Driving Directions: Getting There Green

6 Standout Green Cars from the 2011 Detroit Auto Show

The Chevrolet Volt won North American Car of the Year, but it better watch its back. The Ford Focus Electric, the new Honda Civic, the Prius V and Prius C, the Audi A6 and the Hyundai Veloster are coming.

DETROIT - The Detroit Auto Show, which proudly proclaims itself "International" and "North American" (after all, Windsor, Ontario is just across the river) was pretty green this year. It could hardly help it, since 2011 is the year that the green cars finally hit the road. Finally, the electric cars on the show stands are actually in production, facing a verdict from the public. (There are 7 electric cars available in 2011.)

2011 chevrolet volt

Here's a look at some of the most interesting new green cars featured at the show.

The Chevrolet Volt

The plug-in hybrid (the company prefers "range extender") Chevrolet Volt (right, photo courtesy Chevy) made a big splash, winning the North American Car of the Year award. The Volt, like the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, has had a winning season – it's on everybody's best list. The electric Nissan Leaf and Hyundai Sonata hybrid were also-rans.

The Ford Focus Electric

Also hitting the road soon is the Ford Focus Electric, which offers 100 miles of range from lithium-ion batteries. The car was actually debuted a week earlier in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show, but it got another big welcome in Detroit. (See The New Ford Focus: An Electric Car, with Apps.)

Ford isn't talking volume about the Focus, and we don't know the marketing plan yet – the car has youth appeal, but it will likely be priced out of the Fiesta generation's reach. Nonetheless, the Focus bristles with user-friendly cellphone apps and helpful dash displays (blue butterflies spell out remaining range). Ford also finally found a home for its 2012 plug-in hybrid: It will be based on the C-Max, a small but versatile Europe-derived five-seat minivan. Some 500 miles of range is planned. (The Ford Fusion Hybrid, Ford Fiesta and the Ford Escape Hybrid both made the most fuel-efficient cars list for 2011.)

Honda Civic

honda civic concept

Speaking of youth appeal, one car that will probably have more environmental impact than the low-volume plug-ins is the next-generation Honda Civic, which will deliver 40 mpg in its gas version. The new Civic, shown in sedan and coupe concept versions, will be on sale in just a few months. If 40 mpg isn't enough for your Civic, there's always the higher-rated Honda Civic hybrid and the GX natural gas version (which now moves to 50 states from four). All that said, the new styling didn't do much for me – something bolder would have worked better.

The Honda Civic Coupe: 40 mpg, a sleeker look. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Toyota Prius V and C

The world has voted with its feet by buying two million Toyota Priuses, so now the model is broadening out with both larger (the V for "versatile") and smaller (the C Concept) versions. "What Kleenex is to tissues and Levi's is to jeans, that's the Prius," said Bob Carter, a Toyota vice president.

The Prius V, out later this summer, makes a lot of sense: It offers 60 percent more cargo area, and a family orientation that includes a killer entertainment center. Toyota, perhaps wary of the stigma against "soccer mom" minivans, thinks it may command an audience 20 percent of the five-door hatchback, but it's so practical that the numbers are likely to be larger. Fuel economy, at 40 combined, suffers a bit.

prius c

The Prius C, due in the first half of 2012, looked insanely sporty – the Honda Civic Si of the line – but very little information is available yet. It will undoubtedly trump the 50-mpg Prius, though. Luckily, given the fate of the original 70-mpg Honda Insight, it's a four-seater (though the interior on view was pure fantasy).

The Toyota Prius Concept C is hot wheels for the green set. (Jim Motavalli photo) Related: The 2000 Honda Insight and 4 Other Best Used Car Buys

Audi A6

I saw two cars that are likely to do well, for different reasons. Audi has been making crafty moves, lately, and in 2010 finally crossed the 100,000-vehicle sales threshold in the U.S. The new A6 looks like another hit for the company, and will be among the better looking Audis. The company had its electric e-tron fleet in Las Vegas, but I missed them in Detroit. The A6 (which loses a bit of weight) will have a hybrid version, though, promising 211 horsepower from the gas motor and 45 from the electric. It has two miles of all-electric range, and a top speed of 62 mph in that guise (though only for a few heady minutes!) (The clean diesel Audi A3 TDI is among the most fuel-efficient 2011 cars.)

Hyundai Veloster

hyundai veloster

The other cool car is the Hyundai Veloster, a quirky little car also aimed at a youth audience. It has two doors on the passenger side, one on the driver's. Carmakers are convinced the kids care more about their hand-helds than about their cars (and they're right), so the Veloster offers a suite of connectivity. The car "has been designed to keep you connected 24/7. Built-in features let you share your location with friends, use hands-free texting, and even upload your favorite music and play videos through a USB port." Feel free to tweet about the car's homepage, and Hyundai helpfully offers Facebook connections. (Hyundai has set a bold fleetwide 50 mpg goal for fuel economy, but only the 2011 Hyundai Accent cracks the list of most fuel-efficient 2011 cars.)

Will they let me buy a Veloster? Not sure – can I use a fake ID? It's interesting, though, that it was Honda that brought out Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy for some music-related promotion, not Hyundai.

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is a senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and author most recently of Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery.
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