Wanted: A Cheap Green Car

MIGHTY MIDGET: Toyota's Prius C debuts in Detroit. (Photo: Toyota).

The biggest problem with green cars is that they’re too expensive. That’s why it’s good news that the itty-bitty Toyota Aqua hybrid, to be sold over here as the Prius C, will cost 1.69 million yen in Japan. Fortunately, that translates to only $21,700. If Toyota can improve on that price for the U.S., it will have a very competitive hybrid car on its hands.

Greg Thome of Toyota points out that the company's pricing is "independent in the various regions of the world," and we won't have a bottom line on the Prius C until early next year (most likely, in Detroit).

The cheapest car on the road today is the Nissan Versa 1.6 S, yours for just $11,750 — half the price of a Toyota Camry. And with that you get (in the automatic version, a $1,770 option) 30 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway. It’s a darned good car, and to be competitive with it, hybrids should be both affordable and even more miserly with fuel. Don’t pay extra just to get the “hybrid” badge.

There will be all kinds of green cars hitting the road soon. Right now, I don’t know of one with a knockout price and killer fuel economy. My sweet spot would be 50 mpg on the highway and under somewhere around $16,000. Any takers for my ready cash? It doesn’t have to be a hybrid — I’d settle for a turbocharged three-cylinder econobox with start-stop technology and regenerative braking.

The Prius C is to make its debut at the upcoming North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and I’m looking forward to seeing it come down the aisle. Toyota is also showing off a plug-in hybrid concept called the NS4 (see photo below). Teaser photos reveal something a lot sexier than the Prius plug-in, which makes sense. Toyota has had the foresight to realize that green car buyers like to show off their environmentally friendly purchases, and unique styling helps with that.

The Prius C, with a lithium-ion battery pack under the rear seats, will be pretty small, just three inches longer than the Yaris, and powered by a 1.5-liter four. I’m waiting to see if it will be as versatile as the Honda Fit, which makes brilliant use of space. The Prius family could get even bigger, with coupe, SUV and convertible versions. The coupe could be on the market as early as 2014.

The Honda Fit Hybrid, at $19,370, is actually cheaper in Japan than the Toyota Aqua, but there are no plans to sell a version of that car in North America. Honda’s strategy is based around the Insight, which at $18,350 MSRP actually is the cheapest hybrid on the American market. It was freshened for 2012, and gained a bit on fuel economy — 44 mpg on the highway, 41 in the city. That’s a fair amount of bang for the buck: “The Insight offers highest fuel economy of any new vehicle under $20,000,” says Chris Naughton, a Honda spokesman. “We have no current plans to bring Fit Hybrid variants to the U.S.” Note the use of the word “current.”

I get that Honda doesn’t want to compete with itself by offering a similarly priced Honda Fit hybrid, but the company might want to examine the alternatives. The Insight, with Prius-like styling but in a sort of bare-bones version, lacks pizzazz. The Fit, meanwhile, was Japan’s bestseller in the first half of 2011, propelled in large part by the release of the hybrid version in the fall of 2010. Honda also fields an ultra-cool Fit Shuttle minivan in Japan (with a likely hybrid coming), but we can’t get that one, either.

But wait, there’s more. Honda also offers the CR-Z, a sporty two-seater hybrid for under $20,000 ($19,545 MSRP). But that one doesn’t have the utility of a Fit, and fuel economy is a pretty-good-but-why-do-I-need-a-hybrid-for-that 31 city and 37 highway. All things being equal, that’s about the same fuel economy as that non-hybrid Nissan Versa.

Our family includes a 2007 Honda Fit with 50,000 miles and 35 mpg on the highway. It costs us $1,613 a year to keep it full of gas. The Fit has earned its keep. It’s still running great. It’s not a hybrid, but so what? For me to replace it, I’d need to be assured I was making a shrewd investment. So I’m on the lookout: 50 mpg, $16k.

Here's a sneak video preview of the Prius C, which appears to be loaded with features, including some nice folding rear seats: