Car Tips | Car Reviews

2015 Green Cars

Tesla Model S P85D, Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum, Golf TDI SE

By Peter Bohr

Will low gasoline prices put the brakes on sales of fuel-miserly vehicles? The plunge in fuel prices in fall 2014 was dramatic. Southern California motorists hadn’t seen sub-$3 gasoline since 2010—which, of course, means that lately there’s been less pocketbook incentive for motorists to purchase alternatives to conventional gasoline-powered cars.

A weak global economy and a flood of oil from hydraulic fracturing of U.S. shale deposits drove gas prices lower. But the economy fluctuates, and shale oil production will plateau by the end of the decade, says the International Energy Agency. The agency expects that the Middle East will remain the major source of oil supply in years ahead.

Therefore, the respite in prices is likely to be fleeting. Alternative-power and high-mpg gasoline-powered vehicles are still the future of motoring. Here are three green vehicles, each quite different in its approach to minimizing the burning of fossil fuel.


Tesla Model S P85D

Tesla Model S P85D

Read the Review

Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum

Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum

Read the review

Volkswagen Golf TDI SE

Volkswagen Golf TDI SE

Read the review

Tesla Model S P85D

Tesla’s Model S is a rock star among electric vehicles. Heck, it’s the rock star among all alternative-fuel vehicles—and with good reason. First, the S is a looker, with graceful styling rivaling that of any conventional sedan. It also handles great, with responsive steering and a low center of gravity, thanks to the lithium-ion battery pack beneath the passenger compartment. It’s comfy, 
with a spacious cabin and plenty of cargo room. And it goes—man, does it go! The twin-electric-motor version, the 691-hp P85D, time warps 0 to 60 mph in a tad over 3 seconds.

Moreover, Tesla has whipped one of the three big bugaboos of pure-electric vehicles: range. Depending upon the battery pack, the S can travel between 208 and 270 miles on a charge, according to Tesla. As for the other two issues, recharge time and high battery-pack cost, Tesla’s working on them. It now takes about an hour for a full recharge at one of Tesla’s nearly 200 nationwide Supercharger stations, or overnight using a home charger. But the company is experimenting with a system that swaps out a dead battery pack with a fully charged pack in three minutes.

And Tesla says a new battery “gigafactory” in Nevada will help reduce the 
battery cost. At a starting price of $71,070, the Model S is indeed pricey. But if Tesla succeeds in introducing a smaller, $35,000 sedan, expected by late 2017, it will pose the most significant challenge ever to the gasoline engine and to the legacy automakers.

Tesla Model S P85D

Vehicle layout: Two electric motors (221 and 470 hp), AWD

MSRP: $105,670 (base, as tested)

MPG, city/hwy/combined: 89/98/93 mpg gasoline equivalent

Standard safety features: Front side, front knee, and full side curtain air bags

Spare tire: None

Crash-test ratings: NHTSA front, side rollover, overall: five stars (NHTSA tested a similar Model S, not the P85D). IIHS: not yet rated

What’s cool: Free battery recharges at Tesla’s Supercharger stations

What’s not: The driver can browse the web or send email on the center-stack screen while the car is in motion—how safe is that?


Through the AAA Car Buying Service, members can enjoy a no-hassle and save time and money on their next new or used vehicle purchase through hundreds of certified dealers. For details, go to AAA.com/auto or call 1-800-709-72221-800-709-7222

Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum

Nobody does it better, sang Carly Simon—a lyric that applies to Toyota and its hybrid powertrains. The Prius is the Toyota hybrid of renown, but the automaker offers its Hybrid Synergy Drive as an alternative to conventional powertrains in several models, including the popular Highlander crossover SUV. The Highlander Hybrid combines the same 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine used in the conventional Highlander with two electric motors to produce a total of 280 hp, 10 more than the conventional version.

The Highlander Hybrid can go short distances under electric power alone; transitions between electric and gasoline power are barely noticeable from the driver’s seat. The V6/electric motor combo gives snappy acceleration too. It provides 27 mpg in the city and 28 mpg combined city/highway—9 mpg more city and 8 mpg more combined than the conventional Highlander.

That’s impressive for a largish vehicle that can seat seven.

The full redesign in 2014 gave the Highlander a roomier third-row seat and more aggressive styling. It remains a comfy, accommodating crossover with handling that, while not exactly sporty, is safe and secure.

 

Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum

Vehicle layout: 3.5-liter V6 and two electric motors (280 hp combined), CVT, AWD

MSRP: $50,875 (base, as tested)

MPG, city/hwy/combined: 27/28/28

Standard safety features: Front side, driver’s knee, front passenger seat cushion, and all-rows side curtain air bags; electronic brake-force distribution; brake assist

Spare tire: Space saver/temporary

Crash-test ratings: NHTSA side, overall: five stars; rollover, front: four stars. IIHS moderate front overlap, side, roof: good; small front overlap, acceptable; 
Top Safety Pick Plus

What’s cool: The center console storage compartment is big enough to carry 
a turkey

What’s not: The Hybrid version extracts nearly a $6,000 premium compared with a similarly equipped nonhybrid Highlander


Through the AAA Car Buying Service, members can enjoy a no-hassle and save time and money on their next new or used vehicle purchase through hundreds of certified dealers. For details, go to AAA.com/auto or call 1-800-709-72221-800-709-7222

Volkswagen Golf TDI SE

German automakers are fond of diesels. In the U.S., the vast majority of diesel cars—as opposed to pickup trucks—come from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and the subject here, Volkswagen. VW’s redesigned-for-2015 Golf is available with a 2.0-liter turbocharged direct injection (TDI) 
diesel engine.

The defining technical difference between a diesel and a gasoline engine is the air/fuel-mixture ignition process. Gasoline engines use spark plugs; diesels ignite the mixture with ultrahigh compression (air heats up when it’s compressed). A gallon of diesel contains more energy than a gallon of gasoline, which helps explain the diesel’s main practical advantage: higher fuel economy. The Golf TDI boasts fuel economy rivaling that of hybrids and has a 475-mile range between 
fuel stops.

Otherwise, the diesel Golf behaves like a gasoline Golf—which is to say, very well indeed. The sporty Golf is a delight on twisty roads, yet gives a pleasant, quiet ride on the highway. Longer and lower, the new Golf’s exterior styling is Bauhaus in spirit, with form following function to the point of blandness. But the interior is inviting, with a high-quality look and feel.

The lowest-priced gasoline Golf carries a sticker of $18,815. The lowest-priced diesel Golf is better equipped, but priced at $23,165. Is it worth it? For more on that question, see Drive Smart: Diesels.

Volkswagen Golf TDI SE

Vehicle layout: 2.0-liter inline-4 (150 hp), 6-speed manual, FWD

MSRP: $26,715 (base), $27,010 (as tested)

MPG, city/hwy/combined: 30/45/36

Standard safety features: Front side and full side curtain air bags

Spare tire: Space saver/temporary

Crash-test ratings: NHTSA: not yet rated. IIHS small front overlap, moderate front overlap, side, roof: good; Top Safety Pick

What’s cool: The new infotainment touch screen allows swiping and pinching like an iPhone

What’s not: So-so reliability ratings of previous Golfs, according to J.D. Power


Through the AAA Car Buying Service, members can enjoy a no-hassle and save time and money on their next new or used vehicle purchase through hundreds of certified dealers. For details, go to AAA.com/auto or call 1-800-709-72221-800-709-7222

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