Editorial: Green cars for the middle-class: A market segment left wanting?

I have been having an ongoing email conversation with a man who lives in California about the state of the green automotive choices for someone who fits into the middle-class kind of vehicle, but who wants a sense of style in their car and some driving pleasure. Past vehicles owned by this potential buyer include a hand-me-down Volvo 850 and a Mazda Miata. He is in the market for a new car, and as a reader of AutoblogGreen, would like something environmentally friendly, and possibly a bit "up-market" in appearance. He would also prefer a hatchback for practicality. His claim is that there are no stylish, mid-priced vehicles that fit his needs on American roads today. Is he right? The only logical thing to do is to look at each option, weigh the pros and cons of each and make the best decision possible. Maybe our readership can help pick out a non-economy car that offers style, driving pleasure and is reasonably green.

Please, continue after the break, and help out a fellow reader make a wise decision.

The Toyota Prius, Camry hybrid and Accord hybrid can certainly be considered middle-class types of cars, and they have an enviable record for reliability. They also can be considered cars marketed in some way to the "green-set". But, lets take a minute to consider each one of these choices independently to see what they offer an enthusiast.

The Prius has, shall we say, love it or hate it styling. Also, it is certainly not an enthusiasts choice, unless you are enthused by trying to eke out the best possible mileage from your vehicle. So, it might not be the best choice for someone who enjoys a sporting ride, especially if you don't care for its look.

Onto the Camry, then. Again, middle-class is right where the Camry shines, right? Sure, as in the middle-class family-mobile, right? But, how many enthusiasts want to be seen in a Toyota Camry, the best-selling (same as everybody else) car in the United States?

So, the Accord is a better enthusiast car than the Camry, without a doubt. However, the hybrid version is more about performance than economy, and it carries a significant price. Additionally, many complaints have been heard regarding the usability of the powertrain in stop and go type driving, which is common in California. And, again, they are pretty commonplace on American roads.

What about the Aura hybrid? I think that it is a pretty good option to consider, to be honest. Our purchaser, however, is not so sure about the reliability of vehicles coming from General Motors. Even with the higher numbers coming from consumer ratings magazines, their past could still be haunting them here.

That takes care of the obvious hybrid choices, so what else is there? VW is not selling their turbo diesels quite yet in the Rabbit, and the engine choices in that car currently are the 2.0 turbo, which is not a particularly green choice at 24 mpg combined under the new 2008 EPA testing procedures and requires premium gasoline, or the standard 2.5 liter which only returns 22 mpg under the new 2008 EPA testing procedures. Not great... Audi offers their A3, but at a higher cost and with the same 2.0 turbo engine as VW.

Our buyer does not like the looks of the Versa, and adds that the price goes up quickly when appearance options are chosen to make it appear more upmarket. He also hates the center guage cluster in Scions current offerings and may need to purchase his vehicle before the next-generation Scions, like the new XD and the totally revised XB hit the market.

The Mazda lineup offers the Mazda 3 and Mazda 5, neither of which can hit 30 miles to the gallon. The Miata is great, but seats only two, and not much else.

That leaves the Honda Fit, Civic and Civic hybrid, the Mini Cooper, various Suzukis, Kias and Hyundais, the Toyota Matrix and the Volvo C30. The buyer thinks the Fit is too small and feels cheap, and thinks that his only real choice might be a Civic or to move downmarket to Suzuki, Kia or Hyundai and lose out on style points. The Matrix is getting kinda old these days. What about a used VW turbo diesel, like the last generation Golf?

Any takers on this connundrum? Are there really no good choices for a mid-priced, stylish and green choice in America? Our buyer wishes for more of the choices that are available in Europe, especially the diesel version of the C30. One reason why he is hesitant on the Volvo is that the only engine choice in America is the least-efficient, highest performing option in Europe. Is that right, or should we get the other options available to us too?

P.S. My choice is the C30 with the stick-shift or the new Mini.

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