DETROIT — Figuring out which car will cut your fuel costs most just got a lot more complicated, but the potential payoff has never been higher. • From the extended-range electric Chevrolet Volt to the battery-powered Nissan Leaf to high mile per gallon engines powering the Volkswagen Jetta diesel, Chevrolet Cruze and Honda Civic, an unparalleled variety of vehicles are vying to help Americans reduce oil consumption, emissions and trim their fuel bills.
In the right hands, a Volt or Leaf could free many drivers from the gas pump. But depending on your driving routine, a Leaf might not work at all, and could strand you on the roadside. Other drivers may find a hybrid or diesel makes more sense than either the Volt or Leaf.
"The consumer needs to know if the vehicle meets their demands," David Champion, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports magazine, said of the Volt and Leaf.
Electric, extended-range electric, hybrid or diesel? The right choice depends on how much you drive every day, how predictable your driving routine is and whether you take weekend trips or driving vacations.
The Leaf's greatest strength is that its battery-only power supply will power the car for up to 100 miles and never burn a drop of gasoline. That's also its greatest weakness. The big battery takes a long time to charge, even if you install a special 220-volt outlet in the garage. When the battery is drained, the Leaf has fallen and it can't get up.
The Volt, on the other hand, has a smaller battery that's good for up to about 50 miles of electric driving. For longer trips, a gasoline-powered generator produces fresh electricity to keep the power flowing. Unlike the Leaf, the Volt can be the only car most drivers need, but some people think the gasoline-powered generator makes it less of a breakthrough than the Leaf.
You can drive a Volt from New York to Los Angeles, but that's not the best use of the Volt's technology. It was engineered to use little or no gasoline in the 40- to 60-mile range that covers most Americans' daily driving. Its fuel economy on long highway trips is about the same as a good compact car and less than leading hybrids and diesels.
The new technologies are expensive. Don't expect an electric vehicle to repay the added cost versus a fuel-efficient and comparably equipped gasoline car unless fuel prices skyrocket. But the hybrid history proves that people happily pay more to use less fuel. Concerns about the environment, national security and fuel prices all contribute to that.
The Volt should save plenty of fuel for drivers who drive mostly around town and take a few weekend getaways a year. If you have a long daily commute, or take a road trip every weekend, you may be better off with a highway hero like the Toyota Prius or Volkswagen Jetta diesel.