ever.
4. Now probably isn't the time
Nothing inspires motorists to buy efficient cars more than high gas prices — and no circumstance makes it a worse time. The supply of miserly cars predictably falls, so their prices increase. Simultaneously, everyone who drives a gas guzzler gets the same idea, flooding the used-car market with unpopular vehicles and driving down trade-in and resale values. Anyone who's in the market should consider efficiency, but it might be financially counterproductive to dump a thirstier car you've paid off just to save money with each fill-up.
5. Don't count on public infrastructure
If there's anything we've learned from owning a Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, it's not to rely on public infrastructure to charge an electric vehicle. Quick chargers are practically nonexistent, and even those take at least 30 minutes for a full charge — and longer when it's cold out. Natural gas is a similar story. If you can't charge your EV or fill your natural-gas car at home and/or work, these alternative fuels likely won't serve you as a viable transportation option.
6. Clean diesels are truly clean
Diesels used to justify their dirtiness (sort of) with greater efficiency. Thanks to cleaner fuel and new technology in the cars themselves, diesel-powered vehicles are now as clean as their gasoline counterparts. While emitting less pollution than before, diesels use less fuel than a comparable gas engine, so they release less carbon dioxide. Although the cars and fuel are more expensive, efficiency might win you back some green over time. Our favorites include Volkswagen's TDI models and Mercedes-Benz's Bluetec drivetrains.
7. There's another kind of gas
Check out natural-gas vehicles. Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fuel for any car with a tailpipe, and in some regions natural gas costs half as much as gasoline on a per-mile basis. A version of the Honda Civic, now called the Civic Natural Gas, used to be confined to markets in California, New York, Utah and Oklahoma, but now it's expanding to 200 dealers in 35 states. With a range of up to 300 miles on the highway, it's viable for an owner with at-home fueling. Bifuel pickup trucks that take both compressed natural gas and gasoline are coming from GM and Ram for commercial use.
8. There are hybrid pickup trucks
Hybrids are supposed to be more efficient, yet hybrid pickup trucks seem incongruous to many people. If someone's going to buy a pickup, why shouldn't it be an efficient one? The Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra hybrids are rated as high as 20/23 mpg city/highway, which might seem low but it's a healthy percentage increase over comparable gas-only versions of the same: 15/20 mpg. They give up little of their capacity to do work, and although they cost more, the hybrids' green cred is hard to contest.
9. Tax credits aren't cash rebates
There's discussion in Washington about changing federal green-car tax credits into point-of-sale rebates, but currently they are credits. This means you have to pay up front and have a tax liability equal to or greater than the credit amount to offset it come tax time. Tax liability is tied to income level, so the more you earn, the more advantage you can take. In the case of electric cars, leasing might be an attractive alternative because the $7,500 credit lowers the lease payments regardless of your income.
10. Buy recycled
Roughly 80 percent of junked vehicles, by weight, are recycled, and some are designed with conservation and even composting in mind. Ford is among the brands leading the charge, using soy-based foam in the seat cushions of many cars, as well as recycled-yarn fabrics and plastic reinforced with wheat straw. The Karma, an exotic hybrid from new company Fisker, uses recycled glass rather than metallic flakes in its glittery paint, and its interior trim includes wood recovered from forest fires and the bottom of the Great Lakes. There's even an animal-free interior option.
Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a Cars.com launch veteran, leads the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe