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Some new, green luxury cars are finally arriving. Thus far, driving green often meant trading luxury and comfort for high fuel efficiency. And let’s face it, Toyota’s Prius just isn’t the status symbol it once was and the high hybrid surcharge for many models just doesn’t always yield a net savings.

But now, new dynamics in the marketplace may accelerate green car progress. California has legislated a “zero emissions” mandate for ten percent of vehicles sold in the state. If the law survives, automakers will be compelled to sell far more pure electric vehicles in the Golden State than buyers currently demand. Although a similar law flopped in the 1990s, technology has advanced and there’s a bit more infrastructure available for charging.

Automakers are also aware that luxury brands are better able to support the higher pricing of advanced technology. For example, Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid retails for $38,540 while the Lexus RX 450h is priced at $45,235. While both models charge a premium for hybrid technology, the Lexus brand and retail service experience can command a higher price.

Today’s car buyers who want to add green to luxury have two new automakers to choose from. Silicon Valley’s Tesla has begun production of its new Model S sedan and has built a prototype of the Model X, a crossover SUV/wagon. And Southern California’s Fisker is shipping its Karma, a plug-in electric with extended range, to retailers.

Both new offerings have the style and performance you’d demand for six-figure prices, but both have challenges. Fisker has discovered how difficult a new car enterprise can be from production delays to software glitches that famously left a Karma stranded in the middle of testing by Consumer Reports.

For Tesla, delivering the promise of electric range that rivals gasoline cars will be the key to the company’s success. So far, the number of miles available in real world driving with pure electric vehicles has been considerably less than automaker’s claims.

Established automakers are very much in the picture with new and greatly improved offerings. The 2013 Lexus GS 450h, just arriving at dealers, is a major improvement in every way over the previous model. Its striking new style is a departure for Lexus, and spirited performance meets a significant increase in fuel economy (29-city and 34-highway). Prices have not been announced, but should stay under $60,000.

Another interesting luxury hybrid with sporting intentions and excellent economy is Infiniti’s M35h. This large, mid-size sedan has V8-like performance with 27-city and 32-highway fuel economy. Infiniti incorporates a seven-speed automatic transmission that feels more connected to the driver than its competitor’s CVT transmission. And the starting price of $53,700 has been well received in the marketplace.

BMW and Audi are both testing pure electric vehicles in their small models to assess market acceptance, while Cadillac has announced production of its ELR coupe, a stunning design based on the Chevy Volt’s plug-in technology. The new Cadillac may have to overcome the Volt’s negative image from pundits who’ve let rumor triumph over facts, but if the ELR retains the concept’s styling, it should connect with luxury buyers.    BRIAN DOUGLAS


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