Will an eco car really save you money?

If, like me, you’re old enough to remember the petrol crisis of the mid-1970s, you might also recall grave warnings about oil running out in the early years of the 21st century. Turns out the doom-mongers of the day were overly pessimistic, but oil is unarguably a finite resource.

It’s also a mucky one. Whatever your views on climate change, burning fossil fuels such as oil undeniably causes pollution and harms the environment.

So why aren’t we all driving eco-friendly or ‘green’ cars?

The fact is, many of us are, to a certain degree. Cars now have to obey EU rules on CO2 emissions, and road tax charges penalise those who drive cars which emit higher levels of noxious gas.

The increasing popularity of alternative fuel vehicles, including LPG, electric and hybrids, will only add momentum to this trend.

And the more widespread ‘green’ driving becomes, the further costs (including insurance premiums) will fall, creating a benign circle. Or roundabout, maybe.

So here’s a quick guide to the main types of eco-friendly car.

Lower emittors

Most cars on the road will fall into this category. They utilise technological advances that have produced relatively clean combustion engines, and are available fuelled by petrol and diesel, or both - depending on the manufacturer. 

Petrol hybrids

Hybrids use a fuel-efficient petrol engine as the primary source of drive. The big difference is that the main power is also supplemented by an electric engine. 

Typically the electric engine will be active up to speeds of 35mph, at which stage the engine will take over while re-charging the batteries.

Hybrids offer a driving experience similar to traditional cars, and filling one up is no more inconvenient than a normal car – albeit less frequently. 

The Toyota Prius is the most well-known hybrid, but other models include the Honda Insight and Lexus CT.

Electric vehicles

Electric vehicles have been around for several years, but are growing in popularity due to cost and performance factors. Cars classed as ‘pure electrics’ have battery-powered electric motors, and are charged using a mains power supply, either overnight, or in an hour on a fast charge mode.

Plug-in hybrids

These are still driven by electric motors, but also have a range-extending option of an efficient petrol or diesel engine. These can be used to go further and recharge the batteries while on the move. The cost of all electric vehicles is now offset by a £5,000 grant offered by the government.

Alternative fuel

Liquefied petroleum gas is a natural fuel and, while it produces CO2, cars running on it emit a lot less than those with conventional engines. There are around 1,400 garages selling LPG in the UK.  LPG conversions typically cost around £1,200–£1,500.

Oil companies have increased the amount of biofuel (cleaner crop-based oil) at the pumps. Hydrogen cell vehicles are still being developed – it is not expected that these will be a viable alternative over the next 10 to 20 years.  

The latest government family spending statistics show that 15% of average household expenditure goes on vehicle fuel. Little wonder most people would welcome savings.

Eco-driving: the benefits

Cars that produce less than 100 grams per kilometre (g/km) of CO2 are exempt from UK Vehicle Excise Duty road tax, saving you the thick end of £200 in many cases.

As well as making savings on annual fuel and road tax costs, you can benefit from cheaper car insurance deals, as some insurers offer lower premiums to eco car owners. With MoneySupermarket, for example, you can benefit from a 5% insurance discount by purchasing green car insurance from providers who are keen to encourage the use of environmental vehicles.

Some insurers even offer to offset the pollution caused by your car with a scheme such as tree planting or donating to an eco charity.

You can see what’s available here.

Some tax-free cars may also be exempt from the London Congestion Charge – those which emit 100g/KM or less of CO2 and meet the Euro 5 standard for air quality qualify for a 100% discount.

You can check the CO2 emissions of your car on its V5C registration document. Any car registered as new with the DVLA on or after January 1, 2011 is deemed to meet the Euro 5 standard.

What are the top tax-free cars?

Nissan Leaf

If you’re looking for an electric model, WhatCar? Recommends the Nissan Leaf as the “best on sale”. It may have a limited range (Nissan claims you can do 100 miles on a single charge, but WhatCar? Says the maximum is nearer to 80 miles), but it’s got strong performance and excellent refinement.

Ford Fiesta Econetic

WhatCar? picks out this car for being frugal with a very economical 1.6 litre turbo-diesel engine. AutoTrader describes this model as one of Britain’s best-loved cars, with very low emissions, and plenty of style.

Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TFI Bluemotion

This car was voted Green Small Family Car of the Year 2011 by WhatCar? They commended it for being “as desirable and classy as any Golf”, and very fuel-efficient.

Toyota IQ

The Toyota iQ is picked out by AutoTrader for being a freshly-styled and well-packaged city car that is very good fun to drive.

Mini Cooper 1.6D

For drivers who want to have fun, but still get decent mileage per gallon, WhatCar? picks out the Mini Cooper 1.6D, with its smooth diesel engine. It returns more than 70 miles per gallon on average, while emitting just 104g/km of CO2.

Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinPratt15

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