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7 Affordable Alternatives to Hybrid Vehicles

With the sale of hybrid vehicles on the rise and seemingly one on every block it may be a good time to remember that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Several fuel saving strategies are worth pondering. Let’s face it hybrid technology is not a one size fits all solution. The additional upfront cost for hybrids is typically $3500 to $6000 more than comparable gas only models. It may take longer to pay off the car than it would to realize the benefit of those fuel economy gains. For some knowing that they reduced fuel usage may be just the carrot they need to make the hybrid commitment. For others there are several viable alternatives that better balance their green conscience with their own wallets. With more stringent fuel economy and emissions regulation on the horizon manufacturers are employing a multipronged approach to bumping up fuel economy. That means more fuel efficient options than ever. So don’t limit your choice to just hybrids and plug-in hybrids. 

Engine Downsizing

A work-horse half-ton pickup with a V6. A midsize 7-passenger SUV with a 4 cylinder.  engine. A performance luxury car with a V6. Each of these vehicle engine parings seem to go against the grain of expectation. They demonstrate how several manufactures have taken to “engine downsizing” strategies to boost fuel economy. The idea is to offer smaller, less thirsty engines augmented with technology to produce “on-demand “performance. As opposed to a larger engine with possible extra cylinders that will always be there adding weight and continuously burning gas even when you don’t need them. Technologies like direct injection, turbo charging, supercharging, variable cam timing and others generate on-demand power. On-demand power allows you to receive an adequate surge of power when you summon it via the accelerator pedal yet avoids burning up extra petrol when you don’t. Many car companies have employed these strategies with varying levels of success, producing engines that rival hybrids in fuel economy and often surpass them in performance. Ford’s EcoBoost four and six cylinder engines offers a tremendous balance of power and fuel economy and are available on a wide variety of platforms. On both the speedometer and fuel gauge Audi’s 3-litre V6 out performs the V8 it replaced. What’s the lesson? Don’t underestimate an engine until you drive it. 

6,7 and 8 -speed Transmissions

Just a scant five years ago a 5-speed automatic transmission was considered to be pushing the engineering envelope. These days a 5-speed is closer to the floor than the ceiling when it comes to transmissions. More speeds generally translate to a smoother, quieter ride and the extra gears also allow the shift schedules to be optimized for better fuel economy. Chrysler’s new 8-speed automatic available on the  Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger helps these large cars churn out an EPA rated 31 miles per gallon on the highway. 6-plus speed transmissions are popping up in car segments once littered with 3-speeds all in the name of fuel economy. 

Sub-compact Cars

Sub-compact cars were the original answer to fuel economy woes. Smaller, lighter weight cars made great sense but fell out of favor as disposable incomes and families grew. Many manufactures were scared to touch the dwindling, unprofitable sub-compact market. Now it seems everybody is jumping back into the econo-car fray. With gas regularly eclipsing $4 a milk jug many consumers are downsizing their cars too. Models like the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta are carving out more than a niche in today’s automotive marketplace. While their rear seats still aren’t built for full-time use by full-size passengers they are becoming more livable than ever as commuter vehicles. With highway fuel economy numbers approaching the low 40s these mini cars are worth a big look. 

Start/Stop Technology

Start/Stop technology is an example of a hybrid-derived benefit with a greater impact on mainstream vehicles. It allows the engine to be shut down temporarily to avoid wasting fuels and expelling emissions at stoplights. When the driver accelerates a modified starter motor can quickly restart the engine for virtually seamless operation. Hybrids operate on a similar philosophy but with a more expensive secondary motor that actually propels the car in similar situations. The Buick Lacrosse with eAssist enjoys a cost savings over hybrids by narrowing its augmentation to an upgraded battery with the modified starter motor and a voltage-quality module to ensure that accessories function normally with the engine off.

Cylinder Deactivation

Think of cylinder deactivation as on-demand engine downsizing. While it does not shed the weight of the extra cylinders it can put halt to some the excess. Chrysler’s Mult-iDisplacement System (MDS) and GM’s Active Fuel Management takes some of the sting out of driving a V8 engine by turning off 4 of the 8 cylinders in certain driving situation. It makes for respectable fuel economy numbers if you can resist the call of V8 acceleration in your daily commute. 

Diesel Engines

While the fuel of choice in Europe, diesel has been a fringe fuel in the States for some time. A few bold manufactures are looking to break that trend offer some truly fantastic diesel power plants. By design diesel engines get 10-30% better fuel economy than gas counterparts  and yield more power in the process. Volkswagen has put out great diesel mills for years, Jeep is introducing a new diesel-powered Grand Cherokee for 2013 and BMW and Mercedes offer an extensive line of clean burning diesel engines. Finding a diesel gas pump may be harder but you won’t need it nearly as often.

Electronic Power Steering

What does a steering system have to do with fuel efficiency? Well traditional power steering gets its boost from a hydraulic system that draws power off the engine. In leaching power from the engine hydraulic power steering robs fuel economy. Electronic power-assisted steering’s use of electric instead of hydraulic power lets the engine perform at peak efficiency. It also offers a more consistent steering feel and allows steering to be better tuned to speed in order to deliver stability on the highway and nimbleness in a parking lot.

While hybrid engine technology makes perfect sense in the active pursuit of going green the cost of hybrids can be a less than logical choice for saving green. With so many other fuel saving solutions available there is bound to be one or two that meet your needs. 


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