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Coffee, Tea, or Diesel?

At this year's LA Auto Show, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI was crowned "Green Car of the Year." This doesn't mean the Jetta TDI is the greenest car of the year, since previous years' winners include the Mercury Mariner and Chevy Tahoe Hybrids, both of them light-green SUVs. Rather, it's a designation that the Jetta is something new, and slightly different.

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The Jetta's twist is that it's not a hybrid, but a super-efficient diesel (see my post on the Audi A4 TDI concept, which may use the same engine as the Jetta). The car has gotten glowing reviews for its driving characteristics as well as its fuel economy; downsides include the higher cost of diesel vs. regular gas, and VW's iffy reliability history.

The coronation of the Jetta TDI is most interesting, however, because it exposes the coming madness in the race to a green automotive future. With a couple different hybrid battery standards, the push-pull among plug-in and engine-assist technologies, plus cleaner diesel and a growing constituency for natural gas vehicles–and oh yeah, regular gas at under $2.00 a gallon–it seems like the automotive industry could use a signpost from consumers about where, exactly, they want to go with this whole green driving thing. Or maybe a signal from the (incoming) federal government–in the form of corporate subsidies or targeted tax breaks–about what specific technologies they want to see on American roads. The last time we got to choose a method to propel ourselves was when we picked horsepower over horse power; now, it's time to make another choice.

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