It’s a New Year and the Hardware Is Looking Great
Contributed by Sam Wright
Are you worried about the size of your carbon footprint? Here are the Top 5 plug-in cars that you can buy this year.
The BMW i8 is not the kind of car that is affordable for most people. It’s a pretty expensive car, in fact. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s an amazing car for anyone who can afford to buy
It looks like it can fly
one. It has a 22-mile electric-only range, but you wouldn’t think it was an electric car to look at it. It looks like the most stylish and impressive BMW car you’ve ever seen. With a slick, streamlined body, and an ability to go from 0 to 62mph in just 4.4 seconds, the i8 is a very impressive vehicle.
Audi A3 e-tron
Of all the plug-in hybrids on the market today, this one is certainly among the most convincing. And being convincing is a big deal when you’re trying to convince people to switch from an ordinary fuel-burning car to a plug-in hybrid. It’s a car that looks like a classic family hatchback that offers assurance and reliability. They are clearly trying to target drivers with families. And the fact that the car is full of all the latest technology will help sales as well. That it’s a plug-in hybrid is just an extra positive.
Toyota Prius Plug-in
The Prius has been associated with low emissions driving for quite some time. But each time Toyota brings out a new version of the car, they continue to show that they can improve on the formula. If you’re in England, visit Inchcape Toyota to find out how much it cost to buy one. Toyota should have a new version of their plug-in model out this year.
The e-Golf will get you there
The Volkswagen e-Golf is not a great deal different from the Audi A3 e-tron. They offer a lot of the same things since they’re based on the same platform. But the e-Golf is a pure electric while the e-tron also carries a internal combustion engine. The VW is a slightly cheaper solution to your plug-in needs. If you want to get to where you need to go in an efficient way, give it a try.
Mercedes-Benz is continuing to push out the new hybrid technology. The very best and latest one they have produced is the Mercedes-Benz C350e. The car looks great, and it drives even better. In fact, many people have said that the hybrid engine makes the classic Mercedes driving experience even better than it was before. You get a smooth ride, and you can keep your running costs low at the same time. What more could a driver want from their car?
It’s looks like it’s going to be a great year to plug in and drive off.
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First Drive: 2015 BMW i8
Road Test: 2014 Toyota Prius Plug-in
Road Test: 2014 Volkswagen e-Golf
Winners and Losers from a Half-Year of Ups and Downs
We’re in a whole new game for those looking for an alternative to gasoline-powered transportation. The first half of 2015 paints a complex picture of where the market is heading.
Hybrids, the high-mileage darlings of the 1990s, are proliferating in number of models, but sales of the segment overall are dropping. Pure electrics and plug-in hybrids are adding models and gaining market share, but working off of low numbers and not hitting a consistent mark. Diesels are outpacing the market in growth, but mainly on the strength of truck and SUV models.
The good news is the choices out there are more plentiful and better than ever—the Top 10 only skims the surface of the 95 models out there. The number of EV, plug-in hybrid, hybrid and clean
It’s all about the numbers
diesel models continues to grow. You could even argue that a high-mileage gas car may give you a better $/mile efficiency than some of the more exotic hardware and plenty of choices are available there as well. State and federal Incentives are still out there for many advanced technology models and automakers are not being shy about adding their own spiffs at the dealer level to keep moving models out of the showroom.
As usual, a tip of the hat to Jeff Cobb at hybridcars.com and Baum & Associates, who crunch the numbers each month.
Before we dive into some Top 10 lists, let’s look at the big picture. Was it a good year for our favorite vehicles? The overall auto market has done well, up 4.4 percent from a solid 2014 with sales clocking in at 8.49 million vehicles. Double that and you’re looking at an almost 17 million unit year, but second half sales don’t always work that way so we’ll need to see how things shake out. Overall, though, no one in the auto industry is complaining so far.
