Alternative Cars

By Julie Price

March 17, 2014 5 min read

Today's car buyers have even more options to consider -- including what kind of "fuel" will power their vehicles, the purchase price and the anticipated usage. Consumers must consider different methods when comparing vehicles for which would be the best choice, and certainly, what is best for one person may not be suitable for someone else. What makes one car a better choice than the other?

Aside from the usual categories used through the years for side-by-side comparisons (e.g., style, cost, "gas" mileage, safety rating, seating, color), cost-conscious and ecology concerns now factor in big time. We may no longer need to stop the family car at the normal roadside gas pump. Now, plugging in the (electric) car in or filling the tank up with diesel fuel may be our choice of power. Alternative fuel choices include biodiesel, electricity, ethanol, hydrogen, natural gas and propane. Gasoline is a petroleum-derived liquid used primarily as fuel in internal combustion engines.

Industry-standard Environmental Protection Agency ratings are based on the standard gasoline-powered engine and the average driver, who drives approximately 55 percent on the highway, 45 percent in the city and under 7,500 miles yearly. In recent years, the EPA has factored in all electric, electric-hybrid (plug-ins) and gasoline-powered cars using a cost-comparison formula.

For 2014, an electric car is rated at as high as 118 mpg, while the average gas-powered vehicle is 35.2 mpg. Though the diesel-powered vehicle had a bad reputation several years back for emissions, today's technology and ultra-low sulfur keeps the emissions of these vehicles much cleaner, giving them a rating 15 to 40 percent more efficient than gas-engine cars. The EPA's National Clean Diesel Campaign is working to reduce the emissions of older diesel vehicles. Diesel vehicles perform best during longer highway trips.

Cost of purchase, easy availability of fuel and potential vehicle resale value are other considerations for car buyers. Diesel engines have long lifetimes, many as long as 20 to 30 years. They usually have a higher resale value than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Electric-battery and hybrid cars tend to lose value more within the first five years, although there has been no significant proof of battery failure to date. It's likely a standard gasoline engine is the easiest when it comes to replenishing fuel, as many gas stations line the roadside, but not every one offers diesel fuel, which provides more torque and therefore more towing power and power off the line. While the sticker price at the pump may be deceptive and make diesel look more expensive (at this writing, the national average price per gallon is $3.42 for regular gasoline, $3.77 for premium and $3.99 for diesel), diesel fuel is richer and 15 to 40 percent more efficient.

All-electric cars need plug-in charging stations, which can be trickier to find on longer trips. Some municipalities have installed quick-charge electric stations in areas to complement the home charging station normally used. But an 80 percent charge can take as long as four hours. Dual-powered hybrid engines, such as electric and gas ones, make it easier to fuel the car as needed. Hydrogen-cell cars, now in very limited production, will recharge their batteries as the car is used. Technology, manufacturer influence and local demand are making alternative fuels more and more popular and readily accessible. New phone apps can show you where to locate alternative fuel supplies.

The former general sales manager at New York's Rockland Nissan, Don Chittum, says of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, "Most consumers are more concerned with driving an eco-friendly vehicle than avoiding high gas prices, but the fact that it costs only $3 (at local electrical rates) to go 100 miles is a nice savings." As of 2013, customers were approved by Nissan to purchase an electric vehicle only after the company conducted an inspection to see if the installation of a home charging station was possible.

Electric drive vehicles generally offer low emissions, with some vehicles touting zero emissions. The purchase prices of electric and hybrid vehicles are often higher than comparable gasoline-run cars. But when you factor in the cost of "fuel," the cost can easily even out, or even save you money, after a few years, depending on the amount of use. Electric cars are usually considered best for local and city use, and for people that drive fewer than 40 miles per day.

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