The fuel sippers

Gas-electric hybrids and clean diesels draw new attention as fuel prices rise. Are consumers ready to pay more to burn less?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For Robert Andringa, the decision to dump a luxury sedan for a Honda Civic Hybrid was all about saving time.

Last month, the Washington, D.C., businessman read that tough commuting restrictions on Interstate 66 had been altered. Instead of allowing only carpools during rush hour, the highway could also be used by hybrid vehicles, regardless of the number of passengers.

The next day, he bought one, sight unseen, and shaved 15 minutes each way off his commute from Vienna, Va.

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"That's the kind of incentive that's a big-time benefit," he says. He has since found other advantages. The Civic was cheaper than his old luxury car. And at 51 miles per gallon on the highway, he saves money on gas.

Mr. Andringa is among many US drivers who have been mulling over a shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

For some, prices at the pump - averaging more than $1.60 per gallon across the US, and topping $2 in a number of states - are reason enough to coax more miles out of a tank of gas. While still low in historical terms, and cheap compared with prices in many other nations, rising prices may feel especially jarring to consumers in tough economic times.

For others, environmental concerns add guilt to driving popular 13 m.p.g. SUVs alone to work every day.

And the geopolitics playing out on the nightly news - as the US showdown with Iraq edges toward war - have many consumers thinking about the source of the crude oil that's refined into their gasoline.

Still, consumers have traditionally not been willing to pay extra to burn less. Combined, Toyota and Honda have sold more than 52,000 hybrids since they first appeared in 1999. A slow start, considering that about 17 million new cars are sold in the US each year.

Hybrid vehicles, which run on both a standard gasoline engine and an electric motor, cost about $3,000 more than equivalent cars that run only on gasoline. Diesels today add about $1,750. To recoup that extra cost over 10 years, the life of a typical vehicle, gas prices would have to rise to $2.50 a gallon and stay there for three to six years.

That might help explain why so many big SUVs remain on the road. Along with exotic sports cars, they show up at the bottom of every fuel-economy list.

Still, a shift in consumer thinking may be afoot. A recent study by J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing-information services firm in Agoura Hills, Calif., indicated that American consumers don't expect to recoup the whole cost of additional fuel-saving technology for hybrids or diesels. That could represent a green light for the automobile industry to deliver a broader range of high-mileage options.

"This will be a landmark year," for fuel-efficient vehicles, says Thad Malesh, J.D. Power's director of alternative-fuel research. Ford, General Motors, and Lexus each plan to sell new hybrid versions of certain SUV models over the next 18 months, in part to lower their fleet fuel- efficiency averages. Toyota also plans to install hybrid drive systems into about half of its vehicles over the next few years.

Hybrid cars on the road today can get up to 55 miles per gallon - even in city driving. Consumers currently have a choice of three: the Honda Insight and Civic, and the Toyota Prius.

And hybrids aren't car buyers' only fuel-sipping option. Diesels, loathed by many for smelly emissions in the 1980s, are on the verge of a comeback, according to experts. Diesel engines operate about 20 percent more efficiently than gasoline engines. Currently, Volkswagen is the only manufacturer to sell diesel-powered vehicles in the US. Its largest diesel, the Jetta wagon, is rated at 42 miles per gallon around town and 50 on the highway - just a little less efficient than today's hybrids.

But diesels can even be more fun to drive than little gas econoboxes. In addition, a reduced-sulphur diesel fuel should make its debut around 2007, reducing the remaining noxious emissions.

Below is a rundown of today's socially responsible fuel sippers. Not included: cars that run on ethanol, natural gas, hydrogen, or other alternative fuels, because the fuel is hard to find, and those cars are sold mostly to fleets. (Most ethanol-burning cars today are run on gasoline.)

What to buy when mileage matters

Most consumers weigh a broad range of factors in selecting a vehicle. For those who think in terms of economy - and ecology - the following are the Monitor's capsule reviews of the 10 cars given the highest miles-per-gallon ratings by auto-information firm Edmunds.com, using data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Listed are city and highway m.p.g. ratings and base price.

1. Honda Insight, 61/68 $20,740

Call this tiny two-seater a geek car for those with a singular focus on saving gas. No guilt about driving like a speed demon in this 73-horsepower, three-cylinder car - you can't. It's too slow and feels tippy on its narrow, high-mileage tires.

The Insight's gasoline engine runs whenever the car is in motion. The main function of its electric motor and batteries is simply to recapture energy that otherwise would be lost when braking. The "regenerative" brakes charge the batteries as the car slows down. The electric motor draws on the batteries to provide extra power for accelerating or climbing hills. Digital dashboard readouts monitor all this electronic activity, pleasing even the geekiest drivers. But otherwise, the interior is Spartan. With two people and a briefcase aboard, the Insight reaches its maximum weight capacity. For an extra $1,000, the Insight can come with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which uses a belt, rather than gears, to improve fuel efficiency.