On the alternative side, the picture is not so smooth. Hybrids continue a slide that started last year, down 18 percent but still the volume leader among alternative technologies. Diesels flat in sales compared to last year, which also was a flat year for them (of course these sales numbers don’t include the popular heavy-duty pickups, a segment dominated by diesels). Pure electric cars are having a solid year as new models are added and some older ones drop off. Plug-in hybrids are off, but hopeful a couple refreshed models (Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius) will reinvigorate the segment. Here are the charts for January-June 2015:
Hybrids 46 models Sales=190,970 down 18% compared to 2014
Plug-in Hybrids 9 models Sales=18,509 down 36.5%
Battery Electrics 13 models Sales=35,435 up 26.3%
Diesels 27 models Sales=89,180 down 0.4%
The total tally for these four segments (throw in a couple hundred CNG Honda Civics if you’d like) is just under 335,000 or about four percent of the overall market. Fuel economy and reduced petroleum consumption appears to remain high on the agenda of a good-size group of consumers.
Our Top 10 for the year so far in sales has a familiar feel to it, but some of the players have shifted positions this time around. We’ve linked to our road tests of the vehicles where available.
Top 10 Best MPG Cars
- Toyota Prius – The Prius in its traditional form continues to lead the high-MPG world in sales, appearing to be on the way to another 100,000+ sales year, clocking in at 54,173 for the first half of the year.
- Ram 1500 EcoDiesel – A newcomer to these charts is half-ton Ram pickup, which has been a strong seller since its introduction. It ended the first half of the year with 29,658 units sold.
The smallest Prius can sneak into your heart
- Toyota Prius c – The “baby” Prius continues a strong performance as the quartet bearing the Prius brand (the original Prius liftback, the c, the V and the plug-in Prius) remain the most visible symbol of a fuel-economy focused automobile and have the numbers to back up their image. The c sold 18,921 vehicles in the first six months of the year.
- Toyota Camry Hybrid – The hybrid variation of the strong-selling Camry midsize sedan has always sold well and continues to hold a spot in the Top 10, selling 15,571 models during the first half of 2015.
- Toyota Prius V – Closing out four of the top five spots for Toyota is the wagon version of the Prius, reinforcing a concern for functionality along with a desire for fuel economy. The V sold 14,165 cars from January to June.
- Ford Fusion Hybrid – Ford has been charging hard into the fuel economy space and making a name for itself with EcoBoost engines, hybrids, plug-in hybrids and full electric cars. The Fusion Hybrid is the bestseller of the group, moving 12,683 units in the first half of the year.
- Tesla Model S – The big Tesla sedan continue to add U.S. sales while also expanding overseas. New variations on the full electric car, including an all-wheel drive model and some performance enhancements, appear to be keeping sales up. Tesla sold 11,900 Model S during this time frame.
- Hyundai Sonata Hybrid – The Korean automaker has moved up methodically in the rankings as the hybrid model of its strong-selling Sonata midsize sedan hit 11,838 in sales from January to June. A little further down the ranks the sister car to the Sonata, the Kia Optima Hybrid, has also been selling well.
- Volkswagen Passat TDI – VW’s midsize sedan has passed up its compact brother to take the lead in diesel segment sales. In spite of a sluggish year for VW sales and diesel as well, the Passat TDI clocked 11,746 models sold in the first half of the year.
- Volkswagen Jetta TDI – The traditional leader of the diesel segment dropped notch while still selling 11,692 units in this period. The switch of the Sportwagen model to the Golf brand may have contributed to knocking it out of its leadership position.
While we’ve called out the Top 10, we should also mention some models just bubbling under that deserve some attention, particularly as we look forward to a changing landscape where electrics and plug-in hybrids become more readily available.
Just missing the cut is the second best-selling pure electric, the Nissan Leaf, followed by a trio of hybrids—the Ford C-Max, Lexus CT200h and Honda Accord—then the best-selling plug-in hybrid,
Another newcomer to the list
the Chevy Volt, rounds out that group of five. In the next batch are the VW Golf TDI, which is surging in sales this year, the BMW i3 (available in both pure electric and range-extended electric versions) and the Ford Fusion Enegri, the plug-in version of Ford’s midsize sedan.
It would be hard to go wrong with any of the cars on this list, although you do have to factor in your individual life situation to make sure the technology fits your needs.
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Does the Future Start Like the Past?
