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The Best Green Cars For Your Budget and Driving Habits

By Aaron Crowe

The environmental benefits of green cars may be enough to get some early adopters to buy them. But for others, the switch from all-gas to hybrid or all-electric vehicles can be a lot simpler: Saving money.

Rarely, or never, stopping at a gas station is a major benefit of owning a green car, along with no longer having to go in for an oil change if you own an electric car. But there are other benefits, depending on your needs.

Kelley Blue Book recently came out with a list of the 10 best green cars of 2015, featuring a variety of prices and powertrains to match almost any budget and driving needs.

With an eye toward helping consumers decide which green car is best for them, we looked a little deeper into which factors to consider when buying one, and talked to experts about which cars do the best job of meeting the most criteria when buying a green car.

Using KBB’s green car list as a guide, here’s our take on which of those are the best for different types of consumers:

You’re single: 2015 BMW i3

If you have a family with four children, this electric car with an optional gasoline engine isn’t for you. It may not even be what you want if you have a family at all, with two doors and limited seating in the back.

The BMW i3 was the top-ranked green car by KBB.com. It has an electric range of 81 miles and has a small gas generator that nearly doubles that range to get you to the next gas station. It can go to 60 mph in just over seven seconds. It has a base price of $42,400.

It’s a sporty looking car that’s “probably a bit over the top for your average consumer,” says Michael Harley, chief analyst at AutoWeb, a search engine for car shoppers.

You don’t want to suffer “range anxiety”: Chevrolet Volt

Like the BMW i3, the Volt is an extended range electric vehicle, or EREV. In addition to being electric, it has a small gas engine to extend the electric range when the batteries are close to empty. KBB put the Chevy Volt at No. 7 on its list of the best green cars.

This extended range is meant to help eliminate “range anxiety,” a fear that an all-electric car won’t reach its destination because there isn’t a charging station along the way.

Many plug-in hybrids deliver only 10-20 miles of all-electric range before switching to gas, but the Volt delivers 38 miles of range on electricity alone, according to KBB. It gets 98 miles per gallon gasoline equivalent, or MPGe, for the first 38 miles, and gets 37 MPG for the next 342 miles.

The Volt is popular with its owners, who have seen it rank high at JD Power for long-term reliability, says Tucker Marion, a professor of entrepreneurship at D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University in Boston.

A second-generation Volt with increased range is expected to be released in the fall with the 2016 model. It will seat three passengers in the rear and will have more sporty styling, Marion says.

You want zero emissions and low price: Nissan Leaf

The Leaf is the top seller among electric vehicles, or EVs, which only run on electricity. The Leaf gets 126 MPGe in the city, 101 on the highway and 114 combined. KBB listed it as the third-best green car. It has a range of 84 miles on a full charge, and has a base price of $29,010.

More electric charging stations for the Leaf and other electric cars are being built, but it will probably be 10 to 15 years before they’re nearly as common as gas stations are, says AutoWeb’s Harley. EVs usually cost more than hybrids, he says, at least for now.

You want to drive far on electricity only: Tesla Model S

If range anxiety prevents you from buying an EV, the Tesla Model S can drive the greatest distance to hopefully stop you from sweating out those last few miles home. The base model has a range of 240 miles and a starting price of $69,900. KBB ranked it sixth in its list of green cars.

The range of 200 miles is the current 4-minute mile barrier for EVs, Marion says, with GM and the Chevy Bolt racing Tesla to meet that range.

“For pure EVs, the Tesla Model S is the most capable, with the longest range, best performance, safety and a proprietary charging network” that’s free for Tesla owners, Marion says.

You want to drive a long-favored green car: Toyota Prius

KBB listed the Prius as its fourth best green car for a reason: It’s the best selling hybrid in the country. It’s an iconic hybrid that comes in many versions, including the Prius C that starts at $19,540.

Toyota also sells a plug-in version of the Prius, but it only gets 11 miles of electric range before its gas engine turns on.

One thing to consider when buying a hybrid versus an EV is the price of gas. Gas prices have dropped in the past year, causing the advantage of low cost per mile for EVs to fall, Marion points out. Nationwide increases in electrical costs can make matters worse, he says.

“In the end, you need to balance the desire for reduced emissions, cost per mile, and the driving experience,” Marion says. “Even if the total cost per mile for a pure EV suffers in the short term, ask a Tesla driver if they would give up the driving experience of smooth, instant power for a traditional vehicle that may be similar in terms of costs? The answer would probably be no.”

“EVs and their various off-shoots are here to stay,” he says.