But, whether bold or cautious, the cost-conscious fleet manager must keep an eye on acceptance in the used-car market to gauge resale values, says Steve Fowler.
The propulsion revolution is about to transform our car-buying lives, making an already difficult decision even harder. Today, there are more than 4,000 new cars to choose from, but that number will increase exponentially over the coming years. Within the next 12 to 18 months, we'll have the choice of full electric cars, range-extender electric cars, plug-in hybrids, petrol hybrids, diesel hybrids, eco-diesels and super-efficient petrol-powered models. Hydrogen-powered cars, which for the past 10 years seem to have always been 10 years away, may well get here in about - you guessed it - another 10 years.
Sounds like a tough choice, doesn't it? Let's make it a whole lot more difficult again. Car-makers have discovered how cost-effective it can be to build myriad different cars using the same technology. It's known in the car business as platform sharing, and everyone from Aston Martin to Volvo uses it.
VW has been at it for years. Take the VW Golf and its wide range of engines. Its platform, running gear and even things like the audio system find their way into Seats, Skodas and Audis. Volkswagen's latest Polo is a fine example of a posh supermini, but why not make an even posher one? Enter the Audi A1 - set to be the darling of the downsizer, it's basically a Polo in a fancy frock.
Talking of fancy frocks, there's a new player in the premium car market - Infiniti. What Lexus is to Toyota, Infiniti is to Nissan; however, Infiniti will beat even its parent company to the punch next year when it launches its M-series executive car with a choice of petrol, diesel or hybrid models. Infiniti says the M37 petrol 'will appeal to the more traditional buyer who enjoys driving and the soundtrack of a V6 petrol'. The M30d diesel 'is for the long-distance driver and likely to take the bulk of sales', while the M35h hybrid is 'a performance hybrid with the best performance yet lowest emissions of the range, to appeal to the company car driver'.
The hybrid has now become acceptable, almost as much a part of motoring parlance as petrol and diesel. It's no longer seen as just the weird-beard, eco-campaigner or Hollywood do-gooder's wheels of choice.
But, according to Roddy Graham, chairman of the Institute of Fleet Managers and commercial director of Leasedrive Velo, they're still not fully integrated. 'They've certainly been accepted by the fleet industry, mostly because of their excellent whole-life costs, but they're not mainstream,' he says. 'The Toyota Prius is still a bit quirky, but people will buy into it because it looks like any other car. The new model is significantly better, too, now that the issue of the car not offering the expected fuel economy, especially on the motorway, has been sorted.'
Fuel economy has been the bugbear of hybrid owners for years, with numerous complaints that the real-life mpg is nothing like that claimed in the brochures. According to the official EU fuel consumption tests that manufacturers have to use, the latest Prius should average 72.4 mpg. Most owners don't get close to that figure. The more usual 50-60 mpg is still a good return from a full-size family car, although the latest diesels aren't far off that mark.
In terms of numbers, having a hybrid in your line-up has been a guarantee of sales success for the manufacturers. In 2006, leasing firm Lloyds Autolease (now joined with Lex as Lex Autolease) had 166 hybrids on its books. Last year, that number was 613. Now, there are more than 2,500 hybrid cars in the whole Lex Autolease fleet.
Says Chris Chandler, principal consultant at Lex Autolease: 'Hybrids have been adopted by big-name brands, which want to be seen to be as green as possible, and by private-user choosers who see the benefits of being green with tax savings.'
Hybrids are certainly the here, the now and the coming soon. In 2011, diesel hybrids from the likes of Peugeot and Citroen will be joining the range of petrol-powered hybrids available.
Diesel engines are renowned for their fuel efficiency at high speed and over long distances, so, in theory, a diesel hybrid will be more efficient as a high-mileage fleet car.
Toyota argues that petrol engines are cleaner in the local pollutants they emit, such as particulates, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons - so a petrol hybrid is a better bet around town.
Initially at least, Peugeot's diesel hybrid system will be used to power an electric motor driving the rear wheels of its 3008 crossover, instantly turning it into a 4x4. Initial estimates suggest an economy figure for a hybrid 3008 of around 70 mpg and emissions of 100 g/km.
Like the Toyota, the Peugeot system is a full hybrid, meaning that the car can be driven wholly under electric power, by the internal combustion engine or a combination of both. Honda's Insight and sexy new CR-Z sports coupe are classed as mild hybrids, using a battery-powered electric motor to support a petrol engine, but the car cannot be driven on electric power alone.
Although it is full hybrid models we'll all be talking about next year, mild hybrids are not to be dismissed. Working with other energy-saving technologies, they'll provide a relatively cheap and simple way to make existing cars more efficient.
Stop/start systems, where the engine stops when the car is at a halt, are becoming de rigueur - even Ferrari will soon be launching its California cabrio with stop/start. Such systems normally improve economy and reduce emissions by about 5% - a worthwhile investment for the car maker looking to drop its models a few tax bands.
