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August 21, 2014
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When Go Means Green - Part 1

A Survey of Today’s Family Cars Reveals More Choices than Ever for Earth-Friendly Rides

Across the nation, active families are putting the brakes on their long-distance travel plans due to the skyrocketing cost of gasoline.
Yes, the all-American love affair with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and recreational ramblers may have gone the way of the cloth diaper and the VCR.

We can no longer afford to wander the vast countryside without worry of where the next gallon of gas will be found, and how much it will cost to fill our monster machines. The days of endless road trips to faraway destinations appear to be a thing of the past.

But they don’t have to be. While the single-digit mileage machines are heading into storage — destined for the auto museums of the future (“Look, Dad, it’s a V8!”) — there are many new models of leaner, greener vehicles that provide renewed hope for the family vacation.

In fact, many mid- and large-sized sport utility vehicles (SUVs) are now available in hybrid versions, yet because of their weight and size characteristics, they still fall far short of the true gas misers. While they don’t chart fuel mileage high enough to be in the top 10, they certainly offer families more space and variety with significant gas savings over non-hybrids.

With assistance from Kristin Varela, Chief Mother and Senior Editor at MotherProof.com, and some automotive-expert input from the editors at Car and Driver magazine, Kelley Blue Book and HybridCars.com expert Michael Coates, we’ve put together a list of some of the most fuel-efficient, family-friendly vehicles on the market today.

Toyota Prius (Combined Ave. 46 mpg / Base price: $22,175 msrp) — By most accounts, the Prius is the original hybrid (although the Honda Insight actually came first), and it certainly is the most successful. The second-generation Prius has the most original appearance of any hybrid and stands out in the parking lot, often prompting some queries from parents who are interested in its fuel-saving capabilities.

MotherProof.com reports that the Prius’ bigger-than-expected rear passenger area is a pleasant surprise and the cargo space is large enough to fit a pair of child-sized bikes.

Honda Civic Hybrid (42 mpg / $22,600 msrp) — For those who’d rather blend in than stand out, the Civic Hybrid is designed to look the same as the gas version. In fact, with a real-world mileage of 42 miles per gallon, the Civic hybrid manages only about 7-10 mpg more than the conventional Civic with a base price of $7,000 more for the hybrid version.

The interior of the Civic Hybrid garnered a bit of a concern from the MotherProof experts: “I could use a plumbing snake to get to the top-tether anchors (for child seats), and the light-colored cloth armrests in the doors will be covered with gross banana gunk in short order.”

Nissan Altima Hybrid (34 mpg / $25,480) — Available in just eight states (California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont), the Altima Hybrid uses the same hybrid technology as the Toyota hybrids, although with a different engine. Like the Toyota, the Altima Hybrid can switch from purely electric to straight gas or a combination of both.

The automotive experts at CarandDriver.com point out that the Altima’s hybrid system is nearly identical to that of Toyota Camry. “The Altima hybrid . . . delivers on its sporty looks and design-forward interior with a fun, enthusiastic chassis and precise steering. If the name ‘Camry’ makes your inner rebel cringe, you’d do well to consider the Altima hybrid.”

Toyota Camry Hybrid (33 mpg / $25,200) — The Camry has been one of the best-selling mid-size sedans for cost conscious families over the years, so you’d expect the hybrid version to be even more popular, right? Not so fast. The Camry hybrid comes in a 6-cylinder model only, which offers plenty of power, but lower fuel mileage than might be expected from a Toyota hybrid.

For busy families, the batteries for the Camry hybrid take away critical cargo space, according to the mothers in the know.

“The trunk doesn’t have much room, it can handle about one errand at a time due to the space the batteries take up,” says Varela. “I can fold the rear seats down, but only get a small hole to perhaps pass things through, or use for skis or something. The trunk does fine for a regular grocery store trip, but an outing to my local membership warehouse would require some rope and space on the roof.”

CarandDriver.com reports: “If you want to be green but don’t want to announce it to other road users, then the Camry hybrid makes sense. It uses the same system of a gas engine and an electric motor as the Prius. Gas mileage is improved over that of a 4-cylinder Camry, but it costs.”

Mercury Mariner Hybrid / Ford Escape / Mazda Tribute hybrids (32 mpg / $25,310-26,300) — This year’s 3-for-1 award goes to the Ford Motor Company, which is pumping up its hybrid lineup by building three nameplates out of one award-winning model: the Ford Escape.

Launched in 2004 as the nation’s first hybrid sport utility vehicle, the Ford Escape was named the North American Truck of the Year in 2005. With an average fuel mileage (32) that many small sedans would envy, the Escape — as well as the Mariner and Tribute hybrids — quietly keeps the emissions low and mileage high without much external fanfare.

The hybrid trio also has the fuel-saving advantage of running in electric-only mode up to a speed of 25 miles per hour. This means in the 100 yards or so that you may roll down your street and into the driveway, the hybrid system is gobbling kilowatts — electricity from a battery that is recharged by the vehicle’s brakes — instead of gas.

Mothers are also equally impressed with the space of the mid-size SUV.
“The cargo area is plentiful and is not reduced in any way by the presence of the battery,” says Varela. “I could easily lift up the cargo area carpet and see the battery there, but I could place all of my gear on top of it with no worries. My kids were able to put their bikes in the back for a quick trip down to the bike trail — success.”

