It's War: Diesels, Hybrids, And Electrics Battle For Road Supremacy

volkswagen diesel

Everyone seems to agree that the days of the internal combustion engine is coming to an end.

Abundant, cheap oil is no sure thing, and other technology forms are starting to catch up.

But which one will make it? All that various competing ideas (diesel, hybrids, plug-in, hydrogen, etc.) have their pros in cons.

Figure it out here →

Liquified Natural Gas

Also crowned by the EPA as 'the world's cleanest internal-combustion vehicle.' Cars that run on compressed natural gas, a.k.a. methane are not mass produced in the United States. But bigger hulks such as buses, garbage trucks etc., often run on natural gas. The Honda Civic GX is the only factory-produced NGV in the US.

Environmental benefit: the tail pipe emission is often cleaner than ambient air. It releases the most energy per unit of carbon consumed of any fossil fuel, and produces less carbon dioxide per unit of energy. The majority of the fuel is produced domestically, and the remaining is imported from politically stable countries. It has an EPA green score of 9.5 out of 10.

Size: there are only about 130,000 NGVs in the U.S., a small number compared to the roughly 9 million gasoline cars.

Fuel efficiency: about 28 mpg.

Cost: it costs $24,590 (more than the gas counterpart) but federal tax credits provide a $7,000 discount.

At the pump: fueling up can be cheap at as little as $1.25 to $1.50 per gallon. It can cost about $777 per year. But there are only 1,300 refueling stations, and some of them are restricted to fleets. You can refuel at home (using a similar system as for your cooking stove) but this can take hours.

Feasability of becoming mass market: NGVs are sold only in New York and California currently, but virtually any vehicle can be converted to run on it. And the infrastructure and fuel supply exists to accomodate many more, so there is no reason why these vehicles shouldn't become more popular. The vehicles are already big in countries such as Argentina, India, Pakistan, Brazil and Italy.


Hydrogen cars were hot in 2003 for about a month before languishing with other alt-fuel concepts such as the hovercraft. But Fortune reports that they may be seeing a resurgence.

Environmental benefit: the only exhaust is water, so there are no greenhouse gas emissions. But the process of making hydrogen uses electricity. The gas is often extracted from natural gas.

Size: Honda is hydrogen's biggest proponent and it hopes to have about 200 vehicles available by 2010. The market share is minuscule.

Fuel efficiency: hydrogen gives about two to three times better mileage than gasoline.

Cost: about $100,000 and higher, but they are very highly subsidized.

At the pump: the cost of storing and distributing hydrogen is high, and creating an infrastructure for distribution will take many years and billions of dollars. There are now 64 hydrogen stations.

Feasability of becoming mass market: low, because it is just too expensive. Companies do say that they'll be cheaper if mass produced.


Diesel is the jinxed fuel, always poised at becoming the next big thing but never quite making it. The newest generation can hit 60 in 8.8 seconds or sooner, returning at the same time incredible fuel efficency. The Jetta, which the EPA's Green Guide recommends as a good diesel option, produces 140 horsepower and has 235-pound feet of torque.

Environmental benefit: the cars have evolved since their earlier days as nitrous-oxide spewing, sulfur-smelling dinosaurs. New vehicles that run on ultra-low sulfur diesel comply with Clifornia's stringent emissions standards. Special filters convert toxic exhaust into less harmful carbon, water and nitrogen. The EPA gives it a greenhouse gas score of 8 out of 10, but their particulate emissions score is still pretty low. Their high fuel efficiency is what sets them apart.

Size: hold 2.6% of the market share, and are expected to grow to 8.0%, according to auto analysists J.D. Powers and Associates.

Fuel efficiency: can get as much as 74.3 miles per gallon in Europe where the cars are smaller and the gallon sizes differ. In the United States, the numbers are still impressive at about 40 mpg for highway driving.

Cost: more expensive than gasoline engines. Higher emissions standards have resulted in more expensive technology. They cost upwards of $20,000. But with amazing fuel efficiency, you'll be laughing on the way to the bank after a few months of savings.

At the pump: in the U.S., the cost of diesel fluctuates wildly, so diesel can be more expensive than gasoline at the pump. Biodiesel will be even more expensive. Also, only about 40% of pumps in the country supply diesel. You can expect to pay $1169 for diesel per year for a Jetta.

Feasability of becoming mass market: German automakers have increased their diesel offerings, hoping that higher gas prices and the emphasis on green will attract consumers. The technology is already here.


Ethanol is unproven and expensive, but there are many options on the market. The Lotus Exige 265E (E for ethanol) is the fastest ethanol around, achieving 158 miles per hour in 3.8 seconds. For the rest of us, flex-fuel vehicles that run on gas and ethanol may be a better alternative.

