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Cleaner, greener cars: from hybrids to electrics to diesels that run on vegetable oil, it's a whole new ballgame.

The verdict is in on hybrid cars: Americans love them. But just suppose, some environmentalists have been asking, you had a bigger battery pack in your hybrid and the ability to plug it into the wall. Wouldn't that give you the ability to drive to work on electric power, with the small gas engine available in reserve for longer trips? This concept started out as an environmentalist's dream, propelled by activists like Felix Kramer of Calcars.org and the utility-backed Plug-In Partners. But now it's headed for the market. And other high-tech green cars are on their way, too.

In 2005, the late Dave Hermance, then Toyota's environmental engineering guru, had this to say about plug-in hybrid vehicles: "At some point it might be feasible, but it isn't there yet." He added, "They say this is the next great thing, but it just isn't ."

What a difference a year makes. In 2006, Toyota was singing a rather different tune. The plug-in hybrid, Hermance said in an interview, "is an appealing technology in terms of energy diversity for transportation. Depending on the grid mix, it may offer reduced lifecycle carbon dioxide (CO2) and reduce fuel consumption at the same time." Others go further. Dr. Andrew Frank, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California, Davis, envisions a plug-in hybrid that can achieve 60 miles of all-electric range using a currently available, 350-pound lithium-ion battery pack that would last 150,000 miles.

A New Day for Clean Cars

Interest in cleaner and greener auto technology is exploding. From fuel cells to plug-in hybrids, the industry is showing more research and development zeal than at any time since the halcyon days of 1900, when gasoline, steam and electric vehicles (EVs) were competing in the marketplace. Companies such as General Motors, ridiculed for stodginess and worse in films like Roger and Me and Who Killed the Electric Car? (see sidebar) are revealing a much leaner side. In fact, GM has made the first plug-in hybrid production commitment in the U.S., using an intriguing new approach. It is developing an entirely new propulsion system, shown at the recent Detroit Auto Show as the Chevrolet Volt.

The new GM car is not a standard parallel hybrid like the Toyota Prius or Honda Civic, or a conventional plug-in hybrid, but the first "series" hybrid. Instead of a gas engine that drives the wheels along with an electric motor, its small gas engine serves only to keep the lithium-ion battery pack charged. GM's Rob Peterson calls this an "onboard range extender," and it means the car could travel 800 miles between gasoline fill-ups. And it was designed to be affordable. "It's the size of the Chevy Cobalt and will be within range of that price," says GM's Rob Peterson. "We can't offer a $100,000 vehicle to only 5,000 people; we need volume."

Toyota may announce that it is building a plug-in hybrid this year, but if it does so it will be following in General Motors' wake. At the Los Angeles Auto Show late last year, GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner announced that the company had "begun work on a Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid vehicle." The plug-in technology that the company had once casually dismissed was now a high priority in its product mix.

"This is the beginning of the automakers fulfilling our dreams," says long-term advocate Kramer. Pointing to the first plug-in hybrid from a manufacturer, the Daimler-Chrysler Sprinter van, he says, "This is very encouraging, and it absolutely means that carmakers are more likely to put a plug-in hybrid into production." If so, they may be assisted by federal dollars. A bipartisan coalition of 17 U.S. Senators and 21 Representatives recently sent a letter to President Bush asking for $90 million in research funding for plug-in hybrids.

With seesawing gasoline prices and uncertainty about the future of oil, Americans are finally focusing on fuel economy and looking beyond big SUVs for their next vehicle. A consumer survey by the influential J.D. Power and Associates last summer found that an amazing 57 percent of respondents would consider buying a hybrid car for their next vehicle, and 49 percent would consider a car powered by E85 ethanol. Another survey, by Frost & Sullivan, found that 80 percent are more concerned about fuel prices than they were a year ago. Almost half say they have already bought or would consider buying a more fuel-efficient gas car or hybrid if fuel prices keep going up. And in the sedentary U.S., it's impressive that one in five say they're also starting to use alternative transportation: biking, walking, public transportation and car pools.

Despite these numbers--and the fact that cars like the Toyota Prius are proliferating on U.S. roads--hybrids still made up slightly more than one percent of the market in 2006. But by 2013, J.D. Power predicts they'll have taken five percent. This year, expect to see a wide range of new hybrids on the market, from the compact Honda Fit Hybrid (with fuel economy in the mid-50s) to the Toyota Sienna seven-seat minivan (approximately 40 mpg). You'll even be able to buy a hybrid version of the Chevy Tahoe (though with only a 25 percent improvement over the SUV's 17 mpg).

After experiencing sticker shock at the pumps, the public is showing interest in a range of cleaner automotive technologies, from hybrids to fuel cells, biodiesel, battery vehicles and plug-in hybrids. Still, consumers remain quite confused about both the potential and the timetable for these technologies, and much of what they think they know is wrong. For instance, it is still commonly believed that hybrid vehicles need to be plugged in. And few are aware that Partial Zero Emission Vehicles (PZEVs) even exist, when they're both affordable and as clean as hybrids in terms of tailpipe exhaust. What's a PZEV, you ask? Read on. Here's a look at some top choices for the environment, and a brief look into the future.

Hybrids

If you buy a hybrid, with both gas and electric motors, you join an exclusive club whose members enjoy tax breaks and entree into the multi-passenger HOV lanes of California highways--even when they're flying solo. A new group, Hybrid Owners of America, launched last August, has a five-point agenda that includes lifting the cap on the current federal tax break; creating a new tax incentive for owners who convert their hybrids to plug-in status ($15,000 kits are available to do that); a tax break for corporations that "incentivize" their employees to buy hybrids; rewards for automakers that undertake hybrid research; and conversion of 30 percent of the federal car and truck fleet to hybrids over the next three years.

Although hybrid sales slowed somewhat at the end of 2006 as gas prices eased and the federal credit was halved (it went, for example, from $3,150 for the top-selling Toyota Prius to $1,575), 2006 still promised to be the best year yet. By the end of November, 190,966 hybrids had been sold, meaning that 550,000 are on U.S. roads. Some 200,000 hybrids were sold in 2005, doubling the 88,000 sold in 2004.

Other hybrids are on the way. Honda is expected to bring out a 50-mpg hybrid version of its subcompact Fit model in mid-2007. Mazda will produce a hybrid version of the Tribute SUV, which should be mechanically similar to the Ford Escape. The first U.S., hybrid minivan will appear from Toyota this year, a seven-passenger Sienna likely to achieve 40 mpg.

In 2008 and beyond, we will see new hybrids from Toyota (a third generation of the Prius, which, while not a plug-in hybrid, is rumored to have a nine-mile all-electric range), Honda (a new model), Ford (the Fusion), Mer-cedes (a hybrid "S" Class), Porsche (the Cayenne SUV) and Hyundai. But for immediate gratification, these are the best cars and trucks onthe market:

Plug-In Hybrids

While plug-in hybrids remain in the prototype stage, conversion kits are on the market (though availability has been spotty). EDrive's system, with pricing to be announced, replaces the Prius' nickel-metal-hydride battery pack with a larger, lithium-ion pack. Hymotion's kits for the Prius ($9,500) and Ford Escape (as yet unpriced, but definitely more expensive) leave the existing batteries in place but add a lithium-ion auxiliary battery. The drawback is that they're currently available only for fleets. The consumer needs to do research before buying one of these kits, with a particular emphasis on how they affect the car's warranty.

Do plug-in hybrid vehicles simply exchange their pollution source from tailpipe to coal-burning smokestack? It depends on the electric power source, according to a new report released by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a nonprofit energy policy group. ACEEE concluded that a plug-in version of the Toyota Prius could reduce CO2 emissions by a third over a conventional Prius hybrid, but only if its batteries were charged with California electricity--generated mainly from relatively clean sources. In the Midwest, dominated by coal-burning power plants, the report says the plug-in Prius would actually generate one percent more carbon dioxide.

The goal of campaigns like CalCars.org and the nonprofit Plug-In Partners (www.pluginpartners.org), which work with utilities, cities and grassroots groups, is to convince carmakers to produce these vehicles on their own. A plug-in hybrid running on ethanol made from sustainably produced switchgrass would be a state-of the-art clean car, trumped only by a battery or hydrogen-powered vehicle.

Diesel

Diesel vehicles are largely anathema to environmentalists and California clean air regulators, but they're quickly dominating the roads of Europe (where green consciousness is almost a given) and they deserve a second look in the U.S., where their numbers can only go up. The good news for diesel partisans is the federally mandated low-sulfur (below 15 parts per million) diesel fuel that went on the market at up to 76,000 American filling stations late last year. It's the cleanest diesel fuel in the world.

One important consideration with diesels is volume: There were nine million diesel vehicles built on the worldwide vehicle market in 2006 (18 percent of the total), but only 300,000 hybrid cars (0.6 percent). By 2010, carmakers will be producing 13 million diesels (and perhaps a million hybrids). If inherently fuel-efficient diesels can reduce our oil dependence without increasing air pollution, Americans need them here. The potential fuel savings with a diesel fleet is 1.4 million barrels of oil a day, about what the U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia.

The Mercedes E320 Bluetec is the first diesel vehicle sold in the U.S. able to take full advantage of low-sulfur fuel. It can has a range of 700 miles, and is particularly successful in capturing the nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulates (with a trap) that are the diesel's Achilles heel.

Rudy Thom, an environmental affairs research director at Mercedes-Benz, says that Bluetec is being rolled out in the U.S. first, because Europe, with 50 percent diesels on the road, still has wildly disparate fuel regulations. The German Bluetec owner who goes skiing in Italy (where sulfur content is higher) could end up bringing his poisoned car back home on a tow rope.

Biodiesel

There are several forms of bio fuel, and the categories can confuse the novice. Biodiesel, in blends with standard diesel of five to 100 percent, has been refined to work without modification in any newer diesel vehicle. With a kit from companies like Greasecar, diesels can burn 100 percent vegetable oil, which can be sourced and filtered from restaurants for a wholly recycled fuel. Biodiesel, which offers both improved emissions and the opportunity to thumb your nose at fossil fuel, is still largely a grassroots enterprise, with enthusiasts banding together in co-ops.

Seventy five million gallons of biodiesel were sold in 2005, but growth of biodiesel, whether made from soybeans or a crop like switchgrass, is limited by our agricultural infrastructure. The National Biodiesel Board, a major booster, nonetheless predicts that under current conditions, biofuels can displace only about 10 percent of current fossil fuel use.

Partial Zero Emission Vehicles

Although they're available on dealer lots in all of the states that embrace the California emission regulations (including Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont, with the likely addition of Washington and Oregon) Partial Zero Emission Vehicles (PZEVs) are largely unknown even to very environmentally aware consumers. There's nothing magical under the hood of a Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV). It's powered by a gasoline engine, and has a traditional tailpipe emerging from its back end.

PZEVs are ultra-clean versions of such common vehicles as the Subaru Legacy, Ford Focus and Nissan Altima. They control exhaust gases with sophisticated engine controls and advanced catalytic converters. Although they don't improve on fuel economy, by some measures the emissions from PZEV tailpipes are cleaner than the ambient air. A PZEV running is cleaner than a standard car shut off, because it emits near-zero evaporative emissions (the gasoline vapors that escape from the fuel system before they reach the engine). All this for at most, a few hundred dollars more than the standard model.

The Future with Batteries and Fuel Cells

If any one technology can replace the internal-combustion engine, it's the fuel cell, which doesn't burn anything but converts hydrogen (stored in a tank as liquid or gas) to electricity and its tailpipe emission: water vapor. Fuel cells were invented in the mid-19th century andprovided electric power on NASA space missions, but they're only now becoming practical for ground transportation.

The Chevrolet Sequel is one of the world's most advanced fuel-cell automobiles, representing many millions of dollars of advanced R&D. The Sequel looks like a fairly sleek crossover SUV, but driving it is like nothing else: EVs (fuel-cell cars are really electric cars) tend to be slow and plodding, but the Sequel peels out, zooming to 60 mph in only 10 seconds. It seats four with all the creature comforts, including air conditioning, radio and trunk space.

The Sequel is the cutting edge: only two exist. But GM is making 100 of its also-all-new Chevy Equinox fuel-cell vehicles available to regular-folk test drivers (in California, Washington, DC and Westchester County, New York) this fall. According to Greg Cesul, the company's fuel cell propulsion system chief, these Equinoxes are closely based on the production SUV, and offer the latter's ABS brakes, airbags (or at least room for them), and federal crashworthiness. Redundant safety systems make it very unlikely that a fuel-cell car will ever catch fire, let alone explode like the Hindenburg.

The Honda FCX fuel-cell vehicle is zero emission, fun to drive, has almost 300 miles of range, and is easily refilled at a hydrogen pumping station. So why aren't we driving them yet? Well, the $1 to $2 million price tag is a bit daunting, as is the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure.

EVs show promise, especially with the advent of high-output, lightweight lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries. There haven't been many on the market lately, but San Carlos, California-based Tesla Motors is trying to change that with a snazzy all-electric battery sports car that can achieve zero to 60 in just four seconds, with a top speed of 130 mph. GM tried the same performance emphasis with its EV-1 battery car, but it was limited to about 90 miles of range. If Tesla has been able to achieve both high performance and long range, it's a considerable breakthrough. If not, well, the 100 buyers who just spent $100,000 to sell out the first run of these cars are out of luck.

Even if a practical, affordable hydrogen vehicle appeared tomorrow, it would be still be many years before the current fleet went into junkyards. But the rapid acceptance of hybrid cars on the U.S. market is encouraging. America's auto fleet is hardly green, but it's getting greener. CONTACT: CalCars, www.calcars.org; EDrive, www.edrivesystems.com; Hymotion, www.hymotion.com; Greasecar, www.greasecar.com; Hybrid Owners of America, (703)276-3265, www.hybridownersofamerica.org; Plug-In Partners, www. pluginpartners.org; Tesla Motors, (650)413-4000, www.teslamotors.com; Green Car Journal, www.greencar.com; Union of Concerned Scientists Hybrid Center, www.hybridcenter.org.

RELATED ARTICLE: Real-time fuel economy.

The New York Times called it "one of the great fictions of American life," akin to the notion that fast food is a healthy and nutritious alternative to homecooked meals. It's window-sticker fuel economy, which is almost always hopelessly optimistic. If the sticker says 30 mpg on the highway, expect 25 when headed down a mountain with a tailwind.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tested cars under ideal conditions: on level ground, with no bumper-to-bumper traffic or running air conditioners or heaters. This unrealistic system had been unchanged since 1984. But it's finally time for a little truth-telling. Last December, the EPA announced a new formula for calculating fuel economy that will reduce the numbers on the stickers eight mpg for city driving and 12 mpg for the highway, with the impact falling most heavily on small cars and hybrids. The changes will begin with 2008 models sold during the 2007 calendar year.

As an example, the vaunted Toyota Prius won't change mechanically at all, but instead of 55 mpg in combined city and highway driving it will now show 44 mpg. Consumer Reports has long advocated this change, and spokesperson Ann Wright, a senior policy analyst, calls it "a very positive step forward. We've recommended a few other things, but they made the most obvious changes to give more realistic numbers. This recognizes the changes in driving conditions over 30 years. For instance, in the 1970s, air conditioning was only on upscale models, there was less congestion and universal 55-mph speed limits."

Wright points out an interesting anomaly. The new calculations will be reflected on window stickers, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will still use the old numbers to calculate automakers' compliance with the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) laws. Getting NHTSA in line might require either congressional action or an administrative order. But obtaining the latter from a fuel economy-phobic President Bush may prove difficult. Former Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, an environmental leader in the House, calls this a "shame" and "unacceptable." CONTACT: Department of Energy fuel economy site, www.fueleconomy.gov. --J.M.

RELATED ARTICLE: Here come the hybrids.

TOYOTA PRIUS: The wheelbase of the second-generation Prius, which appeared in 2004, is stretched six inches, but the car still achieves a combined milesper-gallon rating of 55 (probably 45 mpg in the real world). This is the runaway bestselling hybrid, with sales of more than 97,000 in 2006. The $21,725 Prius accelerates as well as a late-model Toyota Camry, and wins certification as a Super-Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV). It's also an AT-PZEV, which means that, unlike most cars on the road that emit gasoline vapor (and thus global warming gas) when parked, it has zero evaporative emissions. Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicle Program describes the car as "a shining example of the gains possible with advanced technology." Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is vocal about his Prius: "It's a step in the right direction," he says. "I fill it up at the gas pump and it performs like any other car. But I fill it up about once every three weeks." The Prius is the benchmark by which all other hybrids are measured.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

TOYOTA CAMRY HYBRID: Like the Prius, the relatively new Camry hybrid actually runs on its batteries alone at low speeds. Under the hood is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that uses the Atkinson cycle for greater fuel efficiency. Add together the 147 horsepower gasoline engine and the 45-horsepower electric motor and there's 192 horsepower. Faster and bigger than the Prius (though smaller in some interior dimensions), the Camry achieves 43/37 mpg. Like the Prius, the Camry is a relative bargain at $26,480, priced $5,000 less than the Honda Accord Hybrid.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

HONDA CIVIC HYBRID: The $22,150 Civic Hybrid, redesigned with a much more appealing body style in 2006, impresses with its sheer ordinariness. It's not special, or weird, or for purists only. It's just like any other Civic, except it's an AT-PZEV, gets 49 miles per gallon (city) and 51 (highway), and has a range of 600 miles. If there's a sacrifice, it's in the $22,150 purchase price. But even that can be offset with federal income tax credits, as well as state incentives if they apply. To get 115 horsepower out of a 1.3-liter engine requires some wizardry. Under the hood is an Integrated Motor Assist system that uses its 20-horsepower electric motor mainly as a power booster, plus a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Honda hopes to sell 28,000 in 2007.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

HONDA ACCORD HYBRID: Introduced at the end of 2004, the V-6-powered Accord Hybrid was freshened for 2006, with more standard features (including a moonroof and a real spare tire). Fuel economy suffers a bit with the car's additional 85 pounds; it's now 25/34 mpg. The $30,990 Accord Hybrid, with 255 horsepower on tap, has been marketed more as a performance car (with a zero to 60 time of 6.9 seconds) than as an economy champ, but that emphasis hasn't yielded the sales Honda had sought. Sales in 2006 were less than a fifth of the hybrid Civic.

FORD ESCAPE HYBRID: The $26,900 Escape wins kudos as the first hybrid SUV on the market, achieving 36 mpg (city) and 31 mpg (highway) with a system that is similar to that in the Prius. It's not as luxurious as the Lexus RX400h, or able to carry as many people as the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. But it's a good first step from a company that says it wants to be an environmental leader but hasn't been lately. Ford sold more than 15,571 Escape Hybrids in 2005, and in 2006 it averaged 1,500 a month (plus a smaller number of similar Mercury Mariner Hybrids).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

RELATED ARTICLE: The shocking electric car debate.

Did General Motors intentionally sabotage sales of its electric EV-1? That's the contention of Chris Paine's popular 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car?, and the issue is still hotly debated. Just about the only thing the various players agree on is that GM leased only 800 of the sleek two-door cars between 1996 and 2000 before pulling the plug.

Some auto industry voices criticize the film, and they're not all within GM itself. "The movie was terribly one-sided," says Ernest Batien, a Toyota vice president, in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. "It was not balanced at all." The suggestion that GM "chose not to make money on a car people wanted to buy in California" is ridiculous, he said.

Paul Scott of the Santa Monica-based Plug-In America, which advocates for battery vehicles, says that GM ran a terrible promotional campaign, and leased only 800 EV-1s because that's how many were made available. "They had a waiting list of 4,000 or 5,000 names," he says. GM counters that it contacted the people on the list and that most were unwilling to actually sign leases. It's unlikely this dispute will be resolved anytime soon.

Although the film focuses on GM, both Toyota (the RAV-4) and Honda (the EV Plus) offered electric cars at the time, and neither one did well. Toyota leased only 342 vehicles and Honda not many more. Who Killed the Electric Car? glosses over the range problem: None of the EVs had a range of more than 100 miles, and that remains a big obstacle for many consumers. The hybrid option, which adds range to a standard gas car, had no trouble becoming established in the marketplace.

GM spent $300 million developing the EV-1, and it seems unlikely it would deliberately sabotage an investment of that scale. I was reporting on electric cars at the time for my book Forward Drive: The Race to Build "Clean" Cars for the Future, and my impression was that the company had a two-pronged strategy. One arm was sincerely promoting the EV-1 to a largely mystified public, and the other was working with the oil industry to defeat California's clean car rules, which mandated a percentage of battery-powered electric cars (and thus would have been a great help in selling the EV-1). Contradictory? Yes, but that's how it happened.

The mandates were duly modified to include hybrids and other clean cars, and that left EVs without a consumer base. By 2000, the market was drying up and companies like U.S. Electricar and Solectria were in trouble. Today, EVs are on the rebound and Tesla has sold out the initial offering of its performance-oriented $100,000 roadster. Better batteries are likely to spark a resurgence and the controversy over the EV-1 will become ancient history.

