2008 Auto Guide
auto
Fuels of the future

As the 2009 model year kicks into high gear, car buyers -- and despite the downturn in the market, there will be at least 15 million vehicles sold next year -- will have some serious choices in how their vehicles will be powered.

Vehicles that run on diesel fuel, ethanol, natural gas, even hydrogen, are coming to market.

Don't expect gasoline vehicles to go away -- gas will continue to be the dominant fuel well into the future.

But as consumers and manufacturers grapple with the economic, psychological and political impact of $4 per gallon gas and the fear that $5 per gallon gas may not be too far away, alternatives are becoming more viable.

Here's an update of what's out there and what's coming in the next 18 months.

Fuel alternatives
  1. Diesel
  2. Plug-in hybrids
  3. All-electric vehicles
  4. Hydrogen-powered vehicles
  5. Ethanol and biodiesel

Diesel

Anyone who has traveled outside the United States can't help but notice that a lot of the rest of the world runs on diesel fuel, thanks to tax breaks and less resistance to the idea of diesel power.

Now, diesels -- primarily used in trucks in the United States -- are trickling into the U.S. car market. The first diesels are arriving from Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, but Saturn, Ford, Chrysler and Honda have diesel versions of their sedans in the pipeline.

These new diesels are much cleaner -- many can even pass California's more stringent emission standards -- quieter and more powerful than diesels of old.

The advantages of a diesel car are several. The fuel mileage is greater than a similarly sized gasoline engine, thanks to the diesel's low rpm range and how it fires each cylinder using extreme compression rather than a conventional spark plug. Also, a diesel engine lasts much longer without an overhaul than a gasoline engine.

The drawbacks are a higher price for a diesel-powered vehicle over the same vehicle with a gasoline engine -- sometimes several thousand dollars higher -- and the current price of diesel fuel, which in most parts of the country is much higher than a gallon of regular gasoline.

If states and the federal government should change the tax status of diesel fuel to perhaps mirror European policies, diesel cars could become far more popular than they were in the past.

Plug-in hybrids

The more rabid fans of gas-electric hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, have long argued for modified versions that could be recharged at home or work, greatly cutting down on the use of the gasoline engine.

After resistance by Toyota and other manufacturers to home-modified hybrids -- cases in which owners converted them to plug-ins -- it now appears that factory plug-in hybrids are on their way to market, at least in limited numbers.

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All-electric vehicles

In the 1990s it seemed like all-electric vehicles were on the cusp of becoming widely available, but General Motors withdrew its limited edition two-seat EV1 all-electric coupes, saying they weren't economically viable for production. Other manufacturers shelved their electric vehicle plans, too.

Now, electric vehicles are on the verge of a comeback.

Tesla Motors, a California company, is selling a high-performance two-seat all-electric sports car that it says can go from zero to 60 mph in under four seconds and go more than 200 miles on a charge. The price is more than $100,000, however.

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