Are you thinking about buying a used vehicle that will have a limited negative impact on the planet? You’re not alone! As the climate changes, people have become more concerned about protecting the environment.
Green cars have been gaining in popularity for over a decade. More hybrids, plug in hybrids, electric and diesel powered vehicles are showing up on preowned car lots every day.
However, selecting the right green car can be complicated. There are a wide range of vehicle types available at all price points. Here’s our guide to different types of environmentally friendly cars. Use it to learn the pros and cons of each. It will help you have informed discussions with dealers — and ask smart questions — so you can find the best vehicle for you.
Gas-electric hybrid cars
Gas-electric hybrid cars (often referred to as simply “hybrids”) come with a conventional gasoline motor along with an electric one that’s connected to a battery pack. The purpose of the electric motor is to handle some of the work that would usually be done by the gasoline motor. This results in superior fuel economy, especially when driving in urban areas.
There are two kinds of gas-electric hybrids.
- The more popular type is the conventional hybrid. It uses the electric motor primarily as a supplement to the gas motor. These vehicles aren’t able to drive on electric power alone. Examples of conventional hybrid vehicles include the Toyota Prius, Honda Accord Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid.
- The less common type is the plug-in hybrid. These cars can be driven exclusively on electric power until the battery pack runs out. At that point, the gasoline engine takes over to power the vehicle. Examples of plug-in hybrids include the Chevrolet Volt and the Toyota Prius Prime. The Volt travels just over 50 miles and the Prius Prime about 25 miles before the gasoline engine takes over. This electric power range can be enough for many drivers who mostly use their cars to get to work, take the kids to school or run errands. Beyond that, the gasoline engine is available for longer trips.
Here are our tips for shopping for a hybrid:
- When it comes to these vehicles, buying used is definitely the right way to go. The price differential is high when comparing new hybrids to comparable gas powered models. However, it diminishes as the years go by.
- You need to do a cost analysis when selecting a used hybrid or ask your dealer to provide you with one. Why?
- Newer models may cost more, but they are likely more fuel efficient.
- Older cars are cheaper, but may provide lower mileage.
- You need to figure out whether it makes more sense over the long run to buy a cheaper older car with lower mileage versus buying a more expensive and fuel efficient newer model.
- Check the warranties. The components of most hybrid cars come with long warranties that can usually be transferred to new owners. However, once the warrantees run out, you have no protections available to you. If your battery pack burns out, the cost to replace it could range from $1,000 to $6,000 or more. You owe it to yourself to check warranties and the ratings and reviews — along with the reliability reports — of the models you’re considering.
- The driving performance of hybrids is different from model to model and has typically improved over time. Early Prius models have bad reputations because the engines made strange noises and the brake performance was undependable. Newer ones are much better. Research the performance history of any cars you’re thinking about buying and take a test drive before making a final decision.
Despite all the publicity they have gotten, pure electric cars still make up less than one percent of all the vehicles on the road in the United States. It can be challenging to find used models in many places, especially outside of urban areas.
There are pluses with some electric cars, such as the Chevrolet Bolt and many Tesla models. They are quiet to drive and offer smooth, instant power when started that can make gas powered vehicles seem clunky. Because electric cars have few moving parts, maintenance costs for them could be less than for more traditional models over time.
That’s the good news. Electric cars also come with some big issues. Their limited driving ranges make long road trips difficult or impossible. Even though charging stations are available on many busy highways, it could take a while, at least a half hour or more, to recharge a depleted battery, depending on the battery type and charging system.
If you’re committed to the concept of an electric car, perhaps as a second vehicle for family use, you may be able to find a used model in your budget. However, if you are more concerned about being green, a hybrid vehicle could be a more practical and affordable option.
Cars with diesel engines are often considered green vehicles. Diesel-powered cars are typically more fuel-efficient than their gas-powered counterparts, which is why they’re thought of as environmentally friendly. Diesel is a less refined fuel than gasoline. It’s almost like the oil people use to heat their homes.
Some models, like the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel and BMW 328d can be more fuel-efficient on the highway than popular hybrids. However, they get worse fuel economy when driven on city streets. If you live in the suburbs, purchasing a diesel vehicle could make sense. If you’re a city dweller, it probably doesn’t.
After Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal a few years ago, when the automaker was found to be cheating to make their vehicle emissions seem cleaner than they were, many buyers still question whether diesel cars are really clean and green. After the crack down on Volkswagen, diesel cars have been under high scrutiny and buyers can rest assured they’re purchasing a car that meets the U.S. government’s strict emission standards.
Diesel cars are also known for their superior drivability, which makes them a nice way to go green without compromising on your ride. However, the quality often comes with a price, even for used cars. You may need to shop around a bit to find a used diesel model you can afford that’s also a good fit for your lifestyle. Some luxury diesel cars include the BMW 328d and 528d and the Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTEC. There are also luxury diesel SUVs like the Range Rover, Jaguar F-Pace and BMW X5. The Chevy Cruze Diesel is a more affordable option and there are still some used Volkswagens available even though their diesels have been withdrawn from the U.S. new car market. Diesel autos tend to last longer than most other types of vehicles, so some of the extra cost could pay off in greater longevity.
One other small consideration: Diesel pumps aren’t as common as gas pumps at service stations. Before buying a diesel powered car, make sure it will be easy for you to find fuel in your area.
Hydrogen powered cars: An option for the future
There is one other green car possibility most people aren’t aware of: Hydrogen powered vehicles. Only a few models are currently on the market including the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity. Most can be found in Southern California. They might turn out to be the perfect green vehicle because they can be quickly refueled, much like a gasoline car, and they don’t pollute, like an electric vehicle. However, there isn’t much in the way of infrastructure support for them, including fuel availability and repairs, and they’re quite expensive. But they could be an option in the future.
The bottom line.
When shopping for an environmentally friendly car, think about what’s important to you, along with your driving habits and needs. If you have a long commute to work, a pure electric car probably isn’t right for you. If you do a lot of highway driving, a diesel-powered auto could be great. Hybrids are a “middle” option for people who want to go green and have a range of driving needs. Consult with a trusted dealer to find the perfect vehicle for you. It’s the only way you’ll be happy about your decision to go green.