I've been writing about electric, plug-in hybrid electric, and conventional hybrid vehicles since 2004.
I've followed the steady growth in conventional hybrid adoption, the earliest stages of high-performance battery development and, make no mistake about it, long-time Energy and Capital readers first heard about Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) and other electric car developments from me — not the mainstream media outlets.
And certainly, we've made a few bucks along the way... To this day, I still get emails from investors who thank me for past profits and want to know where they can find the next big electric car investment opportunity.
And folks are always hounding me about what I think is the best fuel-efficient vehicle on the market.
Of course, I'm not an automotive journalist — but I probably spend about as much time as those guys do at electric vehicle conferences, car shows, and factory tours.
Truth is the only real difference between those guys and me is that they report on the performance of the various vehicles they test-drive, whereas I focus more on analyzing the vehicle's potential for success in the marketplace. But today I'm going to switch gears a little bit and do both.
When Toyota was King
For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I am a satisfied owner of a 50 mpg Prius. It's a great car, and I have been completely impressed with the vehicle's ability to limit my trips to the filling station.
That being said, I've also been quite vocal about Toyota's first real threat to its hybrid dominance... and that is coming via Ford's C-Max.
This crossover SUV delivers a combined fuel economy of 47 mpg, comfortably seats a family of five, and can go for about 600 miles on a single tank of gas. And in its first month, it outsold Toyota's comparable Prius model, the Prius V, 3,182 units to 2,769.
That's pretty impressive. And I think the roominess, the price, and the fuel economy of the C-Max do serve as a triple threat to the Prius V. All in all, I don't think Toyota's Prius V will be able to rival the C-Max once the C-Max has been on the market for a year or two, though earlier this week we learned that Ford has now tripled its number of dealers selling the C-Max.
Of course, Toyota's still got a lot of skin in this game. And the automaker has a lot to offer for fuel-conscious consumers...
There's the tried-and-true Prius, which delivers an impressive combined fuel economy of 50 mpg. More than three million have been sold to date. With all the annoying fees and extras, you can pull out of the lot with a new one for about $24,000. Not bad, considering it's actually a very comfortable and roomy sedan with all the bells and whistles we've come to expect with any other comparable sedan.
The Prius C is a smaller version of the Prius offering roughly the same fuel economy, but at a lower price. The Prius C runs about $19,000, and for city driving especially, you'll definitely get superior fuel economy. I've seen estimates as high as 52 mpg.
You can also find a plug-in hybrid electric version of the Prius at most dealerships. Although the all-electric range is limited to about 11 miles, it's pretty much the most inexpensive plug-in hybrid on the market.
And despite Toyota seeming to show little interest in promoting the vehicle, it's actually been selling quite well: Since September, it's been the second best-selling plug-in behind the Volt. Earlier this year, the Prius Plug-in was the third-fastest selling car in the United States behind the BMW 3 series and the BMW X5.
Still, in the realm of electric vehicles, Toyota's not the only game in town...
Will Ford Take the Lead?
The Ford C-Max, which I just mentioned as giving Toyota's Prius V a run for its money, also comes in a plug-in hybrid model, which delivers an all-electric range of 21 miles and a total 108 MPGe. I believe this model can give the Prius Plug-in a run for its money as well.
You see, the Ford C-Max Energi (the plug-in version of the C-Max) starts at around $33,000; the Prius Plug-in starts at around $32,000. So we're basically looking at the Toyota Prius Plug-in offering a $1,000 discount to the C-Max — but with a less impressive all-electric range and less room.
Truth be told, if I'm in the market for a plug-in, the C-Max looks like a better deal.
Though there is something to be said for brand loyalty. You'll be hard-pressed to find many unhappy Toyota customers, and I'm not convinced the C-Max is enough to tempt a significant number of long-time Toyota owners just yet.
But there is one thing I'm certain of: Ford's C-Max and C-Max Energi have officially catapulted the Detroit automaker to the status of “serious player” in the world of hybrids and plug-ins. And there will be no turning back.
There's just too much at stake, and way too much money to be made.
The Cars They Love to Hate
I tell ya, it must've been difficult for Nissan and GM over the past few years — not just because they launched two of the most disruptive vehicle technologies since the Model T, but because they were met with an unprecedented amount of criticism by those who have somehow equated superior fuel economy, technological breakthroughs, and the ability to help displace foreign oil as plagues on our great nation.
It's been one of the most frustrating and truly ridiculous attacks I've ever witnessed from politicians and the mainstream media.
