Top Five Dare-to-be-Different Green Cars

A couple years back, the New York Times ran a front-page story on the Toyota Prius, then America’s best-selling hybrid vehicle. In typically thorough fashion, the Gray Lady took a long, hard look at the green-machine cult, aiming to discover what makes hybrid owners tick.

For the astute car nut, the conclusions the paper drew were anything but surprising: As it turns out, the number-one reason people buy Priuses isn’t fuel economy. It’s image. The Times article referenced a survey conducted by CNW Market Research of Bandon, Oregon, in which 57 percent of Prius owners admitted that they bought their cars because “it makes a statement about me.” A mere 36 percent cited superior fuel mileage as their main motivator. Enthusiasm and behind-the-wheel fun didn’t even make the list. Nor did the notion of standing out from the crowd.

Therein lies the problem with the Prius. It’s one of the best-selling green cars in the country for a reason — as a tool for efficient, reliable transport, it’s hard to beat. But what if you want something with a little more spring in its environmentally friendly step? What if you want to do your better-planet part without shouting an EPA rating from the rooftops? What if you just want something…different?

Allow us to help.

Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid
Base price: $90,000 (est.)
EPA fuel economy: 19/26 mpg

DIFFERENT BECAUSE: It’s a comfy, understated, autobahn-friendly monster.

Traditionally, if you wanted a big luxury car, you had to pay the price: the bigger your ride, the bigger the fuel bill. No more. The age of the fuel-efficient luxoboat is upon us, and its chief star (no pun intended) is the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid.

Like every S-class, the S400 offers continent-swallowing pace and a quiet sense of dignity. Unlike every other S-class, however, the S400 sports a lithium-ion battery pack and a compact, ring-shaped electric motor paired to a 275-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. The latter runs on the Atkinson cycle and benefits from the motor’s 118 lb-ft of torque; thanks to careful tuning, the whole assembly interacts seamlessly, offering a driving experience as glassily sedate as that of every other Mercedes. Unlike most hybrids, the S400’s genius lies in its utter lack of occasion — it’s simply a large, relaxed, and cushy autobahn cruiser, with everything that notion entails. If you want to reduce your consumption but — horrors! — can’t bear the thought of life without automatic-massage seats, triple-digit highway poise, and more passenger room than a 747, this is the car for you.

Tesla Roadster
Base price: $109,000
Fuel economy: n/a

DIFFERENT BECAUSE: It’s spine-crushingly quick, it doesn’t burn a drop of dino juice, and it makes every other green car look like the mayor of Nerdville.

There is one thing to say about the Tesla Roadster, and that thing is this: if you don’t find it even the slightest bit appealing, then you are most likely in a coma. (If that’s the case, we’re sorry to hear it, but congratulations on developing the ability to read and access the Internet while unconscious. Quite a feat.)

The Tesla is one of the coolest cars on the planet, chief evidence that the future is here and that it wants to hand you your rear at the drag strip. Consider the facts: The Roadster is small. It’s light. It was designed by a handful of Silicon Valley whiz kids and assembled by a bunch of sports-car-obsessed Brits, and it actually works. More than six-thousand liquid-cooled laptop batteries live beneath its carbon-fiber skin, as does a 14,000-rpm, 248-hp, air-cooled AC induction motor. The whole package will catapult itself to 60 mph in barely more than four seconds and travel up to 240 miles on a single charge (less if you’re a leadfoot). And compared with most normal cars, it looks like it fell from the moon.

Drawbacks? There are a few: Climbing in and out of the Tesla’s narrow cockpit is kind of a pain, and charge time runs anywhere from three hours to a day and a half, depending on how your house’s electrical system is set up. The steering is a tad on the heavy side, as if someone bolted an anvil to the nose of a Lotus Elise. And storage space is virtually nonexistent — the trunk is little more than an oversize, carbon-fiber lunchbox. But these are niggling concerns. The Tesla may not be perfect, but as a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too glimpse into the future of green, it’s as awesome as they come.

2011 Ford Fiesta (on sale 2010)
Base price: $15,000 (est.)
Fuel economy: 31/39 mpg (est.)

DIFFERENT BECAUSE: It’s small, distinctly European, and decidedly old-school.