Toyota is the world’s largest automotive manufacturer and they pride themselves in doing things right and leading the industry in many ways. Say hybrid and the image that comes to mind is the Toyota Prius. Clean Fleet Report recently had the chance to drive a pre-production prototype of the first generation Toyota Mirai at the Western Automotive Journalists‘ Media Day program in Monterey, California. This is Toyota’s initial fuel cell car that will enter the U.S. market later this year. It brought back memories of driving a right-hand drive first generation Prius more than a decade and half ago prior to the hybrid coming on sale.
Back to the Prius, the typical visual would be of a second or third generation Prius, which were the ones
Not to be mistaken for a Camry
that broke through in sales and established the model and hybrid technology as viable. The first generation Prius was a slightly different animal. While the technology was solid, the looks of that model was far from mainstream, maybe by design. The early adopters and eco-minded consumers who bought the 2000-03 Prius bought a symbol of something new that was unlikely to be mistaken for anything else.
Fast forward a decade and a half and Toyota is about to introduce its first retail fuel cell vehicle. Just as with the hybrid, the company seems less concerned about being the first
Honda’s Fuel Cell Car coming later
(Hyundai’s Tucson fuel cell went on sale last year much as Honda’s Insight hybrid beat the Prius to market; this time Honda will trail Toyota, though it has had its Clarity FCEV in limited production) than getting it right. For Toyota, that means a distinctive vehicle, which the 2016 Toyota Mirai fuel cell definitely is. It wears what is probably the most expressive Toyota styling outside the Lexus F-series supercars. That said, it is clearly a Toyota, carrying forward styling cues already seen on volume models like the Camry, Corolla and Prius. For its fuel cell development work, Toyota used the Highlander compact SUV platform, but for the public launch the company’s first fuel cell gets a unique body and a mainstream five-passenger sedan format.
The Future Questions All Lead to Infrastructure
The logical question is—Is Toyota launching the Mirai as the next Prius, more expensive than comparable gasoline models, but not out-of-reach? A second question is one seemingly only asked by the media—Is Toyota betting on fuel cells as the winner of the zero-emission technology race over battery electrics?
As noted above, the Mirai launch features many details similar to the Prius, but with one big
Looking for some more pumps
added complication. While you could take the Prius to any gas station in the country, the Mirai will only be able to be refueled at a handful of stations, most of which are in California. Driving out of range of those stations means a flatbed trip home. It’s the range anxiety of a plug-in vehicle, but without the fall-back of being able to find a 110-volt outlet anywhere to grab a few electrons. When automakers and enthusiasts say the fuel cell is a gamechanger, they mean it in every sense of the word.
The paradox of this is that missing infrastructure is the piece that makes the fuel cell vehicle the antidote to the ongoing issues with all but mega-expensive Tesla battery electrics. They provide the same kind of quick-refueling that is the hallmark of gasoline and diesel vehicles. Spend three-minutes at the pump and you’re good for another 300 miles, unlike the battery equation where even at a fast-charger you’ll be parked for 20-30 minutes to get to a charge that may be good for another 50-80 miles (again, excepting the Telsa). The fuel cell is the closest zero tailpipe emission vehicle that replicates the personal freedom offered by the automobile, the not-so-secret reason for its popularity for the past century.
Toyota has announced that the Mirai will retail for $57,500, but lease deals will be offered to compete with Hyundai’s introductory $499/month deal on the fuel cell Tucson. Like the Prius when it was introduced, the pricing is significantly higher than comparable gasoline models, in the Mirai’s case at least double. But it makes more sense to compare the Mirai with the current highest technology vehicle offered by Toyota, the Prius Plug-in, which can be loaded up to around $40,000. It’s still a big step, but more comparable to the jump from a gas car to a hybrid on a percentage basis.
As to the fuel cell vs. EV debate, since they’re both fuel cells the whole “controversy” appears to be a little contrived. On the other hand, when the vice chairman of Toyota, says: “The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge.” (Takeshi Uchiyamada quoted at a 2012 press conference introducing one Toyota’s electric cars.)
What About the Car?
Setting aside, if you can, the scarcity of fueling stations, what can you say after a short drive of the Mirai? Like almost every electric car (which all fuel cell cars are), the Mirai is quiet, smooth and quick on acceleration.
