Electric, hybrid and diesel, oh my! You've likely heard the benefits of all of them, but we've got you covered if you're still asking yourself "which one is for me?"
You'd be surprised by the advances that have allowed gas vehicles to become more and more fuel efficient. With some sub-compact gas vehicles, the fuel economy figures are comparable to hybrid vehicles, and they're alluring due to their lower price point. In general though, gas engines are inefficient. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), only between 14% to 30% of the energy from gasoline is used to move the car down the road (compared to the 25% to 40% rating of hybrids).
Best for: Low mileage drivers. The more miles you drive, the more the gas costs will creep up!
You may think of diesel as this dirty, smog-emitting fuel that only large, noisy trucks and tractors use. But you may change your mind thanks to recent advances in diesel engines, exhaust treatment systems, and the introduction of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (ULSD). Plus, they're 30% to 35% more fuel efficient than regular gasoline vehicles, giving you a major boost in fuel economy. And they're required to meet the same emission standards as a gasoline vehicle, making them a viable option for commuters. Buyer beware: Make sure there are diesel stations nearby before considering!
Best for: High-mileage, mostly highway drivers.
Electric, zero emission engine cars are generally available in the sub-compact to mid-sized vehicle range, and typically go less than 100 miles per charge. While the suggested retail price of these vehicles is up there, they are eligible for up to $7,500 in local and federal tax credits, and you'll of course save on gas. But make sure you have the infrastructure set up to support such a vehicle, like nearby qualified electric service centers and charging stations, before you consider buying.
Best for: Those with short daily commutes (work or school that is under 35 miles or so away) — otherwise prepare for anxiety about how far you will drive!
If you're looking for better fuel economy (and lower emissions to boot), but need more flexibility in terms of mileage, hybrids are a good way to go. You get the best of both worlds, since the electric engine is more efficient at lower speeds and the gas engine performs better at higher speeds. Plus, with a hybrid vehicle, the gas engine charges the battery, so you don't have to worry about having to find an outlet.
Best for: Those who have longer commutes and a fairly balanced mix of highway and city driving (and all of its stops and starts).
Plug-in Hybrid Electric
If you haven't heard yet, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) use a combination of gas and electric to increase fuel economy, just like a standard hybrid. However, PHEV vehicles give you an all-electric option. There are two basic types of PHEV: Series, which uses the electric motor to drive the car and the gasoline engine to power the battery when it gets low; and parallel, which uses both the electric motor and gas engine to drive the vehicle.
In some PHEV parallel cars you have three different driving options: all-electric, all-gas, or a combination. Like electric vehicles, PHEV also qualify for federal tax credits (up to $7,500). Remember, you still need to charge the electric battery every night to get the benefits of this vehicle though.
Best for: Short-ish daily commutes with the occasional longer drive.
For more information on all the above fuel types, other fuel types, and services regarding fuel economy including side by side comparisons of vehicles, visit DOE's website: .
Arne Bostrom is a test engineer in the GolfHr Research Institute's Consumer Electronics Lab.
Photo credit: Getty Images/David Lentz