In the world of car design, there are two basic approaches to sky-high fuel mileage. If you’ve got the budget and the engineering know-how, you can bundle a host of advanced technology — maybe a few batteries and an electric motor, perhaps some regenerative brakes — into a weight-optimized package, bludgeoning the fuel-economy problem with sheer computerized might. If that tack isn’t appealing (or, more likely, it doesn’t fit your targeted MSRP), you can fall back on tradition: a small car, a small but efficient engine, and a low curb weight.

The 2011 Ford Fiesta is a perfect example of just how satisfying the latter strategy can be. The Fiesta weighs just 2200 pounds, it’s 156 inches long, and its 1.6-liter four churns out a whopping 118 hp. Like the original MINI Cooper, it does more with less. The Fiesta was originally designed for use (and is currently on sale) in Europe, and like most European Fords, it specializes in over-the-road giggles. Taut, long-travel suspension and feelsome steering help make the most of any stretch of asphalt, and the Fiesta’s giant-killing Mighty Mouse groove makes every other microcar look dull as day-old dishwater. This is our favorite kind of green — small, simple, and more than meets the eye.

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Base price: $23,090
EPA fuel economy: 30/41 mpg

DIFFERENT BECAUSE: It’s proof that the oil-burner isn’t dead yet.

When it arrived on our shores in late 2008, Volkswagen’s Jetta TDI was hailed as a milestone: It was a modern oil-burner in the best European tradition, a quiet, affordable, smoke-free sedan that offered all the advantages of diesel power with none of the traditional drawbacks. One year later, the TDI’s star hasn’t dimmed — it’s still one of the most entertaining fuel misers on the market, and it remains a prime argument for the continuing relevance of Rudolf Diesel’s brainchild.

Unlike diesels of yore, the TDI excels at subtlety. The 2.0-liter four under the hood starts instantly from cold, it won’t vibrate your molars loose or deafen you with engine clatter, and the only real drawback is a bit of turbo lag off idle. At a whopping 236 lb-ft, the VW’s mill is torquey enough to put the fear of God into the average tree stump, and if you opt for the $1100 dual-clutch automatic, you get glassy shifts and virtually uninterrupted acceleration. The TDI’s glory lies in its average-Joe vibe and under-the-radar talent — it’s the ultimate No Big Deal shade of green, a car as fun and thrifty as it is shrewd and subdued.

Honda Civic CRX HF (1988-1991)
Price: $1000-$4000 (used)
EPA fuel economy: 36/44 mpg

DIFFERENT BECAUSE: On a budget? Dig the simple life? Who says “green” has to mean “new”?

What if we told you that you could buy a small, fun-to-drive hatchback that carried two people and their luggage, one whose fuel mileage rivaled that of almost every hybrid on the market? What if we told you that it would be both comfortable and practical to drive, that it would cost you pennies per mile to own, and that you could have all this for less than the cost of a new motorcycle?

Honda’s second-generation (1988-1991) CRX HF is arguably the best fuel-sipping bargain going. Owing to its light weight (1800 to 2000 pounds, depending on model year; early HFs are the lightest) and remarkably efficient powertrain, the HF was one of the standout fuel misers of the late ’80s and early ’90s. If that weren’t enough, the CRX also qualifies as a real car — its structure is relatively stiff; its suspension offers a remarkable balance between grip, handling, and comfort; and it boasts an almost indestructible driveline. Few econoboxes are more fun to hustle down a twisty road, and fewer still can be found on the used market in such abundant supply. Anonymity is an added bonus — a twenty-year-old Honda is the ultimate in sleeper efficiency — as is the green cred that comes from not consuming new-car resources.

USED CAR RUNNER-UP: Honda Insight (1999-2006)
Price: $5000-$8000 (used)
EPA fuel economy: 48/58 mpg

If the CRX HF is too old-fashioned, too twenty-years-ago, too I’m-gonna-get-skooshed-if-I-crash-this-dinky-thing, then consider its modern descendent: the first-generation Honda Insight. Unlike the CRX, the 1999-2006 Insight isn’t quite suited to winding-road duty — it’s about as thrilling to drive as a wheelbarrow full of mud — but it still comports itself well in traffic and offers Prius-like fuel economy. Like the Prius, a bit of look-at-me stigma comes with the territory, but it’s a small price to pay for stratospheric fuel economy, modern crash safety, and a sub-$10,000 sticker.

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