The Green Rev-olution: 2011 car-buying guide

It's all over now, Baby Blue.
It was a very sad day for me when I realized that my 2004 Mini Cooper S was quickly nearing 100,000 miles; and that, in addition to its increasingly frequent need for expensive repairs, it would very soon be losing most of its resale or trade-in value.

And so it was with a heavy heart that I began the painful, arduous, frustrating process of figuring out what my next vehicle would be. Should I explore pick-up trucks for their usefulness around Better Farm? Was another Mini Cooper in the cards? Which vehicles were leading the pack for fuel efficiency? Emissions? Reliability?

To begin, I researched. And researched. And researched. And here's what I found:
From CNN, Top 10 Green Cars 2011
10. 2012 Ford Focus
Gas mileage: 31 mpg (28 city/38 highway)
The 2012 Ford Focus makes it on the list because of its impressive fuel economy, excellent handling and well-outfitted interior, European styling and the availability of features like Ford’s Sync entertainment and communications system. There is also an option to equip the Focus with Ford’s auto-park feature, says KBB.com.
9. 2012 Fiat 500
Gas mileage: 33 mpg (30 city/38 highway)
Returning to the US market after a 27-year hiatus, Fiat vehicles are expected by KBB.com to offer a much better driving experience. The editors point out that the car is smaller and less powerful than a Mini Cooper but offers more personality than a Toyota Yaris. “The Fiat 500 offers a new combination of European heritage and sub-compact practicality,” they say.

8. 2011 Hyundai Elantra
Gas mileage: 33 mpg (29 city, 40 highway)
“There are now a few non-hybrid compact cars that deliver highway fuel economy of at least 40 miles per gallon, but the 2011 Hyundai Elantra is the only one that does so in every trim,” says KBB.com. “In addition to the impressive efficiency, we’re fans of the all-new Elantra’s bold sheet metal, stylish interior and attractive list of standard and optional features."

7. 2011 Volkswagen Golf TDI
Gas mileage: 34 mpg (30 city/42 highway)
KBB.com editors have been long-time fans of the VW Golf for its “European driving feel, hatchback utility and interior quality that outclasses anything else in its class.” They say that with the automaker’s 2.0-liter , turbo-diesel engine, it retains great acceleration but also offers an estimated 42 highway miles per gallon.

6. 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid
Gas mileage: 39 mpg (41 city/36 highway)
The Ford Fusion makes the list because of its EPA-estimated fuel economy of 39 mpg. “In addition to its outstanding fuel economy, we also like that it delivers the driving dynamics and comfort that make the conventional Fusion so endearing, including SYNC and navigation, with the addition of a really cool LCD gauge cluster,” says KBB.com.

5. 2011 Honda Insight
Gas mileage: 41 mpg (40 city/43 highway)
Calling it “the most affordable hybrid on the market,” KBB.com notes the Honda Insight costs some $1,000 less than last year’s model, with a maximum price of $24,000 with additional features. “Above all else,” say the editors , “the Insight’s 41-mpg combined fuel economy rating qualifies it is as the third most fuel-efficient hybrid on the road.”

4. 2011 Lexus CT 200h
Gas mileage: 42 mpg (43 city, 40 highway)
KBB.com describes the 2011 Lexus CT 200h as a “sporty, little premium hatchback.”
“It’s only as quick as a Toyota Prius, but it’s otherwise responsive and athletic. Put it in Sport mode and you may just forget you’re driving a hybrid as you navigate twisting back roads in the newest and most affordable Lexus,” says KBB.com.

3. 2011 Toyota Prius
Gas mileage: 50 mpg (51 city, 48 highway)
Described by KBB.com as “The original hybrid for the masses,” the Toyota Prius is still the segment’s “heavyweight” when it comes to miles per gallon. “Whereas some efficiency-focused cars require an adjustment in driving habits to wring the most out of the vehicle’s fuel-saving technologies, the Prius allows you to drive as you normally would and still see mpg returns that you can brag about during your semi-regular visits to the gas station,” they say.

2. 2011 Chevy Volt
Gas mileage: 93 mpg equivalent
According to the specs for the car, the first 35 miles of a drive is powered by an electric motor. After the electric reserves are exhausted, the car’s gas engine extends the range for 379 miles. “Some argue the all-electric Nissan Leaf is greener,” KBB.com points out, “Volt fans point to their car’s superior range. We can recommend both, depending on the needs and desires of the buyer. As a bonus, the Volt looks like a tasteful vision of the future – inside and out – and is one of the most fun electrically driven cars we’ve driven so far.”

1. 2011 Nissan Leaf
Gas mileage: 99 mpg equivalent
“With a groundbreaking combination of range, room and price, the Nissan Leaf is the first all-electric car for the masses,” says KBB.com. “The EPA says the Leaf will deliver 73 miles per charge and the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon. But that’s not the only thing green about the Leaf: recycled materials made from home appliances, old car parts and plastic bottles are used extensively throughout the vehicle.” KBB adds, however, that "the limited range disqualifies the Leaf as an option for some drivers, but for those who can swing it, the Nissan Leaf is the real deal."

I was surprised to learn that the Mini Cooper wasn't so much as ranking with these new car models. I continued my search and narrowed it by price range, size, and, practicality for my day-to-day life. 
With two dogs and frequently varied styles of transport needs, I knew I wanted a hatchback with back seats that could be folded down flat. I also knew I wanted something sporty with stick shift (six speeds if possible) and a two-door model. And, let's get serious, I am in no position to be checking out Lexuses. I did make a few phone calls in to the Mini dealership back in New Jersey where I got my last car, but their disinterest and unwillingness to so much as call me back in a timely manner turned me totally off. So I kept looking into top ratings for "green" vehicles in 2011, and found a bulletin from Mother Earth News with the following:
This year’s list highlights the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius, Ford Fiesta, Honda CR-Z and Volkswagen Jetta TDI as the best green cars in the 2011 model year.
I did some test driving and number-crunching (with a lot of help), and finally found my new car:
Volkswagen Golf TDI Diesel

Ranked by US News as 8 out of 33 Affordable Small Cars, the new Volkswagen Golf (available as a 6-speed manual, hallelujah!) promises up to 50 mpg on the highway. Reviewers applaud the diesel option for its great fuel economy and torquey engine that make it a great city cruiser. But while on the Volkswagen website it says average city-driving speeds are in the 30mpg-range, I had a much different experience:
Not too shabby, eh? It takes a little getting used to to not be driving a glorified go kart around anymore (or hugging those turns on Cottage Hill Road the way I loved to—though the VW does zip around), and all the space is more than I'm accustomed to. But so far I've got to admit that the Volkswagen is quickly winning this little heart over. Happy motoring...


Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.