Environmental benefit: the cars run on a type of alcohol made from crops, so they don't exhaust precious fossil fuel resources. But ethanol produces 34% less energy per unit volume compared to gasolinne, so their fuel economy is not as great. The E85 blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline is higher octane and burns cleaner.

Size: currently ethanols (E85) hold 5.8% of the market share, and are expected to grow to 9.4% by 2015, according to auto analysts J.D. Powers & Associates.

Fuel efficiency: A Green Vehicle Guide search for ethanol vehicles offers up the Chevrolet Impala. The E85 version offers a combined fuel economy of 17 miles per gallon. The gasoline, in comparison, offers 23 mpg. This was not bad until the price of ethanol peaked.

Cost: it costs about the same as gasoline cars.

At the pump: lower fuel efficiency means you'll be spending more time filling up at the pump. It can cost $1941 per year for the Impala, while filling it up with gas will cost $1728.

Feasability of becoming mass market: ethanol cars are very popular in Brazil and Sweden. In the U.S., there are more than 5 million vehicles, but whether it will catch on completely is to be seen.


Hybrids have a gas-fuelled internal combustion engine and an electric motor that allow them to deliver greater fuel economy and lower emissions. The Prius is the most fuel-efficient gas car currently sold in the US. With a 98 horsepower engine and 105 pound-feet of torque, the two power sources combine to give it a maximum oomph at about 107 mph.

Environmental benefit: the hybrid uses its batteries during stop-and-go city driving, and the braking serves to recharge the batteries. The EPA gives it a perfect greenhouse gas score of 10.

Size: they hold 2.8% of the market currently, and are expected to grow to 8.7% by 2015.

Fuel efficiency: the newest generation has a combined fuel efficiency of 50 mpg. rumours are that a newer generation will have 100 mpg efficiency, directly threatening the coming electric revolution.

Cost: $22,000 and above for a new vehicle.

At the pump: the cars have the same range as gas cars. It can go about 50 to 60 miles on its batteries before recharging. Fuel can cost about $864 per year.

Feasability of becoming mass market: the cars are already here and peaking gas prices may make them more popular.


Street racers traditionally came in the gasoline variety. Capable of going to 60 in about 2 seconds, and hitting high speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, gas vehicles appeal to speed junkies.

Environmental benefit: about none. An average car consumes 1.4 gallons of gas every day and emits 35.7 pounds of carbon dioxide. Cars and light trucks contribute 300 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year.

A brief search on the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide pointed to the 2009 Acura TSX as a good green option with a greenhouse gas score of 7 out of 10.

Size: hold 88.7% of the market share, and are expected to decline to 73.6%, according to auto analysts J.D. Powers and Associates.

Fuel efficiency: about 25 miles per gallon.

Cost: varies.

At the pump: $1590 for gas per year for the Acura.

Feasability of becoming mass market: it already owns the roads, and will continue to do so for many years.

Plug-in Electric Vehicles

'High performance electric vehicles. Available now,' advertises Tesla. Its Roadster is slick, achieving 60 in 3.7 seconds, and runnng 244 miles in between charging. And it costs a mini-fortune at $109,000.

A cheaper option--Chevrolet Volt--will be here in November. The vehicles are plug-in hybrid electrics that combine an internal combustion engine with an electric motor.

Environmental benefit: plug-ins use electric motors for propulsion. The Volt runs for the first 40 miles on its batteries, which is enough for the morning commute for 75% of Americans. After that, gasoline is used to supply electricity to a generator, giving the Volt a range of 300 miles.

Size: there are very few cars on the road currently. Automotive analysts J.D. Powers & Associates project that they will form 0.3% of the market share in 2015.

Fuel efficiency: if tested using the EPA's current fuel efficiency standards for hybrids, the Volt comes to 48 mpg. But GM thinks the Volt should be tested using different standards that would give it a whopping 100 mpg rating.

Cost: the Volt is expected to retail for about $40,000

Feasability of becoming mass market: Electrics are many years off still. They draw their electricity from the nation's grid, which needs to be upgraded to accomodate demand from cars. Plus, they're really expensive and the battery technology still needs tons of work.

Light Trucks And SUVs

The Hummer has gone Chinese and SUV sales have declined since the price of oil peaked in the mid-2000's. A Green Vehicle search for a SUV returns the 2009 BMW X3 , but even that has a green score of just 5 out of 10. It is quick with a 260 horsepower, and goes to 60 in 8.6 seconds.

Environmental benefit: none at all, unless you are driving one into deep, impenetrable forest to save the planet from destruction.

Size: sales are declining rapidly, with a 42.5% decrease between 2008 and 2009.

Fuel efficiency: about 15 to 20 miles per gallon.

Cost: varies from $26,000 upwards. A loaded X3 can hit $50,000.

At the pump: $1988 for gasoline per year for the BMW X3.

Feasability of becoming mass market: unlikely, given it's steady decline.

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