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Plug in: Car trends 2011

These 2011 cars will make fewer gas-station stops - or none at all Gadgets & technology

May. 15, 2010 - 12:06PM   |   Last Updated: May. 15, 2010 - 12:06PM  |  
Nissan Leaf.
Nissan Leaf. (Nissan)
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Toyota Prius 2010 (Toyota)

The days of gasoline refueling could be over for 2011 car-buyers who live on or near their duty station.

As new electric cars and plug-in hybrids roll off assembly lines, look for Chevrolet to market the most fuel-efficient mass-produced car ever built and for Nissan to release the first purely electric car to the masses since the 1990s.

Those and more trends to be on the lookout for:

Electric cars and plug-in hybrids

• 2011 Toyota Prius

Next-generation gas-electric hybrids, such as the 2011 Prius, will offer plug-in capability, meaning their onboard batteries can be recharged by plugging them into any common 110-volt outlet with an extension cord. In current-production hybrids, such as the 2010 Prius, the only way to recharge the batteries is to run the internal combustion engine — which means burning gas.

Upside: With a plug-in hybrid, you'll use the gas engine less often, which should translate into significant gains in overall fuel economy. Toyota says the 2011 Prius will have a radius on battery power alone of about 13 miles, which means if you live on or near your base or post, your gas mileage theoretically would be infinite.

Downside: Expect to pay more upfront, which will eat away at your savings at the pump, at least for the first few years of ownership. Toyota hasn't released prices for the 2011 Prius yet, but expect it to cost 10 percent to 20 percent more than the 2010 car's base price of $22,800. Also, don't forget that electricity costs money, too.

Plugging in a hybrid is basically like plugging in any other appliance and will increase your monthly utility bill. How much depends on how often you plug in, how low the battery pack is when you do — and the cost per kilowatt-hour of power where you live.

• 2011 Chevy Volt

The 2011 Chevy Volt takes things a step further.

Like the Prius and other hybrids, the Volt has both an electric motor with a battery pack and a small internal combustion engine. But unlike other current production hybrids, the Volt's gas-burning engine is used only to provide backup power for the engine's onboard battery packs if their charge runs low.

Upside: Because the Volt's small gasoline engine doesn't actually propel the car, it is extremely fuel efficient. GM says the Volt should be able to go more than 200 miles on a gallon of fuel. That would make the Volt the most fuel-efficient mass-produced car ever built. It will feature plug-in recharging, so you can top off its battery pack via any common 110-volt outlet. This dual-mode recharging/refueling capability should give the Volt greater versatility and range on electric-only than plug-in hybrids such as the ‘11 Prius, which are still at least partially dependent on their gas-burning engines to move the car.

Downside: The Volt's MSRP is expected to be $35,000 or more, or about what a current BMW 3-Series costs. Even with expected federal tax breaks of $7,500, the Volt will be expensive. The other issue is the real-world durability of its new and very complex drivetrain. We won't know for sure how well it works until it's out on the road, so the first buyers will be taking a leap of faith.

• 2011 Nissan Leaf

The 2011 Leaf electric car will have no internal combustion whatsoever, making it the first mass-produced pure electric car since the GM EV1 back in the 1990s.

But unlike the old EV1 — a compact two-seater that was really only for commuting — the Leaf is a five-passenger sedan comparable to the current Nissan Versa or Sentra in terms of passenger space.

Upside: Unlike previous micro-sized electric cars, the Leaf could work as a family's primary car, which Nissan hopes will broaden its potential market appeal. As a pure electric car with no onboard gasoline engine, the Leaf also qualifies as a zero-emission vehicle and is eligible for special tax breaks and driving privileges at both the federal and state levels, particularly in California. Another selling point is the Leaf's estimated 100-mile range on a full charge.

Downside: Aside from the MSRP of $32,780, the Leaf will need special 220-volt outlets to power up. They're less common than 110-volt outlets, and many homes and businesses will require new wiring to accommodate the Leaf. Also, the Leaf's advertised 100-mile range assumes another 220-volt outlet will be handy wherever you're headed. If not, the real-world driving radius will be no more than 50 miles one way. Cold-weather performance may also be an issue, as batteries are much less efficient when the temperature drops to freezing.

Efficient gas and diesel engines

•Ford Ecoboost engines

V-8 engines that get 15 mpg are becoming as hard to sell as Betamax players, but many buyers still want V-8 power and performance — just not the ‘75 Caddy gas mileage that typically comes with it.

Ford hopes its new line of Ecoboost direct-injected and turbocharged V-6 engines will answer the call. They're designed to produce V-8 horsepower and torque output while maintaining the fuel economy of a smaller V-6 engine.

In the new Taurus SHO, the Ecoboost 3.5-liter engine produces a very strong 365 hp — 50 more than the current Mustang GT's much larger 4.6 liter V-8 engine — while also delivering better gas mileage (17 city, 25 highway versus 16 city, 24 highway). Ecoboost engines will be available in most Ford passenger vehicles by model year 2012.

Upside: Muscle car power and performance with family car fuel economy.

Downside: It's possibly somewhat more complex, which may mean higher maintenance and repair costs down the road.

• High-mileage diesel

Manufacturers such as Volkswagen, BMW, Audi and Mercedes Benz are concentrating their efforts on diesel engines. The newly updated VW Golf, for example, is available with a 2.0-liter turbo direct-injection diesel capable of delivering 42 mpg.

BMW and Mercedes are expected to expand the availability of diesel engines across their respective model lineups, too.

Upside: Very high fuel economy; long-lived durability and ruggedness. Also, unlike diesels of the past, modern passenger-car diesel engines are quiet and smooth — and powerful, too. The BMW 330d, for example, can get to 60 mph in a little more than six seconds while achieving close to 40 mpg on the highway.

Downside: Diesel fuel costs as much or more than premium unleaded in many parts of the country. As with hybrids, up-front cost for a diesel engine also is higher — about $2,000 on average — so it'll take a few years to work off the difference in savings at the pump.

Gadgets & technology

Making its debut in the 2011 Sorento SUV, Kia's UVO (Your Voice) system allows hands-free, voice-activated operation of the car's stereo as well as plug-in accessory devices such as MP3 players, PDAs and USB memory sticks. The driver also can send and receive phone calls and text messages via voice prompt.

Ford's Sync system, which came out about two years ago, is similar but less advanced than UVO. Ford is working on an updated version of its Sync technology that reportedly will allow the same thing.

The 2011 Lincoln MKX will be the first production vehicle to dispense with traditional push buttons, knobs and switches for audio and climate controls. These have been replaced by touch-sensitive pads that respond not to pressure but to the proximity of a finger swipe. You don't have to actually touch or push on the panel, as you'd do on a microwave, for example. Each pad illuminates amber when activated, returning to neutral white backlighting when off.

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