We're sure you want to, but try one of these instead. What's best for the planet? What's best for you? The ultimate guide to alternative-fuel cars in 2009 and beyond.
These are weird times in the car world. Electric cars are decidedly undead, the great hydrogen hope seems to have come to an end (for now), and Indians are running their cars on air. Meanwhile, low-carbon technologies are growing like mushrooms after a rain, and hybrids-which have had years-long waiting lists-are ready to go mass-market. Of course, even as it grows, the industry is in ruins. And so is the planet, thanks in part to that industry.Oh, and us. Thanks to us, too. Cars don't drive themselves, and with transportation the fastest-growing producer of carbon emissions in the United States-already accounting for 30 percent of greenhouse gases-this is obviously not a problem we can buy our way out of. A new breed of cleaner vehicles is inspiring and very necessary, as are new models of car sharing, urban bike fleets, better driving habits, and mass transit. But these may be dwarfed by the sheer number of new drivers who get behind the wheel each year. China is already on the verge of passing the United States as the world's largest car market.The challenges are many, but we have a unique opportunity to chart a new path in the way we get around. The electric car is promising, but much more meaningful is an electric car that is just one component of a low-carbon economy and way of living. Then the automobile can become a tool to help us in the very necessary reinvention of the way our whole society works.So as we start that reinvention, here's a look at the ideas, technologies, and innovators paving the blacktop to the future.The LowdownWith about 90 percent fewer parts than your typical Volvo, an electric vehicle is more like a laptop with wheels-a design challenge of battery life and processor speed, not fuel injection and piston timing. This new set of puzzles has opened the market to a band of feisty invaders, young entrepreneurs with venture capital and a disdain for neckties and business as usual.Who's leading the packOut in front is Tesla Motors, a Bay Area start-up that in its six years has irreversibly warped the definition of a car company. Its only model so far, the Tesla Roadster, is a sleek, small, and absurdly fast electric sports car with enough sex appeal and geek appeal to get both Brad Pitt and Google's co-founder Larry Page on its client roster. It has the acceleration of a Lamborghini (0 to 60 mph in under four seconds), yet Elon Musk, the Tesla Motors CEO, promises it's cleaner than a Prius.Models to look forThe technological challenge of building an electric car that people will actually buy and like is not the motor. That's pretty simple. It's the battery that's tricky-getting one that can power the car for an acceptable distance before needing a recharge.The Tesla Roadster stores its alleged 244 miles of range in a battery made of some 6,800 lithium-ion cells, sandwiched together into a half-ton package. When plugged into a special charger, the Roadster will have a full tank of electrons in 3.5 hours.Building the ultimate eco status symbol is a nice way to get into business. But the Tesla leadership claims the Roadster is only the start-a wedge it will use to break open the market to a diverse family of vehicles. Next in line: the Model S (formerly known only by the code name WhiteStar).Model S will be a four-door sports sedan with a purported 240 miles of range and a $60,000 starting price-hefty indeed, but about half the cost of a fully loaded Roadster. A working prototype will be unveiled this spring. If all goes well, the Model S will roll off the assembly line of a new LEED-certified factory in San Jose, California, in late 2010.Then there is the tiny Norwegian commuter car the Think City. The company, Think, designed the car, the City, for the urban driving-and-parking melee, so the all-electric City is only a foot and a half longer than the famous Smart Fortwo, and looks something like a giant Tylenol pill with wheels.Others in the EV realm have rethought the four-wheel design altogether. The Aptera, Persu, and ZAP use tricycle designs that technically qualify them as electric motorcycles. Influenced by the light-aircraft hobby of the company's founder, the Aptera 2e takes design cues from the world of aviation: composite body, exceptional aerodynamics, even landing gear. With two wheels in front and one behind, the 2e makes minimal contact with the road, but handles with agility. Even Road & Track recently gushed about it, in a surprisingly strong endorsement from the mainstream. Aptera expects to start delivering the 2e in October to the nearly 4,000 Californians who have already made deposits.A few picks Tesla Roadster, available now; Tesla Model S, available late 2010; Think City, available now (Norway); Aptera 2e, available October 2009.The LowdownFaced with no choice but to get up to speed, the auto kingpins of Detroit, Japan, and Germany have grown keen on low-carbon technologies, as evidenced by the menagerie at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. And at least a few of them seem to be hoping that a conversion to electricity will be their deliverance from financial crack-up. If this is the way the tide is turning, little guys like Tesla and Think may find they're gunning right up against the big bosses.Who's leading the packWhen Mini announced in November that it would offer leases on 500 all-electric Mini