A recent New York Times story looked at how the market for green products hasn't rebounded along with the economy (which is definitely rebounding because rich people say so.) What I found curious is that there is one area where going green is going gangbusters, but it involves a much larger investment than say two extra quarters for some eco-friendly counter wipes.
After all this time, we have an answer. Yes, hybrid cars are here to stay.
According to Edmunds.com, sales of hybrid and electric cars are up 37 percent in first quarter of 2011, with Prius sales a whopping 50 percent over last year. The conventional wisdom seems to be that rising gas prices are the reason more green rides are being sold, but that doesn't quite add up. Americans won't shell out for recycled toilet paper but they'll plunk down $40K for a Chevy Volt? Aren't the people who can afford a new hybrid the type of people for whom the spike in fuel charges is a relatively minor expense?
(And gas prices, relatively speaking, are a minor ding to your bottom line. Alas, the strange psychic toll gas prices hold over the average consumer is a topic for another day.)
I live in Brooklyn, so I rely on mass transit and my feet on the pavement. I've never purchased a car and haven't even had one to call my own since 1999. Maybe it's true that people drive by their local gas station, see the big board, scream "That's It!" and beeline to the nearest Honda Insight dealer.
Or maybe, it's the simple fact there are a lot more options, at a lot more price levels, and that the days where hybrids were seen as magical mystery machines are over. Case in point, I test drove two hybrids in first quarter 2011 and found them both to be drivable everyday cars. Nothing too fancy, nothing too exotic. Solid automobiles to get you where you need to go. For less. Critical mass of the mundane is a good thing.
2011 Lexus CT 200h
The all-new Lexus compact is the least expensive of the luxury brand's hybrids, starting at under $30K, and it more than exceeds the most important green threshold averaging 42 mpg in town and out. Those aren't quite Prius numbers, but the CT 200h wins hands-down in the swimsuit competition. This is a sharp little package that doesn't leave a Tron aftertaste. It shares the powertrain with the Prius, but it's got much better handling, especially in the highly responsive easy-to-change-on-the-fly Sport mode. The 1.8 liter four-cylinder engine combines with its electrical counterpart to kick out 134 hp, so the acceleration is nothing special (Edmunds clocked it at 0-60 in a turtle-ish 10.4 seconds), but with all that extra cash in your pocket, you can Drive Petty or something.
Being a four-door hatchback, the CT 200h was a bit of a tight squeeze -- and having my right leg flush up against the middle console took a bit of getting used to -- but we fit the baby in the back no problemo. Not sure an adult would want to sit back there for the long-haul, but the bags fit fine and the cockpit has some sweet touches. I dug the square mouse-like electronic overlord gizmo, it's amazing how ingrained laptop technology has become into our daily lives.
Since it's Lexus, the creature comforts like dual A/C, heated seats, rain-sensing wipers, etc. were aplenty. (Some as options.) We certainly appreciated having XM satellite. The complimentary "Remixed" CD with both "Uptempo" and "Downtempo" tracks from the likes of Holy Ghost!, Mux Mool, and Chromeo was nearly a dealbreaker. Leave the in-cabin club dubs for the kids, we're into the CT 200h for its grownup efficiencies.
2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid
The Ford Fusion Hybrid made quite a splash in 2010 when the sedan was named "North American Car of the Year." Starting at around $28K, the 2011 version lives up to last year's hype. Not much was changed, but not much needed to be. If it ain't broke -- and it gets 41/36 mpg -- then don't fix it.
The Fusion is the type of solid workaday vehicle this country used to produce by the lot-full, and drivers looking to ease up on the octane while helping the national automakers could do a lot worse. (And for all you Tea Partiers in the webisphere, you can buy one guilt-free. Ford didn't take any bailout money! Sort of!)
The Fusion provided a smooth, quiet ride, with ample juice from its 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine that kicks up to 191hp when mashed up with the electric motor. The cabin was roomy and comfortable. It's made for Americans, by Mexicans, proving there is no wall between us when it comes to efficient motoring. The dashboard was sleek and I liked watching the leaves growing on the digital tree that tracked how green my driving was. The Fusion makes good economic/Earth Day sense, but more than that, it makes good automotive sense.
One last thing as May continues showering, it's worth noting that I drove both the CT 200h and the Fusion in icy wintry conditions and they both handled the elements just fine. I even tried locking 'em up a few times. Sadly, it seems as though the golden age of spinning donuts is gone. Other than the 3.5 hours it took to dig the Fusion out (our Brooklyn block was not one that went unplowed), the snow had no bearing on our winter travels...
But the gas savings did. That's reason enough to get a hybrid, it's just not the only reason. Not anymore.
Patrick Sauer is a contributor for AOL Small Business and a freelance writer for Fast Company, ESPN, Popular Science, Smith and Huffington Post Humor. He is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the American Presidents. Originally from Billings, Mont., he now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. For more from Patrick, follow him on Twitter (@pjsauer), or visit patricksauer.com.
Photos courtesy of Lexus, Ford