A Closer Look At Today's Alternative Car Options

Consumers seeking an alternative to a traditional gasoline engine have numerous choices in today's new-vehicle marketplace. Each of the following types of powertrains is available to consumers today--some regionally, and one in very limited numbers in California--and all offer benefits over the common gasoline engine.

A turbo-diesel engine burns diesel fuel. While these engines typically make less horsepower, they also produce more torque than a non-turbo engine, which makes them feel strong when accelerating. Fuel economy is usually superior to a similar-d gasoline engine.

Natural Gas
A vehicle that runs on compressed natural gas (CNG) emits almost no smog-forming pollutants, and provides lower operating costs in terms of CNG price, vehicle maintenance, and gasoline-gallon equivalent fuel economy.

Gas/electric hybrids pair a gasoline engine with an electric motor powered by a battery pack recharged by a regenerative braking system. A "mild hybrid" powertrain cannot move the vehicle using electricity alone, not even at low speeds. The mild hybrid's electric motor exists only to assist the gasoline engine when accelerating. A "full hybrid" powertrain is able to move the car without firing the gasoline engine, typically at speeds up to 25 mph. But some full hybrids can go 45 mph or faster using nothing but the energy stored in the batteries.

Plug-in Hybrid
A plug-in hybrid is a full hybrid that features a more sophisticated battery pack that is capable of moving the vehicle under pure electric power for dramatically longer distances at dramatically higher speeds than a conventional hybrid model. With a plug-in hybrid, the driver can elect to drive in electric--or EV--mode until the batteries are depleted of energy. At that point, the gasoline engine fires and powers the vehicle. Plug-in hybrids give buyers the best of both worlds with little compromise.

Electric cars are, as their name suggests, powered by electricity. They never use a gasoline engine to power the vehicle, and are typically limited to a range of about 100 miles. When the batteries are depleted, the car stops moving and the electric car won't go further until it is recharged. Owners can use a standard household outlet to recharge the car, but it is faster to use a 220-volt outlet or a municipal quick-charge station.

Range-Extended Electric
A range-extended electric vehicle is an electric car with an onboard gasoline generator. Like an electric car, a range-extended electric car has a rechargeable battery pack that is used to power the vehicle until the batteries are depleted. At that point, the onboard generator activates and the energy it creates is converted into electricity to power the vehicle. Unlike an electric car, a range-extended electric car can be driven across the country without concerns of depleted batteries.

Fuel Cell
A fuel-cell vehicle uses hydrogen as a fuel, converting it into electricity to power the wheels. Water vapor is the only emission from the tailpipe. Currently, Honda leases the fuel-cell-powered FCX Clarity in very low numbers, only to consumers in California where a limited number of hydrogen filling stations have been built.