Fuel-efficient cars offer great deals, depending on how you drive

Fuel-efficient cars carry verdant pros, and pricey cons.

Fuel-efficient cars now come in many sizes and with a range of possible price tags, such as the $26,495 Wheego Whip LiFe (pictured).

How much do fuel-efficient cars cost these days? Try $18,995 – add a bit for air conditioning, subtract some after tax credits.

That's the price tag for a 2010 Wheego Whip, currently the cheapest highway-capable, all-electric vehicle, according to its manufacturer. And unlike many of the more-publicized ultra fuel-efficient cars, the Whip is available now. For sale in California, Massachusetts, and 15 states in-between, the boxy, battery-operated two-seater requires no gas and releases zero tailpipe emissions. Plus, the car’s battery can be charged using a standard household outlet.

The pros are obvious: The Whip helps drivers wean America off foreign oil and does not pollute the environment directly (of course, charging it up carries some carbon footprint). The big cons: The car takes eight hours to charge; and at full capacity, the battery only lasts for 40 miles.

Despite the negatives, Stephen Russell, a program coordinator of the Massachusetts Clean Cities coalition, says electric cars are “absolutely” part of our future.

Consumers ready to spend $26,495 (after tax credits) can purchase Wheego’s souped-up 2011 Whip LiFe. With its more powerful battery, the LiFe can go approximately 100 miles on a single charge, according to Wheego. The longer-lasting battery takes five hours to charge.

The similarly featured Nissan Leaf ($26,220 after tax savings) will go on sale in parts of the West Coast in January and elsewhere in July.

Working a booth at this week's “Carbon Day” electric vehicle showcase in Boston, Mr. Russell told attendees, including a group of too-young-to-drive grade school students, about the benefits of alternative transportation. A few tables down, a white Wheego Whip was on display.

“You don’t always need 100-percent battery to run to the store and back,” he says. “If I’m commuting 20 miles a day, I can go three days on a battery that’s not fully charged.”

As the electric-car market grows, state and local governments are looking into building public charging stations, says Russell.

“They’ll be in parking garages, Staples, Walmart,” Russell forecasts. “Employers are going to begin to embrace it and put charging stations in for employees.”

Last month, a Rasmussen poll showed that one in three Americans plans to buy an electric car in the next decade. Still, more than half of respondents say they're unlikely to hop aboard the electric bandwagon.

While most people wait for charging stations and lower prices, car shoppers have many options on the hybrid side. In its Vehicle Buyer’s Guide, the Clean Cities coalition ranks hybrids with the best air pollution score. Honda’s $23,800 Civic Hybrid and Nissan’s $26,780 Altima Hybrid top the list.

Russell bought a used Prius hybrid last December, and says he gets 49 miles per gallon driving on the highway.

“There’s more work to be done,” he says. “The problem right now is the cost."

He has high hopes, though, that energy technology will improve – both within and outside of the automotive world.

“Eventually, you’ll be able to put a solar panel on your house, and use it to charge your car,” he predicts.

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