8 New Gas-Saving Car Trends
As gas prices continue to march toward $4 a gallon, cars on display this weekend at the Portland International Auto Show offer a range of new, fuel-efficient models that not only are easy on the environment but also on the wallet.
The 2012 vehicles include dozens of fuel-efficient cars that get 35 miles or more per gallon; high-end hybrids; all-electric cars that travel 80 to 100 miles between charges; and even a car powered by natural gas.
Here's the scoop on those and other eco-friendly, fuel-efficient new models:
After years of driving minivans, many aging soccer moms and dads -- including me -- are ready to switch to something smaller that gets better gas mileage, and from the looks of vehicles at the car expo, auto makers are accommodating those needs. The 2012 models include a wide assortment of midsize hybrid SUVs and crossovers that, while not as big as minivans, are still roomy enough to fit five comfortably with trunk space for groceries and golf clubs. One example is the Toyota Highlander Hybrid (right), a midsized SUV with six-speaker CD player, built-in DVD, rearview camera, and a steering wheel with audio and Bluetooth controls. The Highlander Hybrid gets 28 mpg and has a manufacturer's retail price starting at $38,540.
Owning a Prius used to mean driving a utilitarian car that couldn't fit more than two people without someone feeling squished. Today, Prius buyers can choose between three models of the pioneering gas-and-electric hybrid, including the biggest one yet, the Prius V Wagon (right). The car is six inches longer and three inches taller than the Prius hatchback and has more cargo space, but still averages 44 miles per gallon, says Neil Barker, a sales rep with Wilsonville Toyota working at the Portland Auto Show. The car's suggested retail price starts at $26,400. If more space isn't a priority, Toyota also is bringing out a subcompact commuter car called the Prius C that Barker says will get 53 mpg and MotorTrend says will be priced under $19,000.
3. Gas sippers.
Not all the eco-friendly cars are hybrids or all-electric. Some just get great gas mileage, including a substantial number from domestic and overseas auto makers that average more than 35 mpg. The Portland show has an entire expo hall devoted to these gas sippers. They include the Hyundai Elantra, which gets up to 40 mpg and starts at $15,345, the Ford Focus SE, which gets up to 38 mpg and starts at $22,440, and the Chevrolet Cruze 1LT, which gets up to 38 mpg and starts at $18,475.
What Mad Men is to TV dramas, the Fiat 500 is to cars. The diminutive coupe -- think Mini Cooper or smart car -- is patterned after the original Fiat 500, which debuted 50 years ago and helped get Italian families around town on the cheap, says Ryan Hurlbert, a sales rep with Ron Tonkin Fiat in Portland. The new Fiat 500's retro features include an oversized, round speedometer -- with a modern digital readout in the middle. The least expensive of three Fiat 500 models, the Pop, starts at $16,000, gets 30 mpg in city driving or 38 mpg on highways, and comes with a manual five-speed transmission, air conditioning and a sunroof.
Electric car charging stations were once few and far between. But just as electric cars are improving, charging stations are too. Next-generation filling stations, such as the models made by ChargePoint, can detect a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip in a customer's charge card to unlock an electric pump. Electric car owners who belong to the ChargePoint filling station network can download an app for their iPhone, Android or BlackBerry phones that shows the closest station, which appears on a digital map as a green dot if it's available or blue if it's already in use. As of November, ChargePoint's data is integrated into the Nissan LEAF electric car's GPS system. Separately, the state of Oregon is helping build out a charging station network that is expected to stretch along the highly trafficked I-5 corridor from Canada to the California border by the end of 2012.
6. Honda 2012 Civic Natural Gas.
Pop the lid to the fuel tank on this version of the 2012 Honda Civic and you'll recognize the connector -- it looks just like the nozzle that your gas dryer or barbeque plugs into. The one-of-a-kind natural-gas-powered car gets the equivalent of 27 miles to the gallon, and won the green car of the year award at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November for having the cleanest-running internal combustion engine. Even though it runs as efficiently as a hybrid and has cleaner emissions, the $26,000, natural gas car has yet to catch on with car buyers in a big way, according to a Honda dealer representative at the Portland show. One of the main reasons is lack of refueling stations: In the Portland area, there's only one, at the airport.
Cars weren't the only alternative-energy vehicles at the car show. One Portland startup brought a futuristic-looking two-wheeled electric scooter called the Boxx. If you crossed the shape of a mechanical bull with the styling of Eve, the sleek girl robot from Wall-E, you'd get the Boxx, which operates on a modified laptop battery and can go up to 28 miles per hour. The $3,995 scooter plugs into a standard 110-volt electrical outlet and can run up to 80 miles on a single charge. Although it won't be available until 2013, inventor Eric Vaughn says he's already sold eight "sight unseen" from the company's website.
8. Electric bikes.
As more people adopt a low-car or no-car lifestyle, companies such as Mercedes, Ford, Audi, Honda and Toyota are looking at what they do in a different light and expanding into new products, including electric bikes. "They're moving away from being car companies to being mobility companies," says Bob Vander Woude. He's the inventor of the e-bike, a lightweight, folding electric bike. The 25-pound bike can be stowed in a car trunk or taken on a bus or train and will retail for $2,500 when it's available in late 2012 from Vander Woude's startup, Portland-based Conscious Commuter Corp. Vander Woude predicts electric bikes of all types will be a big draw for commuting and for boomers who enjoy recreational bike riding but may need help climbing steep hills.
Read more: The Cars Boomers Are Buying
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