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updated: 2/11/2013 8:59 AM

A look at the green cars at the Chicago Auto Show

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  • Video: 2013 Chicago Auto Show

  • Chevrolet's 2014 Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel is one of multiple green cars on display at the Chicago Auto Show until Feb. 18.

      Chevrolet's 2014 Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel is one of multiple green cars on display at the Chicago Auto Show until Feb. 18.
    Mark Welsh

 
 

Electric? Hybrid? Compressed natural gas? Diesel?

We've hurtled from a few alternate fuel options at the Chicago Auto Show in years past to a green car explosion in 2013 that can be bewildering for consumers looking to save money on gas and save the planet at the same time.

Thankfully, I've got Chicago Area Clean Cities Vice Chair John Walton to offer some analysis.

"I remember when the hybrid was a concept vehicle and people were thinking, 'This is nuts -- who's going to buy one of those?'" said Walton, an agent for Trillium CNG and former DuPage County Forest Preserve District fleet manager.

Now, "automakers offer the public choices from the lower-cost, minimalist models to luxury sedans, SUVs and even pickup trucks."

So let's break down the environmentally friendly options at the auto show, which runs until Feb. 18 at McCormick Place in Chicago.

If you're on the fence about alternative vehicles, you might want to check out the "mild hybrids," including the Chevrolet and Buick eAssist. Cars like the Buick Regal and Chevrolet Malibu can increase fuel efficiency by 25 percent.

"These shut the engine off when the car stops and also have a small electric assist motor. I think that there will be a lot more of these 'mild' hybrids in the future as automakers work to meet future CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards," said Walton, referring to federally mandated levels of 35.5 mpg in 2016 and 54.5 mpg in 2025 for most cars and SUVs.

Then, there are the electric vehicles ranging from electric plug-ins with phenomenal gas mileage but limited range to plug-in electrics with gas generators that extends the range.

Electrics with gas-engine technology include the Chevrolet Volt, Cadillac 2014 ELR and the Fisker Karma, said Walton, a Wheaton resident. But "none of these are inexpensive -- the Volt starts at about $39,000; the Karma starts at over $100,000; the ELR price has not been announced but will be somewhere between the other two."

However, the federal government offers up to $7,500 in tax credits for such cars and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency offers $4,000 cash back, Walton noted.

Another option is cars with diesel engines. Some well-known models are Volkswagen's Passat and Jetta. Chevrolet broke ground at the show Thursday unveiling a diesel-powered Cruze that reaches 42 mph on the highway. Its official name is the 2014 Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, as Chevrolet tries to dispel memories of notorious diesel Oldsmobiles in the 1970s.

The new diesel engines "have proved to be quiet, clean and offer more torque and fuel economy than their gasoline counterparts," Walton said. "I believe that there will be more small, fuel-efficient diesel-engine cars for sale in the USA as time goes on, the general public learns the advantages, and old thoughts of noisy and dirty diesel cars fade away."

What else?

Turbocharge is a buzz word at the show. "In the days gone by, turbo chargers were looked at as a means to get more power out of an engine. The new smaller turbocharged engines from Ford and Chevrolet offer smaller engines that are efficient and add horsepower on demand using a turbo charger," Walton said. "They can squeeze out over 40 mpg on the highway and nearly 30 mpg around town in a midsize sedan."

As for conventional cars with decent mileage? Using combined city/highway scores, the Dodge Dart gets 27 mpg and the Chevrolet Spark gets 34 mpg.

What was Walton's favorite green car? He gave the Ford and Toyota exhibits high marks, noting that Toyota is continually innovating with its Prius lineup and Ford has multiple plug-in and electric choices.

But if Walton had to name one ... (drum roll) ... it's the Cadillac ELR.

One more thing

What would have made the auto show even better? Displaying GMC, Chevrolet or Dodge compressed natural gas trucks or vans at the show, Walton said.

Another missed opportunity was the lack of concept hydrogen vehicles, he added. "GM has said there will be a hydrogen vehicle produced for sale in 2015 -- probably not in Illinois till some time later."

Buying a car in 2013? Visiting the auto show? Send me your thoughts at Your voice

Roy Fonda of Winfield had some questions and comments after I wrote about the exodus of toll collectors from the Illinois tollway as it hires more engineering staff for a major road building program.

"Will they truly be engineers?" Fonda asked. "Will they have degrees from an accredited college or university? How many are or will be registered professional engineers? I and many other engineers are very protective of the title engineer, as opposed to possibly a less restrictive title such as technician. How and why does an agency with, I believe, less than 300 centerline miles of tollway require and justify an engineering department of a projected 605? That is probably larger than IDOT's District One with its much larger operational responsibility."

And Brian Buchanan of Mount Prospect would have voted for Metra nonunion staff raises.

"Give them their raises," he wrote. "I'll bet all the dissidents complaining about the raises wouldn't stand for not having a raise since 2009 if it was them. Now is the time to do it when Metra has the extra revenue coming in.

"One perception needs to be corrected. You commented (in a recent column) 'but more than one-quarter of the employees getting raises have jobs not specifically linked to railroading ... aren't these sorts of jobs easy to fill in today's market?' True to a point. But for instance, railroad accounting is not like regular accounting ... it is its own world."

Upcoming

Don't think sleet. Think cycling. And you can get your bike on 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 9 at the Active Transportation Alliance's Chicago Bike Swap at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. Swap bikes or purchase new models, buy gear and parts, pick up maps and watch a bike dance troupe (no kidding). The event is at the Chicago Physical Education Building at UIC, 901 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago. For info, go to chicagobikeswap.org.

Gridlock alert

LaGrange Road/Route 45 in Orland Park will be closed Sunday through Thursday nights until Feb. 21 for bridge repairs.

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