So, How Do Alternative Fuel Cars Really Drive? Part 1

How do alternative fuel cars drive?

Alternative fuel cars are great - they save you loads on gas, they do a pretty decent thing for Planet Earth, some get you into the carpool lane on your solo commute, and they're even starting to look pretty darn stylish. But how do they drive? Dear readers, we are about to tell you which alternative fuel cars we think are the future and which ones we could hardly tolerate during our brief time together. Just to be clear, we drove these cars like we normally would drive a car and abstained from cruel or unusual tests, unless you count the insane freeways of Southern California as cruel and unusual. And in some of these vehicles, doing just that was torment enough... but we'll talk about the Nissan Leaf in Part 2 (ba-dum-bah!).

Brains and Beauty - Fun To Drive Alternative Fuel Cars

We have got a lot of automotive ground to cover and a bunch of different ways to refuel each of these vehicles. So pay attention, you don’t want to fill your diesel tank with hydrogen (FYI, that was a joke and is actually impossible). In Part 1 we look into diesel powered cars and hybrids (which use a mix of traditional gasoline and electricity to motor). The following models are all currently available now at least somewhere in the U.S. Sadly, we don't talk about our fun time behind the wheel of the Fisker Karma because they just don't make 'em anymore, and Tesla hasn’t returned our calls (yet).

Diesels

(Ed: We did not include Super Duty Diesel pick-ups as those are mainly purchased for superior towing and hauling potential. Their fuel economy is generally not that much better than gas powered counterparts, mainly because these trucks see very hard use.)

Alternative Fuel Vehicles - Passat TDI

Image: James Hamel

2014 VW Jetta/Passat TDI Clean Diesels: Both of these excellent alternative fuel family sedans from German maker VW come with a 2.0 liter 140 horsepower/236 lb. feet of torque 4-cylinder turbodiesel TDI engine that can be mated to either a double-clutch automatic transmission or a six-speed manual gearbox. These cars aren't just frugal (most owners boast that 50 miles per gallon is easy to achieve on the highway, despite EPA ratings that rarely give diesels their long distance due), but also are very fun to drive thanks to lot of torque and power low in the surprisingly smooth motor’s rev range. A great pair of affordable choices. You  might also check out the new Chevy Cruze Diesel, which we have not yet tried (hey there, Chevy!).

Alternative Fuel Vehicles - Audi Q7 TDI

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2014 Audi Q7 TDI/ 2014 Volkswagen Touareg TDI: It’s odd to us that since both Volkswagen and Audi are part of the same automotive conglomerate that their pricing levels would be so similar. The main thing that separates the two is the fact that the VW SUV seats five and the Q7 (due for redesign next year) boasts seven seats between three decently roomy rows. Both use 3.0 liter 240 horsepower/420 lb. feet of torque V6 turbo-diesel motors and have base prices around $50,000 but that can escalate to nearly $60,000 after options. For that money, we would get the Audi.

Alternative Fuel Cars - VW Golf TDI

Image: Volkswagen

2015 Volkswagen Golf TDI Clean Diesel: Though we could only get our paws on a short ten minute drive in the upcoming 2015 VW Golf TDI hatchback, compared to the 2014 model the motor is set to be 22% more fuel efficient, far smoother and more refined, all while delivering a burst of power, that we wondered if perhaps we had gotten into the upcoming GTI by mistake. Lastly, the latest TDI’s manual gearbox may be the sweetest ever built by Volkswagen and would be our choice to own.

Alternative Fuel Cars - Beetle TDI

Image: Volkswagen

2014 Volkswagen Beetle TDI Convertible: Yes, the Beetle comes with the same 2.0 liter TDI 4-cylinder diesel as all of other current model year diesel VWs, but it is truly a groundbreaking model as it is both a sports coupe and can be ordered as sexy ragtop convertible. Looking this good or working on your tan was never this easy on the environment or your gas card. Sign us up!

Hybrids

Alternative Fuel Vehicles - Prius

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2014 Toyota Prius/Prius C/Prius V: This family of hybrid gasoline/electric family cars dominates the hybrid class and completely revolutionized the way people commute to work. Both the standard Prius hatch and the family wagon V model offer some of the most serene driving experiences on the road today. The frequently burnt orange-colored C mini-hatch suffers from much more tire, road and engine roar due to the fact that it has to work so much harder to keep up with traffic (ahem... and bicycles). We say stick with the regular Prius or the enormous Prius V wagon. They aren’t that last word in driving fun but they are efficient, green and they offer tremendous utility for the dollar.

