2010 Honda Insight – Click above for high-res gallery

Car sales have totally tanked. So what good is a post on buying the right green car? Well, the reality is that most people in the U.S. still need a car to get around and, with the possibility of a "cash for clunkers" deal moving through Congress, why not start to think about getting a new car? A lot of people are at least wishing they could replace their current wheels with something newer and more efficient. We're constantly asked by people what kind of car they should buy next. Considering that our Greenings series is all about easing green car newbies into the glut of technology and information we have here on AutoblogGreen, it seemed like a good idea to pick apart some of the reasons for and against green vehicle options that are headed to dealer lots today (or, at the latest, in the first half of 2009).

Follow us past the jump to read about the reasons to buy - or not buy - these types of vehicles:
  • a used car
  • a hybrid
  • a diesel
  • a flex fuel vehicle



Should you buy for the worst case scenario?

A lot of people buy the biggest car they think they'll ever need. Even if the car will mostly be used to ferry one person to work and back, there is comfort in knowing you can fit four friends if you need to. But think about the car you're currently driving. How often do you drive alone? How often is it full? Do you feel like you're paying too much for gas each month? Is parking a hassle? Is it too small? What kind of car would work best for you? Answering these questions before looking through the classifieds or going to visit the dealer is the first step in making the right purchase.

Used Cars

Considering the state of the economy, looking into getting a new used car is a good place to start. Even though gas prices are down from where they were last summer, if you plan on owning your car for at least five years, ignore the prices at the pump today when you calculate how much you'll spend on gas each year. Fuel prices will almost certainly climb again before you get rid of the car, so it makes sense to buy the highest-mpg vehicle that suits your needs and you can afford. Some automakers, like Toyota, offer a certified used hybrid program which might make finding the right used car an easy task.

This is also a good time to bring up gallons per mile and miles per gallon. MPG is a number we're all aware of and tells us how many miles our cars can go on a gallon of gasoline. But, if you're currently driving a gas guzzler and feel bad about not being able to move up to a 50-mpg Prius, using GPM math can make your shift to a more efficient SUV seem like a green victory. For more on GPM and MPG, read this.


2010 Mercury Milan Hybrid – Click above for high-res gallery

Hybrids

Hybrids are the obvious choice for a green vehicle. Everyone knows that they're the cars that love the environment, right? Well, they certainly use less fuel, but they're also expensive. The truth is that not many people are opting for hybrids these days. The good news for buyers is that used hybrid prices are down 23.5%. If the economy were in decent shape, 2009 would be a great year to buy a new hybrid. New versions of the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius will be available soon, along with larger sedans like the Mercury Milan and Ford Fusion Hybrids.

A hybrid vehicle makes the most sense for someone who does a lot of city driving. The way that hybrid technology works, much of the fuel efficiency comes from capturing energy that is usually lost during braking. If you're driving on the highway all the time, then you're not braking very much and the battery doesn't get charged from the regenerative brakes (if your hybrid has them) at all. Knowing what type of driving you do most often can go a long way toward figuring out what car is right for you.


Volkswagen Jetta TDI – Click above for high-res gallery

Diesels

Are you a highway driver? Then diesel might be the right choice for you. While diesels, like hybrids, do cost more than standard gasoline vehicles, diesel engines can squeeze more miles out of a gallon of fuel than gas engines. Diesel technology has been around for ages and is very reliable. If all you know about diesels are images of cars from the '70s belching smoke, it's time to learn how much progress has been made in three decades. Modern diesel vehicles, which are available but not prevalent in the U.S., are clean and quiet. The best words to describe them would be smooth and powerful. They also tend to last a long time and have the side benefit that they can burn biodiesel. The new Volkswagen Jetta TDI has won many awards and is the dark horse candidate in the campaign for green dollars. Audi, VW and Mercedes all make diesel vehicles available for sale in the U.S. and are worth taking a look at.

Flex-Fuel Vehicles

Want to burn a biofuel but prefer to buy American? U.S. automakers are the strongest supporters of flex-fuel engines. These powerplants – available in many SUVs, trucks and sedans – can use ethanol that is blended with gasoline in concentrations up to 85% ethanol. While most E85, as that ethanol/gas blend is known, is made from corn, cellulosic etahnol is coming... at some point. The ethanol market took a huge hit in 2008, but the Obama administration includes strong corn ethanol supporters. Again, if you're going to keep your new vehicle for a while, knowing what might be available to fill the tank within one to three years is a good thing to keep in mind.

The real benefit to drivers who want to "go green" but don't have the money for a hybrid or diesel vehicle is that flex-fuel vehicles don't cost very much more than a gasoline-only ride. In fact, automakers have already sold about five million flex-fuel vehicles. Of course, having a car that is capable of using E85 doesn't mean much. You need to fill the tank with biofuel if you want to reduce your gasoline consumption. In 2006, the last year for which data is available, the U.S. government found that only about 300,000 of those millions of E85-capable vehicles were actually using E85. So, make an educated decision. Before you choose to buy a flex-fuel vehicle, look at this map to see if E85 is available near you and do a reality check about how often you'll make it to that station to fill up.

Other Options

If your current car still runs well and gets decent mileage, there is a strong case to be made for waiting until 2010 to get a new vehicle. A lot of exciting (albeit expensive) alternative vehicles should hit dealerships next year. Until then, perhaps carsharing through a service like Zipcar is an option. If you are car-free right now, keep it up. Each month that you're not paying for parking, insurance and fuel is money in the bank. When you want to take that road trip or move stuff across town, borrow or rent a car that suits your needs. Then, when it comes time to buy a car, you could have all the money saved you need.


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