Alternative Fuel Vehicles

U.S. News & World Report
February 20, 2013
Alternative Fuel Vehicles

Alternative fuels have made their way into the mainstream vehicle market, allowing you to shop for cars that are less reliant on fossil fuels. Whether you’re considering an ethanol, electric, diesel or plug-in hybrid car, here are the pros and cons of some of today’s hottest vehicles that don’t necessarily need gasoline.

Flex-Fuel Vehicles

Examples: Chevrolet Equinox, Chrysler 300, Nissan Titan 

The Good: If you want a car that’s easy on the environment, you don’t necessarily need to pay extra for a diesel or hybrid car. A number of automakers make flex-fuel vehicles that can run on either gasoline or ethanol (E85). Running E85 in these cars, SUVs and trucks produces less pollution at the tailpipe. In the United States, a major ingredient of E85 is corn grain, which means that it’s also a renewable energy source that can be produced in local farming areas.

The Bad: Ethanol does not have as much energy as gasoline. As a result, running your car on E85 means that your fuel economy will suffer in comparison with a car that runs on regular gasoline, and you could end up spending more on fuel. Gas stations that sell E85 can also be difficult to locate.

The Verdict: Flex-fuel vehicles offer the ability to run on a cleaner, renewable energy source. E85 can be less expensive than regular gasoline, but its lower efficiency and spotty availability limit its mainstream appeal and practicality.

Clean Diesel Vehicles

Examples: Volkswagen Golf TDI, Mercedes-Benz E350 Bluetec, BMW X5 xDrive35d

The Good: Diesels have come a long way since the noisy, underpowered wagons that you may remember. Modern diesels, such as the Volkswagen Golf TDI, generally get better fuel economy than their gas-powered siblings. Additionally, diesels generally offer lots of torque (the twisting force that turns your car’s wheels) as well as better emissions systems, which keep harmful pollutants in check.

The Bad: Since diesel engines are usually optional, buying an oil burner will cost you more at the dealership. There’s also an added maintenance cost. Clean diesel cars, SUVs and trucks use a diesel exhaust fluid, such as AdBlue, to help keep vehicle emissions low. As a result, this fluid needs to be refilled during regularly scheduled maintenance and can be pricey. While diesel fuel is widely available, it tends to be more expensive than regular gasoline, and some gas stations don’t carry it.

The Verdict: If you’re looking for a long-range highway cruiser and don’t mind forking over some extra cash up front, a diesel car should serve you well. However, if you’re an urban commuter who’s in frequent stop-and-go traffic, hybrids typically get better city fuel economy.

Electric Cars

Examples: Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i, Ford Focus Electric

The Good: If you’re ready to say goodbye to filling up forever, an electric car may be exactly what you’re looking for. Charging an electric car will save you a significant amount of money compared with fuel costs of gas vehicles. Since cars like the Nissan Leaf are all-electric, they don’t produce any tailpipe emissions.

The Bad: Although electric cars may be eligible for a federal government tax credit, they’re still pricey compared with gas cars with similar features. And because they’re battery-powered, electric cars can only travel so far on a charge. The Focus Electric has a range of 76 miles, but once you’re out of juice, it may take several hours until you’ve got a fully-charged battery again. If you’re far from home and your battery runs out, it could also be hard to find a place to recharge because some areas have few public charging stations.

The Verdict: Electric cars are great for short commutes and urban environments, and the electricity used to power electric cars costs significantly less than the gas you’d spend to travel the same distance. However, their limited driving range, long charge times and limited public charging stations mean that long-distance driving is out of the question.

Plug-in Hybrid Cars

Examples: Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-in, Ford C-Max Energi

The Good: Plug-in hybrids carry some of the advantages of electric cars, but they also offer some additional peace of mind. Since plug-in hybrids can run on their electric motors, gas engines or a combination of the two, you don’t need to worry about range or if you’ll be able to recharge on long trips.

The Bad: In a word, price. Just like electric cars, most plug-in hybrids may qualify for a federal tax credit, but the ability to plug in and recharge will cost you. The Prius Plug-in costs about $8,000 more than the regular Prius, so if you don’t think that you’ll charge the Prius Plug-in frequently, the base Prius might be a better choice because it’s less expensive but still has impressive fuel economy.

The Verdict: Plug-in hybrids offer great flexibility. Their electric motors work well for short commutes and their gas engines mean that you could hop in and take a cross-country drive. However, plug-in hybrids do command a high price at the dealership.

Which is Right for You?

Ultimately, the ideal vehicle for you depends on the type of driving you do. Diesels offer great highway fuel economy, while electric cars excel as short-distance, urban runabouts. Plug-in hybrids offer greater flexibility since you can putt around town on electric power and let the gas engine kick in on longer trips. Flex-fuel vehicles are cost-effective, but are limited by E85 availability and fuel efficiency that trails regular gas.