I hate awards shows. I skip every big gala you could name: the Academy Awards, the Tonys, the Grammys (especially the Grammys — I like music too much). I’m elsewhere when the "American Idol" is crowned, the "Top Chefs" cook without me, and Miss America sheds tears for other bystanders. Of course, there are beauty contests for cars, too, and some of them are howlers — industry-sponsored events that have put vehicles like the Hummer and Ford Excursion in the winner's circle.
In 1983, the hideous Renault Alliance was the Motor Trend Car of the Year, and in ’78 it was the equally awful Plymouth Horizon. (My wife had one of those, and it was burning oil after 50,000 miles.) Like I said, I’m not big on awards, most of which are given out for something other than objective quality.
But nobody cares what I think. The nominations are in for the 2012 Green Car of the Year award, which will be handed out at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Nov. 17. I was on site last year when the award went, deservedly, to the Chevy Volt. The winner this year isn’t as clear, since the nominees are on a level playing field.
The 2012 nominees are: Ford Focus Electric, Honda Civic Natural Gas, Mitsubishi i, Toyota Prius v and Volkswagen Passat TDI. Here’s a little bit on each one:
Ford Focus Electric: Toe in the Water. This isn’t Ford’s first modern electric vehicle (the Transit Connect van has that honor), but it’s the company’s first electric car in an actual production program. I’ve driven the car three times in various stages of readiness, and found it terrific — well thought-out, tight, loaded with features — but the company has been cagey about its ambitions for the car. Volume projections were originally in the 3,500 to 5,000 globally, which is a tiny program. But more recently Ford has raised the ante to 15,000 — more than the Volt in its first year. The plug-in Focus has a range of about 100 miles, Best Buy’s Geek Squad to install charging, and roll-out date late this year. Ford’s Sue Cischke said that Ford stands ready to increase production if demand warrants it. Expect it to be available only regionally at first.
Honda Civic Natural Gas: Emissions Winner. In Europe, consumers have wide choice when it comes to natural gas cars, but in the U.S., the Civic is the only game in town. The natural gas Honda, formerly known as the GX, was redesigned for 2012 as part of the overhaul of the Civic line. The 110-horsepower engine is refined, and now claims 27 mpg city and 38 highway (31 combined). Range is a problem in natural gas cars, since the fuel has lower energy density. The new car can go 190 miles (a 10 percent increase). When it comes to emissions, these are the cleanest internal-combustion cars on the road. California rates it as the highest-possible AT-PZEV, which stands for advanced technology partial-zero emission vehicle. It’s good for the Golden State’s HOV lanes. Natural gas cars are creeping up on us, and it’s interesting to note the proliferation, in the South mostly, of propane-powered police and sherrif’s cars — many converted with money confiscated from crystal meth felons.
Mitsubishi i: Under the Radar. Formerly known as the i-MiEV, Mitsubishi’s battery car is a quiet comer, soon to have a higher profile in the U.S. The revamped car is due in the U.S. in January, at an announced MSRP price of $27,990 plus destination charges. That’s lower than the Leaf, though it buys the base ES version. Adding features standard in the Leaf get the price up there — with the fancy stereo and the leather shift knob, we’re looking at $30,000, and go to the SE premium package and the bottom line is $32,790. That would be dead even with the Leaf had Nissan not raised the price of that car to $35,200. But enough on price. I’ve driven a bunch of i-MiEVs, but not the new i. I expect it to be comparable on many fronts to the Leaf, with which it shares the ability to be fast-charged in 30 minutes at 480 volts.
Prius v: Getting Better All the Time. Here’s a car I love. I tested the v (Note: Toyota puts the name in italics, but we don’t have to slavishly follow along, do we?) for the New York Times and loved it. The latest edition Prius, introduced in 2010, is an excellent value, but the v (for “versatility”) adds considerable versatility to the package. I was able to stretch out in the rear cargo area (which offers up to 67.3 cubic feet) with the back seats folded down. The Prius’ wheelbase was stretched three inches, and the car gained six inches in overall length. The tradeoff to all that extra room is compromised styling (it’s a bit lumpy) and some lost fuel economy. Since that’s the Prius’ defining feature, it’s mildly concerning, but the car is still 44 mpg in the city, 40 on the highway, and 42 combined — better than most other cars on the road. It’s coming this fall, with pricing still to be announced.
Volkswagen Passat TDI: The Diesel Alternative. Diesels don’t get any respect in the U.S., but it’s time to reconsider that. I’d love to see a diesel hybrid on the American market, but lacking in that the $26,000 made-in-U.S.A. (at the new Chattanooga plant) two-liter Passat is the next best thing. How does 43 mpg on the highway and 795 miles to a tank sound? This is not your grandpa’s diesel, in the company’s words “smelly, loud and nasty.” Instead, it’s remarkably well-behaved and an excellent all-around performer, if a bit blandly styled. No speed demon at nine seconds to 60 mph, it remains a good alternative to a hybrid.
So those are the contenders. Which one would I pick? For my needs right now, probably the Prius v. But I’d be proud to own any of them. I'd go for the Tesla Model S if it were on the list. We’ll see how the judging goes. The panel includes Carl Pope of the Sierra Club; Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Jean-Michel Cousteau of the Ocean Futures Society; and Matt Petersen of Global Green USA. Jay Leno, who just hosted me on his Big Dog Garage TV show, is on board, and so is Carroll Shelby of Cobra fame. Better them than me!