Hot Buys on Cool Cars

A Buyer's Guide for Today's Economy



While 2009 is shaping up as the most challenging year in the history of the auto industry, the new car shopper can take advantage of the opportunity to step into a wealth of intriguing models, sweetened by a buyer’s market. Even long sought-after hybrids are crowding dealers’ lots. If you can’t get highly advantageous financing and steep discounts in this climate, you’re not trying.

The environmentally conscious showroom shopper can revel in the widest selection of hybrids ever available, from both domestic and foreign carmakers. Plug-in hybrids, with 30 to 40 miles of electric cruising range, and totally battery-powered electric vehicles are on the way. This year’s Detroit auto show demonstrated that the industry is finally evolving to become both leaner and greener. That’s something to celebrate.


Four-Door Family Cars: Honda Insight and Toyota Prius
New on dealer lots, Honda’s Insight is giving Toyota and its all-new Prius a run for the money. The $19,800 Insight (not to be confused with an earlier, tiny, two-door model of the same name) is the most affordable hybrid on the market. It sports a four-cylinder engine and nickel-metal-hydride hybrid battery system, generating 98 horsepower. It shares a roofline with the Prius, and is clearly aimed at Toyota’s runaway success (600,000 sold in the U.S. since 2000). The Insight is smaller than the Prius, without as many features, but it delivers 40 miles per gallon city and 43 mpg highway. The kicker is that the LX Insight is priced below the least expensive 2010 Prius. Most customers will probably order the EX, which for $21,300, adds an upgraded audio system, cruise control and heated door mirrors ($23,100 with navigation).

The all-new 2010 Toyota Prius is slightly bigger and more powerful than the 2004-2009 second-generation model, and offers better gas mileage than its predecessor—50 mpg combined. Prices for five levels of standard equipment options start at $21,000-$22,000 (level five is $27,270). Available whiz-bang extras include a solar roof, sensors that keep it in its own lane and park-itself technology.


Sports Car: Tesla Roadster
Everything about the Tesla Roadster is outsized—from price to performance—except the car itself, which is tiny. Based on a British Lotus, with a smaller footwell than that typically found in American cars, the two-seat Roadster is a rip-roaring performance car, delivering 0-to-60 mph in four seconds. The 248 horsepower comes not from a V-8 engine of yore, but from an electric motor and a microprocessor-controlled lithium-ion battery pack, with 6,000 individual cells.

The Roadster has the best cruising range of any battery car, at 244 miles. A brief, but vivid, test drive proves that the hype is true—the car pins your back to the seat and raises the hair on your arms. The price is eye-opening, too, at $109,000, but a more affordable Model S sedan is on the way.


Economy Car: Ford Focus
The Focus available today, starting at $16,400, is already a partial-zero emissions vehicle, meaning that its tailpipe emissions are cleaner than 90 percent of all cars and trucks on the road. Assuming Ford survives, the next Focus, available late next year, will manifest a total redesign, with the whole Earth in mind.

Europe got a new Focus in 2005, but the United States, in a cost-cutting move, has been soldiering on with the C1 design, introduced in 2000. The latest, 2011 model, is a world car; it must appeal to fuel-stingy Europeans, as well as highway-oriented Americans.

The new C3 Focus will be slightly larger, with more attention paid to its carbon footprint, through the use of lightweight metals and other materials, improved fuel economy and emissions. The four-cylinder engine could support efficient direct injection, in which fuel directly enters combustion chambers, and cylinder deactivation, in which two or four cylinders are shut off at cruising speeds. A hybrid version is possible; a clean, diesel option, hugely popular in Europe, where it provides tax advantages, is likely.


Car of the Future: Chevrolet Volt

The Chevrolet Volt is in a race against time: Will this state-of-the-art green sedan reach production before General Motors as we know it disappears? One hopes so, because its Voltec propulsion system is truly innovative. Specs confirm that the four-cylinder gas engine exists only to generate electricity for its electric motor, and is not connected to the wheels.

If claims on the order forms are true, the Volt, scheduled to appear in late 2010, as a 2011 model, will have a 40-mile all-electric range, perfect for the average roundtrip of 33 miles. With the gas engine, it has a whopping range of 640 miles. The Volt could be cheaper—price is estimated at $40,000—but a $7,500 federal tax credit will bring that down to $32,500. The Volt is understandably GM’s number one priority.


Family SUV: Ford Escape Hybrid

Only one family-friendly, fuel-efficient, hybrid sports utility vehicle comes courtesy of an American company—the Ford Escape Hybrid, which debuted in 2005 and was updated in 2008. The deal here is that drivers get to combine 30 mpg from a hybrid drive train with the 177 horsepower of a V-6.

The 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine attaches to two electric motors and a fuel-saving, continuously variable transmission (CVT). Regenerative breaking turns energy from the car’s motion into electricity that recharges the battery. Escape prices start around $27,000, but buyers may well consider adding the optional Sync audio system; its voice interface and ability to play any USB-enabled device is unparalleled.


Note: Vehicle prices may vary.

Jim Motavalli is a freelance writer, speaker and author who specializes in environmental news. Connect at www.JimMotavalli.com.

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