Coopers in New York and Los Angeles, the response was overwhelming. So many applications rolled in for the $850-per-month lease that the company missed its delivery date trying to sort through them all.Models to look forThe Mini E comes with a special wall box for charging. After a 2.5-hour slug from the box, the Mini E's lithium-ion batteries (which take up the rear passenger area) will carry the car 150 miles. Stepping on the "gas" will take this stealth Mini from 0 to 62 in 8.5 seconds, a few seconds speedier than a Prius.BMW, the parent of Mini, has stated that EVs are now part of its long-term product strategy, and the lease program is a valuable year's worth of real-world testing. To help ensure that people don't go EV1 on them and refuse to hand over their vehicles, they'll all sign a statement promising to return the car when the lease is up.Mitsubishi-not a company with much eco-cachet in the States-may earn a name for itself with its plans to sell the first mass-produced EV in Japan. The bubbly four-passenger i MIEV is designed for tight Tokyo-like settings, but can reach almost 90 mph on the highway and travel 100 miles on a charge.As the world leader in hybrids, Toyota has been surprisingly aloof on the subject of electrics. Despite having sold an electric RAV4 alongside GM's EV1 during the 1990s, Toyota hung up its electric-car program when California eased its zero-emissions vehicle laws (although unlike GM, Toyota refrained from crushing its cars when the leases expired). Toyota has since shown a working electric model of its iQ, a microcar with some 50 miles of driving range, and does plan to start making electric cars, but not until 2012.Nissan, one of Toyota's top rivals, may actually trump them all. Nissan plans to roll out a fully electric family car globally by 2012. According to company reps, the still-unnamed electric Nissan will go over 100 miles per charge, carry four or five passengers, and cost no more than a gasoline equivalent. Nissan's wild card is its alliance with a powerful start-up known as Better Place. Nissan, and its European partner Renault, plan to build the vehicles for Better Place's unprecedented-and as yet nonexistent-network of charging stations, EV lease programs, and quick-swap stations, where a spent battery can be robotically replaced with a fresh one in under three minutes.A few picksMini E, available April 2009 (limited lease); Mitsubishi i MIEV, available summer 2009 (Japan); Toyota urban commuter vehicle, available 2012; Nissan electric vehicle, available 2012; Dodge Circuit, available 2010–2013; Vectrix electric scooter, available now; Enertia electric motorcycle, available 2009.The LowdownBlighted with a sooty, slow, and loud reputation, the diesel engine is having its image remade.A solid half of all passenger cars in Europe are diesel, but in the United States, they have mainly been the domain of truckers, oddball autophiles, and the grease-car crowd. The phase-in of ultra-low sulfur diesel since 2006 has let automakers get on the same page with new emissions-reduction technology, and the number of diesel cars and SUVs available in the United States is growing. However, these so-called "clean diesels" must conform to the EPA's tighter emissions standards.Who's leading the packThe rest of the world; the cars Stateside are mostly coming from European companies with long histories of taming the diesel beast. These cars are being advertised as peppy, powerful, and easy on the ears, as well as on the atmosphere. Honda, in particular, is picking up steam. Google the words "diesel" and "Garrison Keillor" if you feel like hearing the company's jingle about how quiet, clean, and different its new diesel engines are.Models to look forThere is proof that carmakers can build more efficient diesel cars. The fact is, they sell them all over the world. But the conventional wisdom is that Americans don't want them, despite surveys that repeatedly show strong consumer interest in fuel economy. Some cars are as yet unable to pass American air-quality standards, but others are simply seen as unsellable to American drivers.Modern diesel engines are around 30 percent more fuel efficient than their gasoline counterparts. But the industry sees Americans as hungry for large, powerful models, and so there is a list of small diesel vehicles-with fuel-economy numbers that put a Prius to shame-that we'll probably never see.Daimler is currently selling three Mercedes diesel SUVs in America, all with turbocharged V6 engine technology called BlueTEC. But even the smallest of these, the R320, earns a fuel economy rating from the EPA that is far from awesome (18 mpg in the city, 24 mpg on the highway). The Mercedes E320-a diesel four-door-is a slightly better example of diesel efficiency, earning an EPA combined fuel economy of 26 mpg.BMW is also onboard. Alongside a diesel version of the X5 SUV is the 335d sedan. Averaging 36 miles to the gallon on the highway is impressive for a car that can get to 60 mph from a dead stop in six seconds, but is not a radical departure from America's notoriously low fuel economy.VW sells three diesels in the United States, but not the Polo BlueMotion, which the company claims gets up to 60 mpg. Mercedes-Benz and BMW both manufacture diesel cars that exceed 45 mpg and have strong sales in Europe, but are not offered Stateside. Even Ford's diesel Fiesta ECOnetic, a 63-mpg subcompact, is sold only in Europe. A diesel incarnation of Mercedes' tiny Smart Fortwo, with fuel