In celebration of Earth Day this month, we focus on electric/hybrid automobiles. Though some may think electric cars are something new, from about 1900 to the late 1920s, there were a number of electric cars built and sold in America, including Milburns, Bakers and Detroit Electrics. They were mainly driven around town by women who didn’t want to deal with the oil, gas, fumes and shifting of an internal combustion engine.

Fast forward about 100 years, and what’s old is new again as people look for alternative ways to fuel their automobiles.

The first mainstream American car maker to introduce a modern electric car is Chevrolet with the Volt, a mid-sized four-door hatchback with an electric motor and a 1.4-liter, 4-cylinder gas engine that can kick in to recharge the batteries that power the electric motor. The batteries alone can power the car for about 38 miles. If you want to go further, on a full charge and a full tank of gas, you can go up to 380 miles.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Volt is how unremarkable it is. It looks, feels and drives like any typical modern sedan. The biggest difference is the lack of engine noise when under battery power alone, and the fact that you can plug it in to an electric outlet to replenish it.

The interior is that of a typical American sedan, with a video screen at the top of the center console, but instead of hard buttons to control functions, ‘touch’ buttons make it easy to adjust the radio and climate controls. The manually adjustable, heated front seats are modestly bolstered, and the steering wheel tilts and telescopes manually. The only noticeable difference from most sedans is that the Volt is only a four-seater, not five. There’s a console between the two rear seat passengers, who do get nicely bolstered seats with a decent amount of leg room. Flip the back seats down, however, and cargo room is huge when added to the already generous cargo space below the easy-to-load hatch opening. Typical modern features such as stability and traction control, keyless entry and a back-up camera are all included on the Volt.

Different drive modes allow you to choose from normal, sport and mountain modes, and even let you save the all-electric mode for later. Plugged into a normal 120-volt outlet, the Volt recharges in 10 to 16 hours. Connected to a 240-volt charger, that time is reduced to 4 hours. The lithium ion batteries are warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles.

Thanks to the instantaneous torque of an electric motor, acceleration is brisk at any speed. Braking is good and the regenerative brakes help recharge the batteries. Handling is typical of an American sedan, with a nice, smooth highway ride providing for a pleasant driving experience. In electric mode, it gets the equivalent of 98 mpg. In gas mode, it’s 37. I got 56 using half-electric, half-gas. The switch from pure electric to gasoline-generated electric is all but seamless.

Cort Howard, general sales manager at ELCO Chevrolet says, “The Volt is truly electric to drive. Its lithium battery-driven electric motor is the latest in electric car technology.”

Base price for the Volt is about $40,000 (mid-40s with options). It may, however, be eligible for a $7,500 tax credit, which would directly offset that much of the cost.

Another interesting, ecologically friendly car is the Lexus CT 200h, a smallish hybrid hatchback, which represents a departure for Lexus. Though they’ve had hybrid vehicles for several years now, previous models were hybrid versions of existing vehicles that just got better mileage than their non-hybrid counterparts. The CT200 is the first purpose-built hybrid. Styling is typical Lexus up front and through the four doors, but then ends in a gently sloped rear hatch.

Fortunately, the interior is typical Lexus luxury, with nicely bolstered, heated leather seats, dual automatic climate control, an available sunroof, a back-up camera and a hide-away video screen on the dash at the top of the center console. Unfortunately, the video screen is controlled by a remote joystick/mouse with an ‘enter’ button between the seats that takes some acclimation to use effectively. A touch screen would be a lot easier and more intuitive. Back-seat room is decent for a small car, with sufficient leg room behind an average-sized adult. There’s a decent amount of cargo room behind the fold-down rear seats, and the cargo area is very easily accessible through the wide opening hatch. With the rear seats folded, there’s a ton of cargo space.

The ride is Lexus-smooth; handling is decent and is enhanced by a McPerson strut suspension in front and a fully independent double-wishbone set-up in the rear, though it’s no sports car. Four different drive modes are available: battery alone, economical, normal and sport. Fuel economy is 43 city, 40 highway. Cruising range with a full tank of gas is 480 miles. That’s Kansas City and back on one tank of gas! The 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine is mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which helps economy and smoothness, but contributes to a zero to 60 time of a leisurely 9.8 seconds. Braking is fine, and its regenerative. It has the same funny gear selector as a Prius.

According to Plaza Lexus salesman Rick Wallace, “The gas mileage is the CT’s best selling point. It gets much better mileage than its competitors.”

Prices for the Lexus CT 200h start at approximately $32,500 and reach the mid- to high-30s well-equipped.

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