For his part, Who Killed director Chris Paine says he's more sanguine about GM now, since the company announced both a production plug-in hybrid car (see main story) and a battery electric with a gas motor used solely to keep those batteries charged. "I'm encouraged by GM's recent announcement," Paine said. "But obviously they've got to commit to it in more than words and Powerpoint." CONTACT: Plug-In America, www.pluginamerica.com.--Jim Motavalli

RELATED ARTICLE: Have Prius, will travel.

Laurie and Larry David are an environmental power couple. Larry stars in the funniest show on television, HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm (co-starring one of the couple's signature Toyota Priuses). Laurie, a former comedy manager and talent coordinator for the David Letterman Show, now helps to produce powerful green films such as An Inconvenient Truth and Too Hot Not to Handle. Laurie talked to us about the little hybrid car that could.

Do you and Larry use Priuses as your everyday cars, and what is your experience with them?

Yes, we both have Priuses. In fact, everyone who works with us has one. The outside of our house looks like the parking lot of a Prius dealership. The car is the best babe and dude magnet you can find. They drive great and you feel giddy every time you get out of one because you know you have reduced your carbon dioxide emissions by half.

How did the Prius end up on Curb?

It ended up on the show because Larry likes to have things that are as familiar as possible to him there. He wears his own clothes, and it was a natural next step that he would drive his real car.

RELATED ARTICLE: Driving clean: fast and furious on alternative fuel.

One of the most common questions about alternative energy vehicles is how they perform. Consumers raised on Car and Driver and Road and Track want to know how fast, say, a fuel-cell car goes from zero to 60.

The reality is that most carmakers try as much as possible to make their experimental vehicles "transparent" to the driver, meaning that they don't want them to feel exotic or unusual. But the technology is very different, and so the behind-the-wheel experience varies quite widely. Here's an overview:

BIODIESEL

Biodiesel. Since there's been a paucity of new diesels offered on the U.S. market, most conversions to biofuels are older Volkswagen and Mercedes cars and trucks. As such, they don't offer the most sophisticated driving experience and lack newer diesel pollution controls. Older diesels are both noisy and slow to accelerate, but after conversion they start smelling like their source material: McDonald's fryer oil. Diesels are poised for a resurgence with the passing of the world's strictest low-sulfur fuel laws, and that should soon allow the conversion of more modern cars.

ELECTRIC VEHICLES

Electric vehicles (EVs). With batteries connected to an electric motor, EVs are the furthest removed from the standard driving experience. Largely silent except for tire noise, the vehicles have some other eccentricities. For instance, unless the carmaker programs in what is known as "creep," they don't inch forward when the driver takes his or her foot off the brake. The regenerative braking experience (charging the batteries when the driver backs off the accelerator) also takes some adjustment time. Electric motors have excellent torque characteristics, however, and so most are reasonably quick off the line.

FUEL CELLS

Fuel cells. Since fuel-cell vehicles are basically electric cars with a miniature chemical factory instead of batteries, they largely replicate that driving experience. But in early fuel-cell prototypes the compressors made disconcerting hissing and popping noises, now largely engineered out of the equation. A recent drive in the fuel-cell General Motors Sequel is both fast and extremely quiet.

HYBRIDS AND PLUG-INS

Hybrids and PlugIns, Today's hybrids offer seamless integration of two drivetrains, controlled by sophisticated computer controls. The transition from electric to gas mode is barely detectable, and the "auto-off" feature (which shuts down the engine at stop lights) is a miracle of modern engineering. No driver today would have trouble with vehicles like the Toyota Prius or Honda Accord Hybrid.

NATURAL GAS

Natural gas. With the ,a, natural gas-powered Honda Civic GX sedan, I discovered that the issue isn't the driving (which is virtually indistinguishable from a standard Civic) but the availability of natural gas. I'm lucky enough to have two pumps near my home, one at a home heating supplier and the other in the town public works garage. Since the GX carries the equivalent of eight gallons of fuel (pressurized at 3,600 pounds), it runs through a tankful in 200 miles. I made it to the fuel depot on fumes, and then was frustrated by the a non-engaging nozzle. On a pressurized system, this is a deal breaker. Luckily, the town connection worked, or I'd have gone home at the end of a tow rope. Natural gas is still not available widely. CONTACT: ACEEE Green Book, www.greenercars.org.--J.M.
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Title Annotation:2007: HERES COME THE ...
Author:Motavalli, Jim
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Article Type:Cover story
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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