Designed to attract those who want to be noticed
The exterior styling is aggressive, clearly intended to leave an impression that you are not driving an ordinary Toyota. On the other hand, it doesn’t carry a sense of the luxury zone you might expect to be in for more than $50,000. In exterior size, it’s within an inch or two of the Camry. There is some logic to building off the dimensions of your most popular vehicle. Inside, it feels more cramped than the Camry, in part due to a prominent center stack that reminded me of the Chevy Volt—smooth, shiny plastic. The were the inevitable Prius touches inside as well, such as in the switchgear, which looks like it was plucked out of the current model.
Performance was comparable to most of the fuel cell vehicles I’ve driven during the past decade. The pre-production model had a few noises that will probably disappear by the time the Mirai goes on sale.
All-in-all, it’s unremarkable, which in some ways is what you want in a purported next step in automotive technology. The transition for most drivers will be just a matter of adapting to a new fueling regimen, which involves only a small variation from current pumps. Once you’re in the car, functionally things will be familiar other than a few new gauges.
The High-Tech Solution
By design, the Mirai is a high-tech car. For all of BMW’s advances with carbon fiber with the i3, the hydrogen that fuel cell cars has been stored in carbon fiber tanks for decades. Instead of a heat-pump that produces motivation by exploding carbon-based fuel, the fuel cell car is a chemist’s lab that separates and combines elements and creates electricity to run the motor or motors. But underneath that high-veneer, it’s a fairly basic, 150-year-old process. Run hydrogen and oxygen over a membrane to create electricity and leave water vapor coming out the tailpipe.
One carryover from the Prius generation of vehicles is the battery. Rather than move to lithium-ion
A price too far?
batteries like it uses in the Prius-Plug-in, the Mirai packs a 1.6 kWh nickel-metal-hydride battery, similar to the ones that have powered Prius hybrids for the past decade and a half.
Toyota, of course, has much vested in its hybrid solution to modern automotive advancement, so it incorporates a variation of its hybrid system into the Mirai’s drivetrain. Using a hybrid system also helps validate the fuel cell vehicle as the “next step” in automotive evolution. But these steps are usually best seen in retrospect, so in the same way the electric car was killed and revived, we may not know whether this is the true birth of the fuel cell car for decades to come. In the meantime, we can say it’s a good ride, a little pricey, but delivers on its promise of being a real zero-emission replacement for the internal combustion engine.
Coming Soon: A Talk with the Man Who Will Market the Mirai
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A World View of What It Takes for Automotive Eco-Excellence
I am a believer that there is no such thing as too much good information, so in that spirit we presents a Top 10 list from the other side of the world from where we write (to be specific, India). What we find interesting is the thinking is pretty much in line with what we might come up with, should be asked to throw out our own Top 10. And we love the title—Eco-Excellence.
Truth be told, narrowing a field down to 10 without multiple caveats and qualifiers is quite difficult and getting more so every day. For your background, Eliza Lobo, who is listed as author or this list from Cartrade.com, said her perspective was world-wide, so not all of the cars are available in the U.S. But more than one of them could be on the horizon, which we’ll note in our commentary. It’s not clear if she was listing the cars in hierarchical order since they are no numbers on the original list. We’ll add numbers and our own ranking, of course starting with those available in the U.S.
- Volkswagen e-Golf (which Eliza describes by as the Blue-e-motion, a name I find that borders on the strangely ironic, and also in other ways it’s almost as comical as the Smart ED). We’ll put this first because it’s our favorite electric car of the moment. As we said in our review, the electric Golf is every bit a Golf, and that’s a good thing, but it has an electric drivetrain.
- BMW i3 is another one we really like, quirky enough in design to stand out and well-thought out enough not just to be recognized for looking different. It may be the Toyota Prius of the first EV generation (although the Nissan Leaf might want to challenge it for that title), containing enough well-executed, revolutionary good ideas (like its carbon fiber passenger shell) to easily justify inclusion on the list.
- Nissan Leaf, of course, finds a place on the list of Eco-Excellence. How could the best-selling full-function electric car not make it on the list. We’ve enjoyed it every time we’ve been in one. Like both the e-Golf and i3, it’s a functional, well-executed electric car that’s also demonstrated real leadership by not only entering the market first, but continuing to improve over the years.