Mini Cooper Clubman (32 mpg / $19,900) — This is not your standard family hauler, that’s for sure. But a look at the Mini Cooper Clubman reminds us somewhat of the old Ford Club Wagon that our parents (or grandparents) used to drive. A spinoff on the popular Mini Cooper, which is owned by BMW, the Clubman adds critical family-friendly leg room and cargo space in a hip design that is sure to get second glances from the neighbors.

Another Clubman quirk is the flip-out doors — also known as suicide doors — on the side and tail of the vehicle. These unorthodox doors may look strange, but they open up the passenger area for much easier entry and exit than conventional car doors.

Mercedes E320 BlueTec (clean diesel / 31 mpg / $52,300) — People tend to shudder when they hear the words “Mercedes” and “diesel” spoken in the same sentence. The image of a noisy old, smoke-belching tank with a three-pointed star on the hood is a hard one to shake. But rest assured that the diesel engine has come a long way from that smelly sedan of yesteryear.

The E320 BlueTec system is leaner (27-36 mpg), meaner (V6 turbo) and cleaner than ever before. Thanks to an extensive system of filters and converters that somewhat resemble your kid’s LEGO set, the BlueTec system cleans tailpipe emissions dramatically. And the price is right, especially when compared to the standard gasoline-powered E350. For just $1,000 more, you get a high-mileage luxury sedan that is clean and quiet.

Unfortunately, the Mercedes E320 BlueTec is only available in 42 states — not in California or most of the Northeast — because it doesn’t meet certain strict emissions standard in those states. However in 2009, the automaker will start selling three additional clean diesel SUVs that will meet air quality criteria in all 50 states.

The auto experts at CarandDriver.com are sold on this new diesel: “Mercedes beat Volkswagen back to the nationwide diesel market with the full Mercedes experience — rattle-free, pampered quietude and effortless speed — while consuming considerably less fuel than the comparable gasoline-powered model. The current car gets six more miles per gallon in the city and eight more on the highway than the E350, yet it still makes the run to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds.”

Kia Rio (29 mpg /$11,515) — This Korean automaker is quietly and quickly opening eyes and turning the heads of cost-conscious young families who like a little spice in their sedan. The Kia Rio sedan and Rio5 five-door made an award-winning splash soon after being redesigned in 2006. They were deemed “Most Fun to Drive” by the Wall Street Journal and “Most Wanted” by Edmunds.com. The automaker as well has been honored with “Highest Ranking” awards by J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study in ’06 and ’07.

Ford Focus (29 mpg / $15,425) — If your sights are set on all-around savings — from the sales lot to the gas station — then your focus might well be zeroed in on this Ford model. With a starting sticker price under $15,000, the Ford Focus also gets great gas mileage with an average of up to 35 mpg in steady freeway driving.

For hands-free cell phone use — now the law in many states — the Focus offers Ford’s new Sync system that was developed with Microsoft and offers voice-activated phone and media connectivity for everyone in the car.

Varlela was less than thrilled at the lack of head restraints in the back seats of the Focus.

“Children in backless boosters and teenagers (not to mention adults) would probably experience some serious head whipping if the car were hit from behind,” she reports. “I was really in a quandary with my very tall but very light 8-year-old — her head was a good foot above the back of the seat when she sat in the booster, but the seat belt cut across her neck without it.”

Toyota Matrix (29 mpg / $15,510) — The second-lowest priced vehicle on our family-friendly green list is also the first wagon — sport wagon, that is. The Matrix and the Pontiac Vibe are basically the same vehicles with different names and exterior appearance, and both deliver good fuel economy for a low starting price.

However, the Matrix is being redesigned for 2009, with more room for family at a slightly greater starting price ($18,620) and same expected fuel mileage. Here’s what Michael Coates at HybridCars.com has to say about the new Matrix model:

“The Matrix seats up to five adults comfortably. The rear seat, especially, has been expanded to make more passenger room. The compromise has been a slight loss of cargo space, but not enough to notice. Overall, its functionality is still top-notch for those who like to throw in their stuff and hit the road.”

Best of the Rest: Many more of our favorite family-size vehicles are coming out in hybrid versions, offering the greatest space with better fuel economy than ever before.

Some examples include the Lexus RX400h ($42,000) and Toyota Highlander ($33,700) hybrids, which average 26 mpg while offering a smooth, silent ride with family-friendly utility. Green Car Journal’s 2008 Green Cars of the Year, the Chevrolet Tahoe (21 mpg / $50,500) hybrid and the GMC Yukon (21 mpg / $50,500) hybrid, became the first large SUV hybrids to hit the market.

In 2009, Chrysler is joining the hybrid herd with a two-mode hybrid version of the Aspen (20 mpg / $45,570) and Dodge Durango (20 mpg / $45,340) SUVs. And the all-new Ford Flex (24 mpg / $28,000 to $40,000, estimated) features some unique seating and cargo configurations for active, do-it-all families.

So, don’t pack away your vacation plans just yet. There’s hope on the horizon for families who wish to get out and go without being frustrated and fuelish.

It’s all about being green.

Keith Turner is an automotive writer and the father of two teens. He can be reached at carguy@hotmail.com. His reviews can be found at thefamilycar.com and greenfamilycar.com.

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