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Breaking the Gas Habit

From electric to plug-in to hybrid, there are more ways than ever to drive clean
Toyota’s Prius, below left, is the world’s best-selling gas-electric hybrid. But today there are far more choices for drivers looking to ease their gasoline consumption. Volkswagen’s all-electric eGolf, above, starts at around $30,000. Honda's new plug-in Clarity is a midsized sedan with an EPA-estimated 47 miles per charge (below right).
    By now, we all know about the ­Toyota Prius.
    I’m talking about the world’s best-selling gas-electric hybrid: a car that uses both an electric motor and a gasoline engine. You can drive it just like any other car yet use much less fuel. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that today’s Prius gets 52 miles per gallon in a mix of city and highway driving, compared to 32 miles per gallon for the similarly sized, similarly powerful, gas-fueled Toyota Corolla.
     But if you’re aspiring to use less gasoline in the new year, the Prius is just one of many options. As an automotive journalist based in the Annapolis area, I’ve had a chance to try out a host of hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles and other fuel-thrifty models. For nearly any automotive need, there’s a car that minimizes or eliminates gasoline consumption — in many cases, without even calling attention to itself.
     Let’s go over how these cars work, some important factors to consider about them and some of the best models to buy. 
 
Electric Cars
      Some people see electric cars as glorified golf carts. Others picture a $100,000 Tesla. But a wealth of electric vehicles, known as EVs, exists between these extremes. Most of today’s models accelerate with speedy silence and can travel well over 100 miles per charge. 
     The primary hurdle to an electric car is the range. Range has improved dramatically in just a few years. For example, today’s Nissan Leaf goes 150 miles per charge, more than twice the 73 miles for the original 2011 model, for a similar base price of around $30,000.
     Using a 240-volt car charger, available for home installation and in some public locations, you can achieve about 20 miles of range per hour’s charge in the Leaf. You can even plug into a standard 120-volt outlet to charge four miles of range per hour. That’s not going to help you on a road trip, but it means many commuters can easily recover overnight. Some public stations include fast-charging, which in the Leaf gets you 90 miles of charge in 30 minutes. (I use the Leaf as an example because it’s the best-selling, affordable electric car, but other models have similar specs.)
     Speaking of expense, purchase prices are another common concern. Even the least expensive EVs are often above $30,000, and these tend to be compact economy cars. Luxury models, meanwhile, combine sporty performance with eco-friendly fuel savings, but even the cheapest of those (the Tesla Model 3 sedan) starts at nearly $50,000.
      That said, a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles removes some of the sting. Then there’s the operating expense: BGE customers typically pay about 7.5 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity, which works out to less than $2.50 per 100 miles on most all-electric cars.
     Among all-electric cars, the Leaf and the Volkswagen e-Golf stand out for blending range, comfort, and value, starting at about $30,000. The Chevrolet Bolt brings more interior space and a 238-mile range for about $5,000 more. Tesla’s lineup offers phenomenal performance and a high-tech vibe, and prices align with similarly sized, similarly powerful luxury vehicles.
 
Plug-In Hybrids
     If you just don’t feel comfortable with an all-electric car, or if you want a broader selection of models, a plug-in hybrid may be just the thing.
    With a plug-in hybrid, you charge up a battery with electricity from the grid, but you also have a gasoline engine on board to help if your juice runs out. Nearly every market segment offers a plug-in hybrid, everything from affordable compact cars to minivans to luxury cars.
     Plug-in hybrids don’t provide the same electric-only range as a pure EV, due to smaller batteries. Some also need the gasoline engine to accelerate speedily or cruise on the highway. But many plug-in hybrids offer enough range for all-electric commuting or errands, with a gasoline engine that can kick in when you need to go farther or haven’t had a chance to recharge.
     As with electric vehicles, the purchase price can be high. But also like electric vehicles, federal tax credits are available (up to $7,500, depending on the size of the battery).
    An outstanding new plug-in hybrid is the Honda Clarity midsize sedan, a model that combines space-age styling with everyday comfort and quietness, plus an EPA-estimated 47 miles per charge. Prices start at $33,400, and it’s eligible for the full $7,500 tax credit.
     If you need more space, the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid is another standout. This seven-passenger minivan can carry your family an estimated 32 miles before burning any gasoline. Prices seem high at $39,995, but here, too, you can claim the $7,500 tax credit. Factor in the tax credit and the hybrid’s many standard luxury features, and it’s roughly the same price as a comparably equipped gas-only Pacifica van.
     Brands from Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi and Toyota to BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo all offer plug-in hybrids. Check them out. 
 
Hybrids
     Maybe all this talk of plugging in your car seems like a hassle, or your home doesn’t have a plug within reach. Or maybe you’d like to spend less.
     You wouldn’t be alone. That’s why standard hybrids (such as the Prius) remain more popular than their plug-in counterparts. The Prius and several strong competitors all start below $25,000 and can top 50 miles per gallon.
     In a standard hybrid, the electric motor helps propel a hybrid car so that the engine doesn’t need to work as hard — and therefore burns less gas. The gasoline engine also helps recharge the electric batteries when they get low, which is why you never have to plug it in. On the other hand, you’ll burn some gasoline on every trip.
      A wide variety of vehicles are available as hybrids. Toyota and its Lexus brand alone offer 12 distinct models, ranging from the subcompact Toyota Prius C ($21,530) to the Lexus LC 500h luxury sports coupe ($96,710). Price premiums for hybrids have also decreased over the years, making them sounder decisions for your wallet along with the environment. 
     The Prius has a useful blend of roominess and fuel economy, while several competitors — the Honda Insight sedan, Hyundai Ioniq hatchback and Kia Niro crossover-wagon — bring quieter rides and more user-friendly interiors for even less money. 
     Among larger models, Toyota and Lexus often make the most economical options. The midsize sedan class, though, has an uncommon number of excellent options.
 
Efficient Gas-Only Cars
     If your budget doesn’t support a hybrid, or you’re not finding one that you like, numerous gas-only cars also offer standout fuel economy.
     A popular trend pairs a small engine with a turbocharger, which kicks in with extra boost if you need to accelerate hard. That means that you get the efficiency of a small engine when you drive gently, but sufficient power when you need it. Many Honda vehicles, among others, do quite well with this approach — provided that you avoid aggressive driving with a lead foot.
    While that advice applies more to turbocharged cars and to hybrids, it’s an easy way to save fuel whatever you’re driving. The more you can stay off the gas pedal, the longer you’ll go before you need to buy some more. 
 
 
Brady Holt, of Riva, is an automotive reviewer and journalist.