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Green growing popular

The Audi A4 arrives with engine-stop systems for traffic-light efficiency, as well as systems to help pick the right gear.

Hybrid cars and plans are popping up everywhere, from Porsche and Ferrari at the top end in Europe to the dozens of enthusiastic new carmakers led by Geely and BYD - the name means Build Your Dreams - in China.  We are also seeing far more efficiency in everyday petrol-powered cars, with a range of new technologies to boost economy and cut emissions.

A growing number of new cars are now arriving with engine-stop systems for traffic-light efficiency, as well as driver-advisor systems to help pick the right gear. There is an Audi A4 in the Carsguide garage this week which does both and, even with a turbocharged petrol engine, is running fuel economy in the 7 litres/100km range.

There is much more to come on the petrol-power front and the Toyota Prius, perhaps surprisingly since it's a hybrid, shows the way. Its 1.8-litre petrol engine is the first in the world without any sort of power-sapping drive belt for the parasitic add-ons, with electrically operated power steering and airconditioning, an on-demand alternator and an electric water pump.

Expect all this, and soon, on cars for you.  Diesel engine development is going ahead very rapidly with most European brands - Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes-Benz among them - touting some sort of Blue technology. So blue is the new green for diesels.

The best new diesels are much quieter than in the past and, thanks to the massive advantages of turbocharging, they have huge pulling power. Torque rules in the real world, where you need punch for overtaking and stoplight drags, and that makes diesels the surprising performance choice for a growing range of vehicles.

It's easy to go on and on about the engine changes, from Benz's switch from superchargers to turbochargers and BMWs impressive efficiency developments to the small-capacity winners from brands such as Nissan, but the long-term green path is into electric cars.  Australia has yet to see its first commercial electric car but the race is really on now, with Mitsubishi and Tesla expected to both have plug-in cars on the road before the end of the year.

An electric Smart will arrive sometime in 2011 and Subaru is keen to have a battery car in Australia as soon as possible, with other brands also working on plans.  But the green machine will run off the rails if governments do not act - and act soon - to give them support. Electric cars need plug-in points, but that's the obvious and easy stuff being pushed today by the Better Place organisation and many others.

The real key to sales of electric cars is some sort of Federal incentive, like the ones in Europe and the USA. Nobody by a full-on greenie is going to pay around $70,000 for a Mitsubishi iMiEV when a petrol-powered Colt, which is a similar size and does a similar job, starts from $15,740.

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