Buying an Eco-Friendly Car

With all the hype about hybrids, biodiesel and reduced emissions, many of us have tried to do the right thing: Buy a car that won't increase our dependence on foreign oil and spew ozone-depleting CO2 into the air. Here is a summary of what I've discovered: The choices are getting better, but it's still a limited market.

Hybrids

The recent craze over hybrid automobiles shows that we are at the nexus of environmentalism and market forces. Having a car that gets 50 miles to the gallon is good for the pocketbook and good for the guilty conscience. Hybrids work by capturing energy that is created when the car brakes. That energy is stored in batteries and used, whenever possible, instead of fuel.

Pros

Great Mileage: EPA mileage estimates for the Prius are 60 mpg city, 51 mpg highway. Hybrids are designed to look like mainstream vehicles now (not the moon units they used to resemble).

They are quiet (almost eerily quiet) and offer a smooth ride.

They run on gasoline; you refuel at traditional gas stations.

Carpool lane access in California and Arizona.

Cons

Batteries: There is much speculation on how long the batteries in hybrid cars last, but the owner of the first Prius (a taxi driver) has put 180,000 miles on his car without a battery replacement, and that's a good sign.

Vehicle Choice: Up until recently, you've only been able to get sedans that use hybrid technology. Manufacturers have recognized the popularity of the hybrids and have started to make SUVs with the technology. Here's the rub: Higher-powered vehicles (like trucks and SUVs) get better but not fantastic mileage, and they cost a lot more to purchase. According to Consumer Reports, the hybrid Escape from Ford gets city/highway mileage of 22/29, averaging at 26 mpg. The regular Ford Escape gets 12/27 mileage, averaging at 18 mpg.

Price: The 8 mpg differential is great, but for consumers, you have to factor in the increased costs of buying a hybrid. For the Escape, the MSRP on the hybrid is $8,000 more than the MSRP on the traditional, nonhybrid version of the same SUV.

BioDiesel

There is a lot of confusion about biodiesel, so here's the skinny: Biodiesel is a blend of traditional diesel (aka dino-diesel) and vegetable oil. The most important thing you need to know about biodiesel is that every existing diesel engine is capable of using biodiesel. You can switch back and forth between biodiesel and regular diesel if you have to. The only differencel when using biodiesel is you may have to switch your oil filter more often. Some people modify their diesel engines to run a fuel called straight vegetable oil. These are the folks who back up to a McDonald's and take all its fry grease. SVO and biodiesel are different animals in the same family. Biodiesel is a lot less hassle than running an SVO vehicle.

Pros

Lower emissions: The more vegetable oil that your blend of biodiesel contains, the lower your emissions.

Versatility: The greatest benefit to the consumer is the ability to switch between regular and biodiesel whenever you are away from a biodiesel refueling station.

Car selection: There are a lot of diesel models available that can be used with biodiesel, specifically Volkswagens, trucks and large SUVs.

Costs: Biodiesel fuel costs a little more than traditional diesel and significantly more than gasoline, but diesel cars usually get better mileage and last longer.

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