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How to Purchase a Clean Vehicle: What Buyers Should Know

Noel Duan

Humorist Evan Esar once quipped, “In the United States, every man is entitled to life, liberty and a car in which to pursue happiness.” Undeniably for most of us, the car is an essential tool to help us get to places—always physically, and sometimes metaphorically, too. While you’re getting to where you need or want to go, you can save yourself some money, cut national oil usage and help reduce global warming and pollution along the way.

Clean vehicles, from hybrids to battery electrics, are no longer just an option for the conscious consumer. Available in a full range of prices and styles, they’re becoming the most financially and environmentally sensible option. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says that sales of plug-in electric vehicles tripled in model year 2012—only their second year on the market. Additionally, the UCS notes that they reduce oil consumption, slow global warming and improve public health through decreased pollution levels.

With its months-long waiting list and functional luxury, the Tesla Model S plug-in electric sedan has become today’s Birkin for world travelers—and the new kid on the block, the BMW i3, the first mass-produced carbon-fiber car, has received favorable reviews since its November 2013 launch. The plug-in hybrid favorite, the Toyota Prius, continues to dominate sales and clean-emissions charts, while the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid is actually outselling competitive models on the market today.

Whether you’re eager or hesitant to drive electric, we’ve probed experts and combed through the scientific research to distill the key things you should know and do when you buy a green ride:

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The rules of a greener road

Not All Clean Vehicles Are Created Equal

If you’re looking to save money on fuel, do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to estimate how much money you’d save in the long run. Estimate how much you drive per year, and then compare the fuel savings you’d get with the clean vehicle. Dr. Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, gives the following example: “If you drive 10,000 miles and the hybrid will reduce your fuel consumption from, say, 20 miles per gallon (resulting in the purchase of 500 gallons) to 30 miles per gallon (333 gallons), then you will save $670 at $4 per gallon. If the cost of the hybrid vehicle in this case is $3,000 extra, it’s probably a good buy. You’ll get your money back in about four years, and then start saving $670 every year thereafter.”

Your Guide to Clean Cars

Not all clean cars are plug-in vehicles: Some of them run on fuel, and not all of them qualify for government incentives. Depending on your lifestyle, some vehicles may be better suited for you. Dr. Sperling adds, “There is a wide range of hybrids, from those that have a small battery that allow an engine to turn off when the vehicle is stopped and cruising, to those with big batteries that need to be plugged in and allow the car to drive 40 miles or more on a charge. The larger the battery, the higher the cost—and the better the fuel economy. If one were being economically rational, you would buy the big-battery hybrid if you drive a lot (over 15,000 miles per year) and the very small battery if you drive mostly on urban streets where there are a lot of stops.”

Here is the quick rundown with examples:

Battery electric (Tesla Model S)

These vehicles run only on electric power stored within batteries and have an electric motor instead of a gasoline engine.

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The 2014 Tesla Model S

Plug-in hybrids (Cadillac ELR)

These are very similar to traditional hybrids, but they have more powerful and advanced batteries to allow for plug-in electric charging in addition to running on fuel.

Hybrid electric (Toyota Prius)

Toyota marketing manager Erica Gartsbeyn says, “The common misconception that hybrids must be plugged into an outlet to run… and are pure electric vehicles. Toyota’s hybrids all run on gasoline and do not require any sort of plug to run. The vehicles can run on gas or electric power alone—the battery is charged by the engine or in some cases regenerative braking technology—or a combination of both, but the vehicle will decide the most efficient source of power so the driver doesn’t need to think about it at all.”

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The popular 2014 Toyota Prius

Hydrogen fuel cell (Honda FCX)

These zero-emission vehicles run on hydrogen that is compressed into stacks of fuel cells that make electricity. They are very quiet, and comparable in horsepower to their gasoline counterparts.

Compressed natural gas (Honda Civic Natural Gas)

Natural gas is not only locally produced in the United States but vehicles running on CNS also produce 20 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than gasoline-powered vehicles and will not contaminate groundwater. All this, and their performance is similar to that of their gasoline competitors.

More for Your Money

Look up government-supported incentive programs for purchasing certain clean vehicles—you may be saving money even before you start driving. In California, for example, the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project provides rebates of up to $5,000 per eligible new light-duty vehicle. The car dealership will also provide more information based on the automobile model.

Pro-Tip: Take All the Cars You’re Considering on a Test Drive

Gartsbeyn adds, “Many people assume since it’s a hybrid, it’s going to be small and slow and they’re going to have to compromise somehow. Many times with hybrids, such as Prius, there’s an aha moment when someone first gets into a Prius and notices how much more space it has or that it has enough power for their daily needs. With so many choices now, it’s great to know that if one hybrid doesn’t meet someone’s needs, chances are there’s another right next to it that might.”

Pro-Tip: Maintenance Is Key

As you would with any car, keep your green vehicle in tip-top shape with regular maintenance. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center provides a basic overview of what to expect in the life of your car. The Center points out that electric vehicles usually require less maintenance than traditional vehicles because of regenerative braking and since they have fewer fluids to change and moving parts to wear out. Additionally, stay up-to-date on the state of the battery, since these advanced batteries have a limited number of charging cycles and should be recycled once they wear out.

Dr. Sperling recommends, “If you want to make a statement to carmakers and others, then buy a hybrid vehicle. Vote with your dollars.”

For the most comprehensive guides, visit the DriveClean buying guide by the California Air Resources Board. Additionally, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy publishes an annual Green Book that rates the friendliness of every car—clean or not—on the market.

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