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That Little Old Lady From Pasadena? She’s Driving a Green Machine

Will older drivers support the shift to environment-friendly cars?

green machine

— Photo by Colin Anderson/Getty Images

A lot of people in this age group are flocking to crossovers, according to John Wolkonowicz of IHS Global Insight. They have conventional engines but are lighter than SUVs, providing the ride and handling of a car with slightly improved fuel economy.

While some see boomers as receptive to new technology and interested in protecting the environment, Stephanie A. Brinley, an analyst at AutoPacific, says those characteristics are far more prevalent among younger buyers. Though older buyers may have the income to pay a hybrid premium, she says, they may find it doesn’t make financial sense to do so, because they don’t drive as much and consume less fuel.

And what about the notion that bigger is safer? According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, when a large and small vehicle collide, you’re better off in the big one. Because of that, IIHS spokesman Russ Rader says, if you want the safest, most fuel-efficient car, a hybrid makes the most sense because you get a bigger vehicle with a smaller vehicle’s efficiency.

The midsize Ford Fusion hybrid, he says, earned the highest crash test ratings among midsize cars from both the IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and it gets 39 miles per gallon combined city/highway fuel economy—far better than many conventional cars. But tiny can be tough, too: the Honda Fit has a maximum five-star crash-test rating for small cars, and the Toyota Yaris has four stars. “Small cars have more available safety gear than ever before,” says Jonathan Linkov, Consumer Reports’ managing editor for autos.

So it makes sense that some older buyers will wait and see, at least with EVs. Automakers also have to overcome “range anxiety,” fears about the ability to make it from point A to point B. That, in fact, was part of the reason Schweighardt chose her Smart over an EV. At the time, none could exceed 40 miles per hour, and she didn’t want to have to forgo highway driving.

For now, she’s happy with her choice. Over Christmas last year, she and her husband took the Smart on a 2,000-mile round-trip journey from their home in Albuquerque to South Padre Island in Texas. She likes all the windows, the smoked-glass moon roof, and how you sit up nice and tall—just like in an SUV.

Julie Halpert, who has covered the car industry for two decades, lives in Michigan.

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