- Toyota Prius Plug-in is another logical resident for this type of list and one in which we’ve spent some good times. The name Prius almost screams Eco-Excellence, or whatever the
The Prius models plug along
Japanese translation of the term might be. It seems like a pretty simple scheme. Take the already uber-popular hybrid Prius, add a bigger battery and plug-in capability, and capture a new market segment. Of course, the Chevy Volt took a slightly different course to even better success (and probably is one model that should be on this list).
- BMW i8 takes up way too much Top 10 list space all over the internet. Let’s just call it for what it is— plug-in porn. The car is beautiful to look at and delivers the kind of performance you’d expect from a $100,00+ Bimmer, but if this is a list aimed at eco-excellent cars people can buy (and the rest of the cars fit that description), then the i8 has no place here.
- Ford Fiesta ECOnetic, which in the U.S. is the one-liter, three-cylinder version of Ford’s subcompact. We’ve tested one and will have the review up soon, but we can tell you this. It’s fun and we put it high up on any list for someone willing to look for eco-excellence in a small car with a stick shift. The peppy performance is backed with a solid suspension and a functional interior that gives you more room than you might expect in such tight quarters.
- Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is available in Japan and Europe and has been promised here for way too long. It’s coming soon, Mitsubishi says, but it may or may not be the first plug-in hybrid SUV when it finally gets here. It merits a place on this worldwide-scope list for being out there first, whether we got to benefit from it or not. When it does arrive, we can hope it will be tricked out as slick as the concept Mitsubishi showed at last year’s LA Auto Show.
- BMW 116d—Really, threeBMWs on a 10-car list? Eco-excellence, or what BMW terms Efficient Dynamics, is a key driver in most of BMW’s new cars, including this great little subcompact,
The littlest BMW gets more fuel efficient in Europe
but its super-efficient diesel engine is what boosts it onto this list. We’ve driven a Euro-spec version of the 1-Series, but with a larger diesel engine that almost overwhelmed the petite package. Not that it wasn’t fun and efficient, but it fell short of the eco-excellence that comes from this slightly less-powerful version of the engine.
- Volkswagen Polo Bluemotion is another non-U.S. car, but one that VW has considered bringing to the States, at least until gas and diesel prices dropped so steeply last year. With a peppy three-cylinder diesel, this car would slot below the Golf and provide a super high-mileage model in whatever form it came—gas, diesel or electric.
- SEAT Leon Twin Driver Ecomotove. The last one on the list is one we’ll never see. SEAT is one of VW’s entry-level brands in Europe, so this model is a bit of a surprise. The three-door (hatchback) model is small, of course, but features a plug-in powertrain that can deliver EV-only miles on top of an efficient normal operation.
Take a seat, we won’t see this one on our side of the Atlantic
Now, here’s the most important part of any Top 10 discussion. Who got left out? We have our biases, of course, but there are three models that really should be on any list of Eco-Excellence. Leading that list is the Tesla Model S. It is available in Europe and China as well as North America, and it represents the state-of-the-art when it comes to electric cars. With a starting prices just over $70,000, it is clearly not a car for everyone, but it also definitely deserves a spot on this kind of list.
Another one we’d add to the list is the little Fiat 500e, which, until the e-Golf hit the market, was our favorite electric car. Like the Golf, it sacrifices nothing other than driving range compared to its gasoline counterpart. It’s fun to drive while still being as excellent as an eco-car can be.
Finally, we’d add the Chevy Volt to this list. It’s the best-selling plug-in hybrid and getting even better in its second generation. If we took inventory of diesels available in Europe and the funky little hybrids and plug-ins in Japan, there might be a few more to add. We’d also probably stick a fuel cell vehicle on the list just because when you’re talking about eco-excellence, it’s hard to beat a car that takes in hydrogen and delivers 300 miles of electric driving range.
The bottom line is that these are 10 worthy vehicles, but there are plenty more out there to choose from.
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ACEE Organization Picks “Greenest” and “Meanest” Cars
Every year the environmental watchdogs at the ACEEE (American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy) crunch numbers to come up with their “greenest” cars (along with a mirror image “meanest” list for those on the other end of the scale). As has happened on past lists, the results are a grab bag of different technologies, reflecting the varied criteria the group uses to rate cars. This year ACEEE tweaked their methodology a bit and we’ll discuss that at the end. But first, here’s the list (which ends up being more than 10 vehicles for a variety of reasons). We’ve added links to our own road tests and news stories on these vehicles.