It's one thing if you want to rail against the tax credits. I get that.
But to criticize these vehicles for being anything but ground-breaking is about as dishonest as you can get.
Of course, that's how it is these days...
But despite the fools who buy the lie that electric cars are anything but the biggest disruption in vehicle technology and design in a hundred years, these cars are here to stay.
They're going to get cheaper; they're going perform better and better; and they're ultimately going to prove that for most daily commuters, electric cars will be the most sensible form of personal transportation.
Until that time, however, electric car consumers will have limited choices. And they'll all come with pretty hefty price tags.
In the all-electric category, we have the Nissan LEAF, which will run you about $35,000 before the $7,500 tax credit. The vehicle will give you anywhere between 60 to 100 miles on a single charge depending on your driving habits, and it offers all the features you'd get with any other modern vehicle on the market today.
There's also the Mitsubishi i, which will run you about $30,000 before the $7,500 tax credit. It's a bit smaller than the LEAF, and the all-electric range is between roughly 50 and 80 miles (again, depending on your driving habits). The car's a little less impressive when it comes to bells and whistles, although the price is pretty darn good considering the competition in this space.
For those who are less concerned about price and more concerned about range, performance, and luxury, look no further than the Tesla Model S. It's an absolutely beautiful vehicle that delivers an all-electric range of about 160 miles for the base model.
There is a pricier model that'll give you 300 miles on a charge, but that'll run you about $98,000 after the $7,500 tax credit.
Of course, if 160 miles on a single charge is good enough for you (and it is for more than 70% of the daily commuting U.S. population), you can get one for about $50,000 after the tax credit.
The Model S is a more expensive electric vehicle, and it's not really designed for the masses; it's for those who have the kind of scratch that can get you a quality luxury vehicle. Bells, whistles, and then some are standard on these cars. If you want one, you'll have wait, because there's a pretty long waiting list right now, and the small car manufacturer is only pumping out a couple hundred a week.
And finally, there's the Chevy Volt, a true breakthrough in engineering and a vehicle that has won a number of engineering and performance awards. Although not an all-electric vehicle, the Volt is a plug-in that'll get you between 25 and 38 miles on a charge, but if you switch over to gas, you'll get about 380 miles.
The advantage of the Volt is that most drivers are able to stay in all-electric mode during daily commutes, but they have the option of going further distances if necessary with assistance from the small gas engine. Interestingly, I've been noticing more and more Volts on the road over the past few months.
Early rollouts were slow, and the price tag — around $32,000 after the tax credit — isn't low enough to draw the masses...
But overall, it's been one of the highest-rated vehicles for customer satisfaction ever. In fact, in a Consumer Reports satisfaction rating, 93% of Volt owners said they would purchase the vehicle again!
The Fuel Economy Bar is Being Raised
Of course, I realize not everyone is ready to go electric.
And whether the reason behind this is the price tag, the fear of range anxiety, or the fact that some folks just want to wait a bit longer for the manufacturers to get all the kinks worked out, electric cars do have a long way to go before they become common sights on our streets and highways...
That said, I don't know a single person who doesn't want a vehicle that offers superior fuel economy. And there are plenty to choose from — even if you don't want to go the hybrid or electric route.
If you're looking for a minicompact, the Scion iQ will get you about 36/37 mpg and run you about $16,000. In subcompacts, the Ford Fiesta will get you about 34/35 mpg and run you about $14,000.
If you don't mind diesel, you can get some pretty solid fuel economy from the Audi A3, which delivers a combined fuel economy of about 34 mpg while running you about $30,000... or you can check out the Volkswagen Jetta, which delivers about 43 mpg and runs around $24,000.
Certainly, internal combustion vehicles are upping the ante on fuel economy. But if your main concern today is fuel economy, I think your best and most affordable bet is the Prius, the Prius C, or the Ford C-Max.
These are all quality, competitively-priced vehicles that will limit your time at the gas station and do just a little more to help kick OPEC to the curb. Not a bad deal.
To a new way of life and a new generation of wealth...
@JeffSiegel on Twitter
Jeff is the managing editor of Energy and Capital and contributing analyst for the Energy Investor, an independent investment research service focusing primarily on stocks in the oil & gas, modern energy and infrastructure markets. He has been a featured guest on Fox, CNBC, and Bloomberg Asia, and is the author of the best-selling book, Investing in Renewable Energy: Making Money on Green Chip Stocks. For more on Jeff, go to his editor's page.