All facial tissue is called Kleenex. Adhesive bandages, regardless of who makes them, are known as Band-Aids. And all photocopies are Xerox. You can choose other brands if you like, but these are the products that define the category. The same thing holds true for eco-friendly cars.
There are more than 30 different hybrid gas-electric cars on the market, but there’s simply no way to overlook the Toyota Prius. For plug-in cars, the Chevrolet Volt is currently the dominant force. When it comes to clean diesel, the Volkswagen Jetta vastly outsells all the others. And as the only new car on the market that runs on compressed natural gas, the Honda Civic CNG is impossible to ignore.
The most popular hybrid or plug-in car becomes the poster child not because of one single thing, but because it offers an entire package of desirable features—sufficient space, attractive styling, decent performance—and obviously stellar fuel efficiency and environmental benefits. Let’s look at the fearsome foursome.
1. Toyota Prius
Toyota has sold more Priuses than all other hybrids combined. Not until Toyota introduced the second-generation 2004 model did its popularity take off. When that model came out, it sported a new iconic silhouette—an arching aerodynamic sweep from hood to rear. Today, the Prius continues to combine 50-MPG efficiency, a deceptive amount of passenger and cargo space, and an MSRP that begins at $24,000.
The popularity of the Prius led Toyota to make an entire line of Prius vehicles—from the compact Prius C, to the Prius V wagon and the plug-in version of the hatchback. Given the introduction of the new models, 2012 is the best year ever for Prius sales in the United States—already eclipsing 150,000 units in August.
2. Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Nearly half of all 2012 sales of clean diesel vehicles are represented by the Volkswagen Jetta TDI. At a base MSRP of $22,990, the clean diesel Jetta sedan undercuts the price of all Prius models, except the wee Prius C. At the same time, it packs a bigger punch of torque than the hybrid can muster. This performance comes with little sacrifice regarding highway fuel efficiency, delivering 42 MPG on the highway.
For another $2,500 or so, green consumers can opt for the Sportwagen version of the Jetta TDI. This adds a generous amount of cargo space to an already compelling package of fuel efficiency, great handling, and speed off the line. In 2012, the Jetta TDI Sportwagen is selling at twice the rate of the next most popular clean diesel vehicle, the Passat TDI also from Volkswagen. Through July, VW has sold almost 30,000 units of the clean diesel Jetta.
3. Chevrolet Volt
A car powered by grid-supplied electricity is at the top of the environmental charts. Government efficiency ratings for electric cars and plug-in hybrids usually approach or exceed 100 miles per gallon equivalent. The race to become the most popular plug-in car, so far, has been run by the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt, selling for $31,645 after federal tax incentives, is labeled as a plug-in series hybrid or as an extended-range electric vehicle. These are two ways to describe the same thing: a car that runs mostly on plug-in power, but has a gas engine on board to extend its range by hundreds of miles, allowing drivers to quickly fill up at a gas station.
The Volt’s versatility has allowed it to soundly beat the Nissan Leaf EV, capable of about 80 miles of driving on a single charge. Through July, Chevy sold 10,666 Volts—almost tripling the number of Leaf sales so far in 2012. The ability for Volt owners to pump in gas only once every couple of months, combined with no concern about long spontaneous road trips, is regarded by Volt owners as a game-changer for electric cars.
Photo Credit: BrentOzar
4. Honda Civic Natural Gas
Why is the Civic Natural Gas the obvious people’s choice for cars that run on CNG? Because it’s the only new car that runs on CNG, a gaseous fuel that burns very clean. The Civic CNG, starting at an MSRP of $26,305, was awarded the prize of 2012 Green Car of the Year, issued at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
Honda has been offering the Civic Natural Gas (previously the Civic GX) for nearly 15 years. But in a pitch for greater popularity, this year’s model was upgraded to feature more creature comforts, such as better interior materials, high quality audio and infotainment, and cruise control.
It requires a bit of homework to determine the closest location for refueling with CNG. But that research is rewarded with lower fuel costs—the equivalent of about $2.00 a gallon in many parts of the country—as well as greatly reduced emissions. While you’re conducting your research, you should investigate the controversial environmental issue of hydraulic fracturing or fracking—to form your own opinion on the subject.