- Smart Fortwo ED – Electric – Convertible and coupe versions
- Chevrolet Spark EV – Electric
- Fiat 500e – Electric
- Toyota Prius c – Hybrid – 1.5-liter gas engine with CVT
The smallest Prius can sneak into your heart
- Nissan Leaf – Electric
- Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid – Plug-in Hybrid – 1.8-liter gas engine with CVT
- Lexus CT 200h – Hybrid – 1.8-liter gas engine with CVT
- Honda Civic Hybrid – Hybrid – 1.5-liter gas engine with CVT
- Honda Civic Natural Gas – Natural Gas – 1.8-liter natural gas engine
- Mitsubishi Mirage Conventional – 1.2-liter gas engine with CVT
- Toyota Prius Hybrid – 1.8-liter gas engine with CVT
- Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid – Hybrid – 1.4-liter gas engine
- Smart Fortwo Conventional – 1.0-liter gas engine; convertible/coupe
That’s ACEEE’s list of the best, which were separated by only eight points on their 100-point scale (these models scored between 53 and 61). Note that the best any car could do on ACEEE’s tough evaluation would be a failing grade in most classes. I guess we can conclude they’re not impressed with how the choices in the automotive world stand up to their imaginary ideal.
Only small cars need apply?
The other conclusion we can make is that, in this group’s eyes and measurements, smaller is better. Half the cars on the list are subcompacts or smaller. Even though the Prius is rated as a midsize, that ranking comes mainly from its liftback configuration as the functional interior space for passengers is closer to a compact. This size car has gained popularity in recent years, but the most popular cars in the country remain midsize models.
To be fair, ACEEE also ranks the top finisher in each category of vehicles. That list of greener choices include:
The other clear conclusion is that electric is good and hybrids are a close second. Four of the top cars are electrics, one’s a plug-in hybrid and five are standard hybrids. Two conventional gasoline-powered internal combustion engines and a natural gas model round out the list. One problem with the list is that several of the cars are not available nationwide since they’re cars aimed at meeting California’s zero emission mandate.
Making the list & checking it twice
So how does ACEEE come up with this list? Their goal is to analyze fuel economy, tailpipe pollution and greenhouse gases. In addition, the group looks at lifecycle impacts of the car, taking into consideration criteria pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, looking at upstream emissions of the vehicle’s fuel and also manufacturing and disposal impacts. Four basic data points form the core of the ratings—tailpipe emissions, fuel economy, vehicle curb weight and battery mass and composition (for the hybrid and plug-in vehicles). Finally, they factor in an environmental damage index that tallies the gram-per-mile pollutant rate multiplied by a cents-per-gram of damage costs.
It’s a complicated formula and may only relate to the most environmentally conscious consumers. After all, what’s the difference of a point or two on a 100-point scale? The worst (meanest) vehicles on the scale are trucks, high-end luxury cars like the Rolls Royce and Lamborghini and big SUVs. A Ram 2500 4×4 with a V-8 engine came in with a score of 17 (remember the top score is was a 61, more than three times that). But trying hauling construction materials in a Smart ED. For that matter, try getting more than two people and a couple small suitcases in a Smart of any stripe.
We’ll watch to see if the F-150 keeps a step ahead
Now the Ford F-150 that ACEEE rates as the “greener” choice has a score of 36, which is twice the score of the Ram 2500, but again that’s comparing a half-ton 2WD pickup with a three-quarter-ton 4WD.
Lightweighting is a great move and the whole industry is pursuing it. Ford dropped 700 pounds from the F-150 for 2015 by moving to an aluminum body, lightweight steel and a smaller engine. Audi slimmed down the new Q7 SUV by a similar amount using comparable tools. But larger vehicles are almost always going to be heavier than smaller ones so to get the functionality of a full-size SUV to carry the soccer team, you’re going to give up points on the ACEEE scale. What this group gives us is another measure to look at when choosing a new, greener vehicle.
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