The Chevy Volt has a 35-mile electric range before the gas engine kicks in for a total range of 375 miles.
Eco-friendly cars: What to expect
This is the year of electric cars, says John Voelcker, editor of GreenCarReports.com. For the first time since the automobile industry’s infancy, he says, “you have plug-in vehicles in the showrooms of major automakers in the U.S.”
Meanwhile, manufacturers have debuted more hybrid models while traditional combustion-engine cars become more fuel-efficient. Here are a few green trends car buyers can expect to see this year.
Utility EV programs
Plugging in an electric car overnight means a bump in your household electricity bill. Utilities are happy to supply that extra power, says Voelcker, because it’s a rare opportunity to increase demand for their product. However, utilities prefer that you charge up overnight or during off-peak hours. Look for more utilities offering special programs and rates for electric-car owners.
More electric cars
The two electric cars available for 2011, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, have long waiting lists for the small amount available to purchase this year. But the high demand means other manufacturers will sit up and take notice.
What makes this a watershed year for electric cars? These vehicles can run for up to 40 miles in ideal conditions without a charge or, in the case of the Volt, switching to gasoline. By some studies, 78 percent of Americans drive fewer than 40 miles a day, meaning electric-car owners could conceivably never have to visit a gas station.
Smaller cars go upscale
Certain drivers will always have a need for larger vehicles, so SUVs, vans and trucks aren’t going away. But drivers are becoming more comfortable with smaller cars — and their smaller fuel costs.
“For a long time in the American market, small cars were considered entry-level,” says Voelcker. “They were what you bought your kid before they could get something nice.”
In 2011, manufacturers will continue offering high-end features like leather seats, upscale stereos and all the latest gadgetry in both smaller and larger cars.
40 mpg is the new 30
Aging starlets have spouted this mantra for years, but in 2011 it applies to fuel efficiency in non-hybrid cars. With new federal standards, “40 miles per gallon is the new benchmark,” says Voelcker.
Just a few years ago, 30 miles per gallon was the higher end of fuel economy. But these days, plenty of cars –– not just subcompacts –– are in that 40-mpg range for highway driving. These include the Chevy Cruze Eco, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Fiesta and Chevy Sonic. The new standard is achieved via a combination of lightweight materials and engines that are much smaller.
In 2012, Buick will debut a “start-stop system” on its LaCrosse full-size sedan, a feature that will eventually spread to other GM models. The system, a sort of “hybrid lite,” is already common in Europe, says Voelcker; it essentially switches to electric power when a car is slowing to a stop and switches back when the driver speeds up again. Buick says this feature, called eAssist, increases fuel economy by 25 percent.
Based on an EPA test, the all-electric Nissan Leaf has a range of 100 miles; driving habits can improve or worsen mileage.