economy reaching into the 70s, gets as close to us as Canada-but no closer.A few picksMercedes-Benz E320, R320, GL320, and ML320 BlueTEC, available now; BMW X5 xDrive35d and 335d, available now; VW Jetta and Jetta SportWagen, available now; VW Polo BlueMotion, available now (Europe); Ford ECOnetic, available now (Europe).The LowdownUnlike the hybrids we've gotten used to-in which an electric motor assists a gasoline engine-plug-in hybrids are fully electric cars that carry a small conventional engine as a backup generator. After being charged from a wall outlet, most plug-ins can silently travel 30 to 50 miles on electrons. When the charge dwindles, the backup engine kicks in, not to spin the car's wheels directly, but to revive the battery.Who's leading the packAt General Motors' 100th birthday party last September, the wrapping was peeled back from the final design of the Chevy Volt, a next-generation hybrid that can do the bulk of its driving solely on electric power. The same GM that was vilified for killing the electric car in the 1990s now wants to lead the way in building plug-ins.Models to look forThe EPA is still tangling with the specifics of how to calculate the fuel economy of a car that fills up from both the gas pump and the power grid, but GM feels certain the Volt will carry a Federal window badge of over 100 mpg. Unlike the Tesla Roadster, which has only enough room for two adults and their carry-on bags to escape for the weekend, the Volt is a five-passenger hatchback sedan (though its hefty price tag will probably deter the soccer moms).General Motors beat the competition to the punch as the first big company to aggressively push the plug-in agenda and unveil its real-life production vehicle. But that doesn't mean it will stand alone come the release date of November 2010. Ford, Chrysler, and Toyota-as well as new companies in China, Europe, and the United States-all have next-generation hybrids in development. Some are pricier than others. On the high end, look for the Fisker Karma, a hybrid sports car that starts at $80,000. On the lower end, there's the Aptera 2h, also out in 2010, with a base price of $20,000.Assuming GM survives long enough to release the Volt in November 2010, it will cost around $40,000, not including a possible $7,500 tax credit. GM hopes to move 10,000 Volts the first year and will start by selling to early-adopter markets, likely San Francisco and Washington, D.C.A few picksFisker Karma, available 2010; Chevy Volt, available November 2010; Aptera 2h, available 2010; Jeep Wrangler Unlimited EV, available 2010–2013; Jeep Patriot EV, available 2010–2013; Chrysler Town & Country EV, available 2010–2013; Toyota plug-in hybrid, available late 2009; Ford plug-in, available 2012.The LowdownA hybrid's boosted fuel economy comes from an electric motor coupled with its gasoline engine. The electric motor-great at accelerating-shares the burden of getting the car moving, while the internal combustion engine shoulders most of the work once cruising. In many hybrids, friction from the brakes is captured, converted back to energy, and returned to the battery, a process called regenerative braking.Who's leading the packThe favorite of well-to-do environmentally conscious consumers (and the target of those who love to jab them) is the Toyota Prius, the undisputed icon of the hybrid revolution. When the model's much-evolved third generation goes on sale this year, it is likely to hang on to the championship belt for fuel economy in America.Models to look forBack in 2000, the two-seater Honda Insight was America's only hybrid option. Roller-coaster gas prices, rising climate awareness, and cold, hard consumer demand have inflated the market. The 2009 model year has some 20 hybrids, with many more on the way.The new Prius will jump from a current 46 mpg to 50 mpg in combined city and highway driving, thanks partially, oddly enough, to a slightly upsized gasoline engine. A handful of new features keep the Prius fresh and ahead of a growing mob of competitors-namely, its ability to drive farther in electric-only mode and a solar moonroof that circulates fresh air in the cabin when the car is parked in the sun.Honda, meanwhile, is releasing a mid-sized hatchback (also called the Insight) that bears a closer resemblance to the newest Prius than its earlier incarnation: From its low-nosed front to its high translucent rear end, the two look to be cast from the same mold. What differs is price and fuel economy, both of which are lower for the Insight. The anticipated cost is under $20,000, with an estimated EPA rating of 41 mpg.The next few years will see hybrids coming from all angles. Detroit will make hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion, the Saturn 2-Mode hybrid, and Chevy Silverado, the first hybrid pickup truck. From Korea, Hyundai and Kia will each offer their first hybrid. And from Germany, BMW will bring a hybrid X6 SUV, Mercedes will offer the cushy S400 sedan, and the Volkswagen Touareg will come with a hybrid power plant burly enough to pull down a decent-sized building.A few picks2010 Toyota Prius, available spring 2009; Honda Insight, available spring 2009; Lexus HS250h, available late summer 2009; Ford Fusion, available spring 2009; Kia Rio, available 2009; Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, available 2010; Saturn Vue 2-Mode, available spring 2009; BMW X5 and X6, available late 2009; Mercedes S400, available summer 2009; Volkswagen Touareg, available 2010.