Alternative Fuel Vehicles - Honda Insight

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2014 Honda Insight: Honda launched the Insight five door hatch with the intention of undercutting the cost of the latest Prius by a substantial pricing margin and getting “close enough” to Toyota’s MPG claims. Unfortunately, Toyota then lowered the price of the classic Prius and even undercut the Insight with the smaller C model. Oops. Interior materials are also subpar compared to the Honda norm and buyers have been right in preferring the Prius' greater refinement and ride comfort. The Prius also has that magic 50 mpg highway number that the Insight just can't match.

Alternative Fuel Cars - Honda CRZ Hybrid

 

Image: Honda

2014 Honda CR-Z: It may sound odd, but driving the much smaller (and much sexier) two seat CR-Z sport hybrid is a much more rewarding and somehow soothing driving experience compared to long commutes in the larger five seat Honda Insight. Not only does the CR-Z steer and handle with the nimble nature you'd expect from any Honda, but it's also the only hybrid you can buy with a manual transmission—in this case a 6-speed unit that has a light shift action, idiot proof clutch and playful nature that suits this coupe’s character better than the optional CVT automatic (which does have paddle shifters, at least). The 2014 CR-Z has a 1.5 liter 4-cylinder hybrid electric motor putting out 130 horsepower/140 lb. feet of torque combined via the six-speed manual, and it also features a “Sport Plus” button on the steering wheel so that you can give your car an extra jolt of electric power when you need it for passing. Lastly, this is the first year Honda is offering an HPD (Honda Performance Division) version of the CR-Z hybrid, which means owners can get an uprated sport suspension, front brakes, wheels, clutch, a limited slip-sport differential, sports exhaust and finally an added supercharger which boosts power to 187 horsepower/171 lb. feet of torque. This is one tasty and fun to drive hybrid that also makes for a solid commuting tool.

Alternative Fuel Cars - Lexus ES 300h

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2014 Toyota Camry Hybrid/Lexus ES300h: Oddly, although both the Camry and ES300h hybrids share the identical 2.5 liter 4-cylinder 200 horsepower hybrid electric powertrain, we found that we enjoyed driving the more athletic and natural-feeling Toyota. Yes, we just admitted to liking the Camry more. It was more stylish (really the fault of the ES, here) and the Camry hybrid felt more like a turbocharged 4- cylinder family sedan than the Lexus, which drove like R2-D2 might as a hybrid car. It clicked and beeped a lot but we didn’t ever think the Lexus ES300h needed us there.

Alternative Fuel Cars - Lincoln MKZ Hybrid

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2014 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid: Although some initially complained about how fuel efficient the futuristically luxurious Lincoln MKZ Hybrid sedan truly was, during a week with us we averaged over 43 miles per gallon overall, which was impressive. The look is like nothing else on the luxury sedan market inside and out, so buying an MKZ will make a statement. And it’s easily more interesting than a Lexus ES hybrid.

Alternative Fuel Cars - Acura ILX Hybrid

Image: Acura

2014 Acura ILX Hybrid: The ILX Hybrid is essentially the same mechanically as the 2014 Honda Civic Hybrid. With a 1.5 liter 111 horsepower/127 lb. feet of torque gas/electric powertrain mated to a CVT automatic, it does its best to stay quiet but doesn't do a ton to keep the driver interested. At least the ILX Hybrid can manage 39 city/38 highway according to the EPA. And it’s got a nice interior. But so does the 2014 Civic, which is a far bit cheaper.

Alternative Fuel Vehicles - Lexus CT 200H

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2014 Lexus CT200h: This ugly and overpriced Lexus hybrid hatchback is essentially a re-skinned Toyota Prius with the same powertrain, less efficiency, and interior quality that is truly at the entry level of any Lexus. Plus, the CT never feels anything less than frighteningly slow despite having a supposed “Sport” setting for the hybrid system. Avoid unless you would like to overpay for a Prius.

James Hamel

James Hamel is a freelance road tester, auto journalist, and Motor Press Guild full member. Find past work at Autobytel.com and current work at iSeeCars.com. Contact James at [email protected]

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