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Four Paths to Fuel Efficiency | Electric, Diesel Hybrid, Fuel Cell.

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Plenty of people claim they want fuel-efficiency, yet many shun higher-efficiency cars unless they see a tangible economic benefit. Many of us are environmentally concerned, but only when it doesn't cost us much-if anything.

When gasoline prices shot skyward in mid-2008, hybrids and small fuel-efficient cars suddenly experienced newfound popularity. Dealers ran out of Toyota Priuses and Honda Civic Hybrids, and those on sale commanded prices well above sticker. As gasoline sunk back below $2 a gallon later in the year, those sensible cars lost a sizable share of their appeal.

As conventional gasoline engines start to lose their dominance, no one knows what will take their place. Already, we have several competitive approaches: hybrids, diesels, full-electrics, and-more experimentally-fuel cells. Plug-in hybrids are coming soon, making five prospects.

Mini E - electric power.Electric Power.

For a short time in the early 20th century, electric cars dominated the market. Soon, internal-combustion engines running on gasoline took the top spot. Electric cars appeared sporadically through the rest of the century. In the 1970s, a number of small manufacturers turned out mini-size electrics. GM went electric in the 1990s, leasing EV1s to several thousand customers. As the documentary film "What Happened to the Electric Car?" pointed out, many of those lessees were unhappy when GM "pulled the plug" on that project, snatching all those EV1s away from their enthusiastic drivers.

Now, nearly a decade into the 21st century, electric cars are experiencing a long-awaited comeback. GM has initiated a publicity blitz for its Chevrolet Volt, first seen at Detroit's auto show in January 2007, and will become reality in 2010. The Volt will have a gasoline engine, but it's used only to charge the battery. Several other automakers have announced plans for battery-powered cars.

Already, BMW's MINI subsidiary has unveiled a full-electric MINI E. About 500 are to be leased in California, New Jersey, and New York for $850 per month (including insurance). Responding with surprising briskness to the accelerator pedal, the MINI E delivers performance that's truly reminiscent of regular gasoline-engine MINI Coopers.

Mitsubishi intends to bring its i MiEV electric minicar to the U.S. market. Going on sale first in Japan, the curvy little egg-shaped i MiEV has been undergoing testing by power companies. Performance is on the mild side-about as expected from a small electric car. But like the Mini E, it's fun to drive. Nissan recently debuted its Leaf electric car, which will see limited release in 2010 and full-production for 2012. Nissan says the Leaf accelerates like a V6, and produces a top speed of 90 mph.

Full-electric vehicles have to be recharged at a power outlet: either rapidly at a 220-volt outlet, or more slowly at a conventional 110-volt source. Electric cars produce no emissions, though critics warn that the powerplants that provide the electricity are far from emissions-free. They're quiet, and can perform comparably to conventional small cars.

Range has long been the formidable obstacle. MINI claims a range of up to 156 miles per charge for its MINI E, but most electrics have had tighter limits-some under 100 miles. Charge time is the other issue, coupled with the need to establish charging stations at strategic locations.

Lexus HS 250h - hibrid power.Hybrid Power.

Honda and Toyota took the lead in bringing hybrids to the American market, just after the 21st century began. Running on a combination of gasoline and electric power, hybrids are compromises. Some early examples could not run on battery power alone, but the latest versions use electricity, the gasoline engine, or both.

Best-known of the hybrids are the Toyota Prius liftback sedan, Honda's redesigned Insight, their Civic Hybrid, and the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Escape Hybrid compact SUV. Toyota also offers a Camry Hybrid sedan and Highlander Hybrid SUV. Honda helped pave the way for hybrids with its original Insight two-seater. Among the newest hybrid versions comes from GM's 2-Mode Hybrid available in the Chevrolet Tahoe SUV and Silverado pickup.

Currently, there are about 30 hybrid models are on sale as passenger cars, SUVs and crossovers, and pickup trucks. The Toyota Prius and new 2010 Lexus HS 250h come only as hybrid models. All the others may have either a conventional gasoline engine or the hybrid (battery/gasoline) powertrain.

Plug-in hybrids are the next step. A number of experimental models are running around, and several major automakers intend to introduce production models in the next year or two. These cars operate like a hybrid, but don't rely solely on the gas engine to keep the battery charged.

3 Volkswagen-Jetta-TDI - clean diesel."Clean" Diesel.

Widely popular in Europe, diesel engines have a long history. Invented by Rudolf Diesel in the 1890s, diesels are similar to internal-combustion gasoline engines, but they operate without a spark ignition.

For years, diesels were viewed as dirty, noisy, and smelly-not without justification. Development of "clean" diesel fuel, with far less sulfur content, has increased the potential for diesel power as a sensible alternative. Audi's 2010 Q7 3.0 TDI (lead photo above) sport-utility vehicle is a 50-state clean diesel Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) that SUV that makes 225 horsepower at 3750 rpm.

Volkswagen has offered diesel-powered cars since the late 1970s, enhancing its position late in 2008 with the arrival of the modernized TDI engine, running on "clean" fuel. At the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2008, the Jetta TDI was named "Green Car of the Year." Mercedes-Benz helped revive interest with the debut of its BlueTec diesel-engine E-Class sedan, and a batch of BlueTec "clean" diesel SUVs emerged late in 2008. BMW also has joined the modern diesel fray, with a diesel-powered version of its 3 Series sedan.

Occupants in BMW's 335d can barely discern that it's a diesel. Acceleration and overall road behavior are just about exactly on par with a gasoline-engine 3 Series. The same is true for Mercedes' BlueTec SUVs, and for VW's Jetta TDI. You need to listen closely to discern any telltale sounds, and a deep sniff near the tailpipe reveals barely a hint of unusual odor.

Honda FCX Clarity - fuel cell.Fuel-Cell Vehicles.

For the past decade or so, hydrogen-based fuel cells have been touted as the answer to fuel-availability and environmental concerns. Many automakers have developed experimental fuel-cell vehicles, but only Honda put a few into everyday operation. Others were essentially one-of-a-kind. Several years back, a handful of Honda's first-generation FCX models were given to several government fleets for evaluation.

Honda recently took a leap ahead with its FCX Clarity, a sedan that's substantially larger than the first-generation FCX. This time, Honda is leasing a substantial number of fuel-cell sedans to selected customers. Clearly midsize in space and character, the FCX Clarity is pleasantly responsive, so it's easy to forget that a fuel cell is functioning.

GM also has joined the fuel-cell reality fray with its Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell Vehicle. At least 100 soon will be in service, driven by regular motorists, through GM's Project Driveway program. Other manufacturers, including BMW with its Hydrogen 7, have a few fuel-cell cars running around.

Infrastructure is the obstacle here. If the number of fuel-cell vehicles grows, how can enough hydrogen be obtained and distributed to vehicles that need it? Currently, hydrogen is available only in a few areas, at special facilities. Fuel-cell vehicles cannot be workable until someone develops a network comparable to the thousands of service stations that pump gasoline-or find a way to expand their services to include hydrogen.

Which Will It Be?

Hybrids are here now. Falling gas prices have sabotaged their allure, at least temporarily. Electrics depend on further battery development. Most manufacturers intend to use lithium-ion batteries, but Hyundai is promoting a Lithium Polymer type.

Almost any vehicle could be fitted with a diesel engine. Getting past the diesel stigma is the prime barrier. Fuel-cell vehicles surely could be the best answer. But despite the handful of examples now on the road, their heyday looks about as far off as ever.

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