2. Toyota Prius, 52/45 $20,480

Japan's largest automaker put its hybrid technology into an immensely practical small sedan. While Honda's hybrids struggle to feel like ordinary cars, the Prius feels futuristic and refined.

A CVT helps the Prius move silently at speeds up to 20 m.p.h. using only its 44-horsepower electric motor. The 67-horsepower gasoline four-cylinder engine kicks in only when accelerating quickly, traveling at higher speeds, or climbing hills. Regenerative brakes like the Insight's help charge the batteries.

All of this makes for a comfortable, relaxed drive around town. On the highway, the Prius cruises pleasantly, but strains to climb hills or pass cars.

3. Honda Civic Hybrid Sedan, 47/51 $20,010

The Civic Hybrid blends everyday Civic comfort with the high mileage and social cachet of a hybrid. Because of its Civic underpinnings, it's perhaps the best-handling hybrid. And it certainly offers the largest back seat and trunk. The Civic's four-cylinder engine runs more smoothly than the Insight's thrashing three-cylinder. Like the Insight, it offers an optional CVT and its gasoline engine doesn't shut down except when stopped. The engine starts the instant you press the gas. This Civic represents the next logical step for hybrids from an environmental fringe car to a mainstream source of transportation that just happens to burn less gasoline.

4. Volkswagen Jetta TDI, 42/50 $19,390
5. Volkswagen Golf TDI, 42/49 $17,900
6. Volkswagen New Beetle TDI, 42/49 $19,615

Volkswagen is the only manufacturer currently selling diesel-engine vehicles in the United States. Unlike the VW Rabbit of the 1980s, these cars don't stink, rattle, or struggle to reach highway speeds. While idling, there is a faint smell of diesel fumes and a little engine clatter. But start rolling, and it's hard to tell that these vehicles run on diesel. Much of the credit goes to VW's Turbo Direct Injection (TDI) diesel engine, which improves efficiency and power. Some also goes to the cars' catalytic converter, which cleans up the exhaust. And the rest goes to VW's new focus on refinement, luxury, and quality materials.

The same 90-horsepower TDI engine is a $1,750 option in the Jetta, the Golf, and the New Beetle. Because of its better aerodynamics, the Jetta wagon gets the best gas mileage. All three of these high-mileage cars are among the best-handling, smoothest-driving small cars on the market and are fashionable as well. But Volkswagen can't yet match Honda and Toyota for reliability.

Diesels like these fill the roads in Europe. The continent's high gasoline prices make diesels' better fuel economy and lower price per gallon really pay off. Look for more of them to flood the US market as cleaner-burning fuel becomes available. With their abundant torque, increased longevity, and better mileage, diesels make near perfect engines to power heavy sport utility vehicles.

7. Honda Civic HX Coupe, 36/44 $14,170

The miserly, mid-level Civic coupe represents the best fuel economy you can get from a traditional gasoline engine. Introduced in 1996 as Honda's mileage champ, the Civic HX offers a CVT as a more efficient alternative to a traditional automatic. But the car feels slow and noisy compared with the Civic Hybrid.

8. Toyota Echo, 34/41 $10,590

Perhaps the homeliest car on the market, but it offers good gas mileage and Toyota quality, cheap. Just don't expect it to be much fun to drive or a lot of creature comforts. One plus: The Echo does offer a surprising amount of front-seat room.

9. Toyota Corolla, 32/40 $14,055

More than anything from Honda or Nissan, the Corolla is the Prius's main competition. It offers all the same functional virtues as the Prius - including great mileage - for thousands less. The Corolla is refined, comfortable, and reasonably quiet; everything you could want in a small car. Even at $1.70 a gallon, the extra 10 m.p.g. will never pay off the Prius's extra purchase price.

10. Pontiac Vibe, 32/39 $14,995

A great package let down by its own economy. With the base engine - the one that accounts for this m.p.g. rating - the Vibe is so slow it's frustrating. On the plus side, it offers Toyota quality at a Pontiac price - with style and roomy practicality for young families or outdoor adventurers.

Ten autos with a thirst for gasoline

Among the heaviest gas-guzzlers are four Italian supercars, a fairly common pickup truck, and a couple of SUVs you've probably seen prowling the local mall.

1. Ferrari Enzo $643,330, 8/12 m.p.g.

2. Lamborghini MurciƩlago $273,000 9/13

3. Bentley Arnage R $207,385 10/14

4. Ferrari 456 MGT $224,585 10/15

5. Ferrari 575 M Maranello $217,890 10/16

6. Ferrari 360 Modena $143,860 10/16

7. Dodge Ram Pickup $19,125 11/16

8. Cadillac Escalade EXT $51,645 12/15

9. Bentley Azure $375,485 11/16

10. Lincoln Navigator $48,945 11/16

Sources: Edmunds.com, Road & Track

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