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Eco-Friendly Automobile Options Expand

Consumers have various viable options for eco-friendly cars - if they can get their hands on them.

With gas prices approaching $4.00 per gallon this week and projected to hit $5.00 a gallon before the end of May, the incentive to look at alternative vehicle purchases has never been greater.

Although there are drivers who still prefer the petroleum-based internal combustion engines, more and more consumers are beginning to realize that there are benefits to owning an eco-friendly vehicle.

The number of manufacturers, technologies and styles has diversified to the point where there is an eco-friendly vehicle that can satisfy anyone green goals or tastes.

“For me it’s a patriotic act to use less gas because we are purchasing gas from areas of the world that are out to undermine our national security,” said Laura Mandell of Warren who owns a Ford Fusion hybrid. Mandell, who is on the township’s Green Team, says that she gets up to 50 miles per gallon and is impressed with her hybrid’s overall performance.

“It’s smart the way the gauge is set up — it actually changes your driving patters,” she said.” Every time you turn off the car, it tells you how much gas you used, how far you went and what your miles per gallon used.”

The Fusion’s hybrid system is comprised of an electric motor and rechargeable batteries which powers a conventional gas engine, increasing efficiency by as much as 50 percent.

But today consumers also have the option of purchasing an exclusively battery powered vehicle or a plug-in hybrid as well. Battery powered vehicles run exclusively off a battery source.

Perhaps the most popular battery powered cars are the Cooper Mini (BMW) and the Tesla roadster.

Michael Thwaite, a self-proclaimed electric vehicle advocate, who along with his wife Pamela, own both cars, said consumers often require some handholding to see the benefits of green vehicles.

“When you have conversation with somebody, everything goes well at first — you talk about smoothness, quietness, no maintenance and how cheap it is to run, you talk about price and they say its too expensive and then you get to the 100 mile conversation and people think they can’t do it.”

The best solution for leading consumers to eco-friendly vehicles on masse is perhaps plug-in hybrids, which use larger battery packs that can be recharged by connecting to common household electricity. Plug-in hybrids can be driven for long distances—from a few miles to as much as 40 miles—without using gasoline. In electric mode the car essentially becomes an electric vehicle with a gas-tank backup.

By far the most popular plug-in hybrid is the Chevy Volt, for which there are long wait lists to own.

“If I  could have afforded it I would have gone with the Chevy Volt (plug-in hybrid),” Mandell said.

The sticker price of the Volt is $41,000, but with a government tax credit of $7,500, the cost lowers to roughly $33,500. The catch is that the tax credit cannot be redeemed until tax time. Chevrolet, which will manufacture 45,000 Volts in 2011, promotes a total driving range of up to 379 miles — 35 miles on a full electric charge and an additional 344 miles on its gas-powered engine/generator. Because of its energy source duality, it has become a vehicle that allows consumers to overcome fears of distance limitations with electric cars.

On Thursday, Autotrader.com said that 62 percent of car shoppers surveyed via their Web site in March and April will consider a more fuel-efficient car than the one they currently own. Sales for Toyota’s signature hybrid, the Prius, soared 70 percent in Feb. 2011 more than sales a year ago, when gas cost $2.70 a gallon. Likewise, Honda Civic Hybrids jumped by 53.8 percent.

“When customers come in looking for a hybrid vehicle, they typically buy one,” said Ezzat Megaly, sales manager at Toyota Crystal Auto Mall in Green Brook. “It’s approximately 15-20 percent ask for a hybrid such as a Prius.”

Conversely, Megaly said that if a customer comes in asking for a gas-powered car, he does not encourage a hybrid choice. “I don’t want to do that,” he said, “because I don’t have hybrids to sell.”

On a worldwide basis, Toyota Prius topped 2 million sales in October 2010, while combined sales of all Toyota hybrids passed three million units last month. This year, Toyota had expected to sell 172,000 vehicles, but that may have changed.

Because of the nuclear radiation problems in Japan, Megaly said supply of hybrids are highly constrained. He does not expect more until the end of summer.

Still, Megaly said its always the price of gas that leads consumers to the eco-friendly automobile table. From there other savings, and the Earth-friendly component, become apparent.

Compared to the average sedan gas car, Toyota’s estimates say that the Prius has saved nearly 900 million gallons of gas, $2.19 billion in fuel costs, and 12.4 million tons of CO2 emissions.

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