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Hybrid, eco-friendly, 'green cars' now mainstream

Hybrid, eco-friendly, 'green cars' now mainstream 1A decade ago, your quirky “green” neighbors down the street may have driven a Honda Insight, but hybrid vehicles largely existed on the fringe.

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Today, owning an eco-friendly car has become mainstream—the same family down the street may still have their odd-looking hybrid, but the fraternity now includes soccer moms, bank executives and college students.

Here are five distinct eco-friendly cars to consider:

SmartCar: The ultra-compact ForTwo two-seater, built by a division of Mercedes Benz, was first distributed in foreign markets in 1998. Just shy of nine feet long, and slightly more than five feet wide, the ForTwo has a three-cylinder, 70-horsepower engine, and gas (premium recommended) mileage averages of 33 mpg. (city) and 41 mpg. (highway).

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It’s available nationwide at about seventy Mercedes Benz and stand-alone dealerships, including locations in Stockton and Sacramento. Base price range: $11,590-$16,950. Final words: Forget cargo space, but the ForTwo’s hip and efficient factors are enormous.

Chevrolet Malibu: Massive marketing and glowing reviews vaulted the gas-only Malibu in with the “big dogs” of the midsize car segment, but the hybrid version has quietly enjoyed its success. The gas-electric system is called a “mild” or practical hybrid.

The Malibu hybrid can’t run only on the electric motor; instead, the electric motor assists the gasoline engine, which is always on when the car is moving. Like the gasoline-only Malibu, the hybrid has everything that has helped catapult the model’s sales, a 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine, and 4-speed automatic transmission.

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Its gas mileage averages are 26 mpg. (city), 34 mpg. (highway). Base price: $23,895. Final words: With the exception of better gas mileage and slower acceleration, the hybrid Malibu has the same qualities as the popular gasoline version we’ve come to appreciate.

Honda Civic GX: First available in 2005, the GX runs completely on compressed natural gas (CNG) meaning super-clean emissions. Plenty of Hondas get acclaim, but none match the GX for its eco-friendly factor. It’s been named the world’s cleanest-burning internal combustion engine by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The GX has an estimated range of 250 miles via its 113-horsepower, 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder engine with a 5-speed automatic transmission that produces 24 mpg. (city) and 36 mpg. (highway). Compressed gas is replenished with home-installed units or at commercial CNG stations (less than 2,000 nationwide).

The GX is available only in New York and California, including Northern California Honda dealers. Base price: $25,190. Final words: No folding rear seat is a small inconvenience overshadowed by nearly $7,000 in tax credits and much less expensive gas.

Lexus RX Hybrid: A crossover SUV first sold in 2005, the RX follows the Ford Escape as the second mass-produced SUV and first luxury hybrid available nationwide. The 400h was also the launch for the Lexus hybrid lineup, which now includes the GS 450h and LS 600h/LS 600h L. A 4-door, 5-seat SUV, the RX features a 3.3-liter, V6 engine with 268-horsepower that runs on front and rear high-output, permanent-magnet electric-drive motors.

A prime example of the mesh of luxury and utility, the RX has an impressive list of high-end standard features, from part-time all-wheel drive to 18-inch alloy wheels. It has mpg. ratings of 30 (city) and 26 (highway), and with its 17.2-gallon gas (regular unleaded recommended) tank, it has more than a 500-mile range. Base price: $43,480. Final words: The words luxury hybrid once seemed opposites, but the Lexus hybrid SUV simply works.

Toyota Prius: Available in more than forty countries, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid outsells all others combined. It may not be the most attractive, it’s among the slowest, and it has little cargo room, but the Prius has the best gas mileage among hybrids, an estimated 48 mpg. (city), 45 mpg. (highway). Redesigned in 2009 as a 2010 model, the new Prius addresses owner concerns, particularly lack of interior space and acceleration.

The Prius is a 4-door, 5-seat sedan powered by a 110-horsepower, 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine (gas-electric combined). It has only an 11.9-gallon gas tank, but has a driving range of 547 miles. Base price: $22,000. Final words: Great gas mileage, keen ride, and quiet disposition. There’s a reason it leads the hybrid pack.

Here are three weird and wacky green cars — some highly desired, others an acquired taste.

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Tesla Roadster: Built in conjunction with Lotus, the two-seat, electric sports car wasdelivered to only 150 customers in 2008. Price: $110,000. www.teslamotors.com

The Auto Moto: It’s not a scooter, nor a car. It has a 2.1-gallon gas tank and gets 80 mpg. It requires a regular driver’s license to operate. Base price: $3,800. www.theautomoto.com

Zap Car: It’s classified as a three-wheel motorcycle, has zero emissions, and operates on a 110-volt battery. Just plug it in and go. Radio/CD, leather seats, car cover are options. Price: $11,770. www.zapworld.com, www.daviselectriccars.som.

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