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Automakers making switch to greener cars

Honda offers a hybrid gas-electric car. Toyota is unveiling a luxury hybrid sedan. Tesla will soon open a service center in South Florida for its all-electric car.

Drivers have a growing array of choices to boost fuel efficiency and go “green” in their vehicles.

The choices come as Washington requires automakers raise the average fuel economy of their U.S. fleet sales by eight miles per gallon to 35.5 mpg by 2016.

For consumers trying to navigate the options, here’s some advice.

Getting started

A good place to start is fueleconomy.gov, a website that lets you check vehicles by model and year and learn their miles per gallon.

More fuel-efficient cars and trucks can save money. A car that gets 30 mpg will cost roughly $610 less a year to drive than one that gets 20 miles per gallon — assuming 15,000 miles of driving and gas at $2.44 a gallon, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Better gas mileage also helps slash dependence on foreign oil, which now makes up 58 percent of U.S. oil used, the site said.

Going green

Hybrids, electric cars and other “green” vehicles offer improved fuel economy, because they use batteries, electricity and other fuel sources to replace gas. They also emit less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air.

Drivers can check emissions levels at fueleconomy.gov. A 2010 Toyota hybrid Prius emits very little: the equivalent of 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide a year — on a scale that runs from about 3.5 tons to 16.2 tons for a vehicle driven 15,000 miles a year.

Even so, hybrids and other “green” cars have found limited acceptance among U.S. buyers to date. Analysts cite two main reasons: “Green” cars tend to be pricier and less convenient.

Nationwide, hybrids now make up roughly 3 percent of vehicle sales, largely because people don’t want to spend an extra $3,000 to $5,000 for them, said Jim Hossack, an analyst with AutoPacific consulting group in Tustin, Calif.

Few drivers power up flex-fuel cars with 85 percent ethanol, because they can’t find enough gas stations that offer the E85 fuel. And there’s resistance to plug-in battery cars because of difficulties finding places to re-charge on the road.

Gas still a force

Green car advocates say backup systems for alternative vehicles will develop over time, and prices will drop as production volumes grow.

But analysts say green car sales will stay limited until gas prices soar — to levels common in Europe and Japan, often $8 a gallon and loaded with taxes.

In Japan, hybrids are a hit, and in Europe, small cars and clean diesel-engines popular because drivers aim to use as little expensive gas as possible.

Yet in the United States, “the notion of raising taxes on gas seems to be political suicide,” said John Voelcker, editor-in-chief of New York-based GreenCarReports.com.

The road ahead

For South Florida drivers keen on alternative technologies, here are innovations already here or coming soon.

Honda’s hybrid Insight: The just-introduced car offers 41 miles per gallon on city and highway driving combined. That compares with 50 miles combined for Toyota’s longer-selling Prius.

Tesla’s electric cars: California-based Tesla plans to open a service center in the Miami area this year for its all-electric vehicles, one of seven nationwide. It will first offer the Roadstar sports car for about $109,000. It plans an all-electric sedan in 2011 for $50,000.

Nissan’s electric car: Nissan plans to offer an all-electric car, now dubbed EV-11, as soon as next year. It would drive about 150 miles on a battery charge and would use a new technology to boost the battery charge when the driver uses the brakes. An onboard computer will display a map of places the car can reach on its remaining charge.

Chevy’s hybrid Volt: Chevrolet could launch the Volt as soon as 2010. It uses a lithium-ion battery to fuel trips up to 40 miles and a gas-powered engine for longer trips. Most Americans drive less than 40 miles a day for their work commute.

GreenCarReports.com. predicts three trends over the next decade that will increase fuel economy in cars that use some gas:

Smaller, harder-working gas engines: The Chevy Cobalt, with a 2.2 liter engine, for example, is to be replaced by the Chevy Cruze, with a 1.4 liter engine turbo-charged to offer similar performance and acceleration.

Lighter-weight materials: The 2010 Subaru Outback, for instance, is at least 450 pounds lighter than most mid-size sport utilities, because it uses high strength steel and other lighter materials.

“Mild” hybrids. Battery packs, electric motors and power electronics add weight and price to hybrids. Honda’s Insight uses a small battery pack that limits how far the car can travel but makes it lighter and cheaper.

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