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Eco-Friendly Cars: Toyota Prius to Tesla Roadster, Part 1

Without fanfare or an exact date, there must have a collective automotive epiphany in recent years. Somehow, all major carmakers were in on it, except Toyota. It had its awakening 14 years ago.

The Japanese carmaker introduced its hybrid gas-electric car in 1997 and then debuted it in the United States car market in 2001. It wasn’t the first electric or hybrid car available in the country. But it was the first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid car in the U.S., and the auto industry hasn’t been the same since.

Combine the increasing influence of the environmental movement, pending federal regulation for increased fuel efficiency and diminishing reliance on foreign fuel and the auto industry en masse now gets it.

The “greening of the mainstream,” as it’s sometimes called, now means one thing in two words to automakers — game on. The Toyota Prius still outsells all other hybrid, alternative fuel, and electric cars combined. But there’s now plenty of competition.

Seven months before the Prius arrived, Honda embraced the new technology first with the odd-looking, peanut-sized Insight. It was largely a novelty and its lack of success was reflected in a review in the New York Times, which in part read than the car’s styling “suggested Popeye’s pal, Olive Oyl, in her ankle-length dress.”Eco-Friendly Cars: Toyota Prius to Tesla Roadster, Part 1 1

But two years ago, the Honda reintroduced the redesigned Insight in the same breakthrough two-year span other stalwart manufacturers did the same. The Chevy Malibu, Ford Escape and even Cadillac Escalade all available in hybrid models.

But not until Nissan and Chevrolet began last year heavily marketing and subsequently recently debuting their respective new eco-car offerings has there been so much buzz in the eco-car segment.

Unveiled nearly simultaneously, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt have competed for the public’s attention with massive advertising campaigns. Nissan, which has received 99 mpg electric equivalency for the Leaf, sponsored the cycling team of Lance Armstrong and then hired the seven-time Tour de France winner as a commercial pitchman. The automaker then “replaced” Armstrong with a polar bear. It lumbered through neighborhoods and hugged the driver of a new Leaf in the owner’s driveway. Nissan predicts sales of about 25,000 Leafs in 2011.

Chevrolet chose actor comedian Tim Allen as the voice of its first commercial pitch for the Volt and chose an Americana theme.

“This isn’t a country where plans made at 9 necessarily apply at 5. This is America, man,” says Allen. “Home of the highway, last-minute detours and spontaneous acts of freedom. We’re wanderers, wayfarers, even nomads. So doesn’t it just make sense that we build an electric car that goes far? Really far.”

Chevrolet, which will manufacture 45,000 Volts in 2011, says the car has a total driving range of up to 379 miles. It’s capable of 35 miles on a full electric charge and an additional 344 miles on its gas-powered engine/generator.

To read part 2, visit: Eco-Friendly Cars

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