2009 Spring Car Guide
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Hybrids not only gas solution

Buying a hybrid car is not the only way to solve the problems of high fuel costs and environmental damage.

No matter how many miles a gas-electric hybrid can squeeze out of a gallon of gas, some people just don't like them. And not all hybrids make financial sense.

But there are alternatives. Although not as trendy as hybrid technology, a new crop of 50-state-certified clean diesels and a second group of high-mpg, low-emission gasoline-fueled vehicles -- part of the Environmental Protection Agency's SmartWay brand -- provide solid fuel economy and lower-than-expected tailpipe emissions.

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Diesels

Nearly everyone older than age 40 shares the collective memory of the diesel cars of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a tossup whether the noise, the smell or the billowing cloud of black smoke would be your first indication a diesel automobile was approaching. Although the cost of a gallon of diesel at the time was considerably less than a gallon of gas and a diesel car traveled 5 miles to 10 miles farther on a gallon, the cost advantage wasn't sufficient motivation for most of us to live with one of those atrocious, underpowered relics.

Well, times have changed and so has diesel technology.

While the U.S. consumer gave up on diesels long ago, nearly 60 percent of cars sold in western Europe today are diesels -- compared with less than 10 percent in this country. There have not been many models available in the U.S. because they don't meet the stringent California emission standards and so could not be sold in Vermont, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, Maryland or New Jersey either.

That is no longer the case. Utilizing technology developed with Audi and Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen brought the first 50-state-compliant diesel automobile to market -- the 2009 Jetta TDI -- last year. It was just the first of several clean-diesel vehicles now on sale in the U.S.

The new clean diesels are based on a technology called BlueTec by Mercedes-Benz and BluePerformance by BMW. Oversimplified, it significantly reduces nitrogen oxides, or NOx, in the exhaust. In four-cylinder diesel engines -- like that used in the Jetta TDI -- it's done by using a modified catalytic converter. In six-cylinder engines, the exhaust passes first through a device that reduces hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide and then a filter which reduces particulate emissions by 98 percent. Next, a water-based additive called urea is added to the exhaust, creating ammonia. Finally, another device converts the ammonia into nitrogen and water -- both safe and both found in the air.

As they have incorporated BlueTec, or BluePerformance, into their diesels, European automakers have been exporting them to North America. Following the Jetta TDI is a rush of clean diesels with more to come. Unlike hybrids, diesels don't necessarily cost more than their comparable gasoline-fueled siblings. Consequently, some research and a little math may be required to estimate actual cost savings. Also to be considered in the value equation is that several of these clean diesels have been certified by the Internal Revenue Service as "advanced lean-burn technology vehicles," qualifying them for the federal income tax alternative motor vehicle tax credit that can be as much as $1,800.

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