Gauging the gas alternatives
With gas prices exceeding $3 a gallon in some areas, there's renewed talk about alternatives to gasoline-powered cars. But it quickly gets confusing sorting out the pros and cons of hybrids, diesels, flex-fuel vehicles, and other offerings. A quick guide to the costs, fuel economy, and environmental impact of various vehicles:
Hybrids almost always get better gas mileage than conventional vehicles do, and they are among the cleanest cars on the road, too. But they cost more, and it takes about seven years of typical driving to earn back the premium through better mileage.
Pros: Good gas mileage, clean tailpipe emissions.
Cons: They cost more.
Good for: Drivers who want to go longer between fill-ups; techies with a few extra bucks to spend; environmentalists who want to demonstrate support for efficient automobiles.
Diesels aren't the noisy, smoky polluters that they used to be, but they still tend to emit more pollutants than gas-powered cars. There are a number of advantages, however. Diesel fuel costs about the same as gasoline, but diesel vehicles get better mileage. The conventional four-cylinder Volkswagen Jetta, for example, averages 25 miles per gallon. The diesel model averages 38 mpg. That adds up to more than $500 in fuel savings over a year. Diesel-powered cars also tend to have more torque, which makes them feel more powerful.
Pros: Good gas mileage, strong performance.
Cons: There are few diesels to pick from among passenger cars and SUVs. And diesel fuel is harder to find than gasoline.
Good for: Drivers who want excellent mileage with good performance.
Flex-fuel vehicles typically run on either gasoline or ethanol, and drivers can use either fuel without having to do anything to the car. Even though there are about 5 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road, however, ethanol stations are fairly scarceit makes sense to buy such a vehicle only if you know there's a station in your area. Ethanol costs less than gasoline, but mileage is lower, too, and overall costs are likely to be higherplus, you'll have to fill up more frequently.
Pros: Ethanol is one of the cleanest-burning fuels; wider use of ethanol could help decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Cons: The fuel is hard to find; lower mileage means overall costs are higher.
Good for: People who want to demonstrate support for U.S. energy independence and renewable sources of fuel.
Fuel-cell vehicles get their energy from hydrogen and could eventually represent a major breakthrough. But lots of technical hurdles remain, and they probably won't be on the market for 10 years or more.
Gas-powered vehicles are likely to be the standard for a long time, no matter how expensive gasoline gets. Internal-combustion technology is mature, and gasoline is a relatively efficient fuel that is hard to match in terms of the energy produced versus the cost.
Pros: A vast selection of gas-powered models in every price range.
Cons: Getting more expensive; perpetuates U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Good for: Almost everybody. Conservationists can choose from at least a dozen gas-powered cars that average more than 30 miles per gallon.