The New Era of High-MPG Cars

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The 50-mpg 2010 Toyota Prius is one of our six 2010 Best Green Cars. Recently redesigned for its third generation, the Prius remains the benchmark by which all other green cars are measured. 

Welcome to a new era of green cars — and buckle up, because this is just the beginning of what looks to be an unprecedented focus from automakers on gas mileage and advanced technologies to create practical, reliable and relatively affordable green vehicles. Years ago, that would’ve sounded too good to be true — just another halfhearted promise from an industry still in love with inefficient SUVs and same-old, same-old 20-something mpg cars. But thanks in part to the recent recession, change truly has come to the automotive industry.

The fallout’s take-home messages to automakers worldwide were loud and clear: gas mileage matters, create better products that meet drivers’ needs, and bring long talked-about green technologies to market. To be fair, some automakers (such as Honda and Toyota) have shown their commitment to fuel efficiency, even when it wasn’t trendy to do so. But the bottom line is that fuel economy and beyond-gas technologies are now higher priorities than ever before.

So what does this mean for you right now? It may come as a surprise that despite the economic upheaval, automakers produced a decent lineup of high-mpg cars for the 2010 model year. Thanks to clean diesel and new and redesigned gasoline-electric hybrids, the overall list of green car options is stronger than ever. Plus, it’s a buyer’s market. If you’d like to save money at the pump, this is a great time to negotiate a great deal on a new car. (Experts predict $3/gallon gasoline will return soon, if it hasn’t already by the time you’re reading this. To learn more, read Gas Likely to Hit $3 a Gallon by Summer.)

All of this prompted our first Best Green Cars list. Our goals are to praise innovation in practical, energy-efficient transportation and signal which cars are standouts among a growing crowd of options. In selecting our inaugural list, fuel economy and emissions mattered most. We also considered price, safety and reliability. All told, we wanted to award cars that meet the everyday needs of everyday people. As much as many of us would love to own the all-electric Tesla Roadster, it simply isn’t affordable or practical for the masses.

Of the six 2010 award winners, all are capable of 40 mpg or better. Five of the six are available for $25,000 or less. All six have good ratings for crash safety and mechanical reliability. Two cars on our list are veterans of accolades: the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius. The Prius is in its third generation and can now top 50 mpg, but had its halo tarnished by Toyota’s recent recall problems. The 42-mpg Civic Hybrid faces increasing competition, even from Honda itself via the 41-mpg Insight (the most affordable hybrid available). The 39-mpg Fusion Hybrid is a much-welcome entry into the green car lineup from Ford, the lone American automaker to escape the recession without federal bailout funds. New clean diesel technology has expanded the definition of green cars, and the two best current models, Volkswagen’s Jetta and Golf, round out our list.

To read more about the six winners, read 2010 Best Green Cars. There you’ll also find a variety of best-of lists that will help you identify the best green car options for your specific needs.

John Rockhold is a green car enthusiast and Contributing Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Find him on .