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    Eco-Friendly Cars That Offer Quirky, Fun Rides in Challenging San Francisco

    By Philip Ruth

    San Francisco is a demanding place to test drive new cars. The crazy hills get steeper at every turn, and the traffic’s rapid pace rewards agility and responsiveness. It’s a setting that susses out shortcomings that might not show up on flatter roads.

    That’s particularly true with hybrids. San Francisco’s hills amplify their uneven power delivery and goopy brake response. This can be endlessly frustrating if you’re an enthusiast who thinks of driving a car as a dance, with you in the lead. For many hybrids, conversely, the computer is in charge, and it has two left feet that tromp through its parsimonious path. Thankfully, electrics changed the efficient-performance game, with blastoff acceleration and a creamy handling feel.

    The Fiat 500e is on the far end of that fun. The gas-powered 500 is itself a nippy city runner, and the racy Abarth’s turbo thrust and bratty exhaust demand complete engagement from the twist of the key. The electric 500e is much more mellow overall, but its swift and endearingly scrabbly takeoffs from a stop continually provoke giggles. It’s like a joke at which you can’t stop chuckling, even though you’ve heard it a thousand times.

    The 500e’s silent and assertive power delivery begs for the Abarth’s starchier handling, but that would run counter to the electric car’s focus on squeezing maximum miles from a charge. So, the 500e’s tires are not so grippy, and its body can bobble as speeds climb. This somehow still manages to be appealing, partly because it feels like the 500e wants nothing more than to hang in there with you.

    If the 500e is the most fun electric car, then the Ford C-Max Hybrid ranks as one of the few true driver’s hybrids. The C-Max’s design comes to us from Europe, and it feels it, with a thoroughbred’s approach to all the bumpy curves, rutted construction zones and drastic elevation changes the city could throw at it. The C-Max Hybrid feels tailor-made for the challenges cars face here.

    The C-Max Hybrid has other talents. While crossovers increasingly have gun-slit outward visibility, the C-Max Hybrid regales you with expansive views from big windows. Seats are chair-height, and entry and exit is easy on the knees. Couple these with a boxy cargo hold, and you have an ideal urban errand runner.

    There is a caveat with the C-Max Hybrid, and that’s its widely-reported low fuel mileage. This was confirmed on the test car, which could manage MPG only in the mid- to high-teens. There’s no question I’d choose to drive the C-Max Hybrid over its direct competitor, the less-powerful Toyota Prius V. But the last Prius V I had consistently returned more than 30 mpg, no matter how hard I hammered it.

    The Fiat’s proviso is its low resale value, which means they are absolute steals on the used-car market, with oodles of 500es currently showing up in Craigslist’s $7,000–8,000 range. Fiat’s bottom-rung customer satisfaction ratings indicate that ownership could be an imperfect experience, but as long your 500e is running, you’ll be smiling.

    Philip Ruth is a Castro-based automotive photojournalist and consultant at www.gaycarguy.com. Check out his automotive staging service at www.carstaging.com