Combining that with brake energy regeneration (capturing the energy created during braking to recharge the car's batteries), active aerodynamics and low-energy tyres will have a significant effect on our cars' economy - without us noticing a difference in the way our cars drive.
There's clearly life in the old technologies yet and, for the time being, fleet managers are expected to favour advanced petrol or diesel engines. 'There's still much more to be done to make internal combustion engines more efficient,' says Graham. 'Fleets will be more accepting of advances in traditional engine technology. It'll be easier to predict a value for resale and, compared to any form of electric vehicle, much easier to find the fuel. Users are used to and comfortable with gasoline and diesel power.'
Comfortable, yes, but possibly confused. In the rush to extend their ranges and provide more choice, car-makers are offering the same engine with different levels of tune. Mercedes 200 CDi, 220 CDi and 250 CDi models in its various C and E-Class ranges have different economy, emissions and performance figures, and very different prices. Yet they're based on the same 2.1 litre engine.
Don't assume your BMW 318i has a 1.8-litre engine. It has a 2.0-litre just like the 320i. Surely the 325i has a 2.5-litre engine? Nope, it has a 3.0-litre 6-cylinder engine, just like the ... yes, the 335i.
Equally bizarre to the uninitiated is the arrival of small engines in big cars. VW group leads the way here with small-capacity turbocharged and turbocharged-and-supercharged engines.
So a 1.4 litre engine in the Tiguan SUV isn't as mad as it seems. Similarly, a 1.2 litre engine in an Audi A3. Sure, these cars don't exactly feel rocket-powered, but there are substantial efficiency benefits from using a smaller engine.
Ford and Fiat will be launching smaller, high-powered engines soon, the latter with an 84 bhp two-cylinder 900cc engine in its funky 500 supermini. A mild hybrid version of the same car has also been confirmed.
'There will be so many new technologies coming,' says Lex Autolease's Chandler. 'But whether Joe Public understands them ... I suspect not. I think people are probably just going to look at CO2 and how much tax it'll cost them. There will be confusion over engine size, and if you're not confused, you probably don't realise.'
Most difficult of all for fleets and users to get their heads around will be the electric vehicles (EVs) that are due to hit the market next year. First to arrive will be the Nissan Leaf, a five-seat family car that looks good, drives well and even has a decent-sized boot. It'll cost ú28,350, or ú23,350 when the recently announced ú5,000 government ultra-low carbon vehicle incentive is taken into account. That's only fractionally more than a top-spec Prius.
Interest is growing fast. 'We're already getting quite a bit of interest in the Leaf,' says Chandler, 'mostly from large organisations - they're just waiting for more cost information and we're carrying out feasibility studies on behalf of our clients.'
There's no doubting the Leaf's ability to do normal car things - it's comfortable in all conditions and feels no different from any other car (other than the relative silence), even on the motorway. Its modest range of around 100 miles will be a concern to some, but battery life is the biggest issue for fleets and will have a massive effect on used values as the car is passed on to private owners.
Used-car valuation expert Alan Senior of VIPData is already sceptical: 'Confusion and uncertainty are the worst factors that affect vehicle values. Used buyers will stay well clear of the unknown, and dealers will too.
'We will be valuing these electric vehicles, but they won't be worth much more than a diesel-powered equivalent, and the ridiculously high cost new will mean residual values are shockingly low. This will continue until there is some solid evidence of reliability.'
That view is echoed by Graham: 'Because the battery power train is separate from the vehicle, there's a concern over used values. Cars like the Leaf won't fit into mainstream fleets, but for a fleet like the Post Office's, with its urban deliveries, it absolutely can.
'However, as battery technology improves up to 250 miles on a charge, and if you can recharge in around half an hour, why wouldn't you have an electric car?'
The Leaf will be followed by the Renault Fluence, using much the same technology, while Renault will be offering vans and funky two-seaters like the Twizzy - first shown as a wacky concept but soon to be an eye-popping reality.
The shape and look of cars, inside and out, will change dramatically as we build more and more cars with battery packs and small electric motors in the place of large engines, gearboxes and fuel tanks. According to Giles Vidal, Peugeot's head of design and the man responsible for Peugeot's BB1 four-seater EV concept, due to go on sale in 2012, EVs will revolutionise car design, but at a slow pace: 'We design cars using something called MAYA - a vehicle has to be the most advanced, yet acceptable. We can only take design one step at a time.'
Not to be left out, Toyota will be launching a plug-in version of its Prius next year - it's already on trial in the UK. You'll be able to go for around 12.5 miles on electric power alone before the hybrid system kicks in.
Perhaps the best answer to anyone who wants an EV but suffers from 'range anxiety' is the Vauxhall Ampera. It's called an EREV - electric range extender vehicle. It always runs on electric power, but there's an on-board petrol engine to act as a generator to charge up the batteries. Very clever and, as with the Leaf, it drives like an ordinary car. You'll have to wait until well into 2012 to get one, though.
Much of the future of EVs depends on a charging infrastructure. The government expects there to be a rapid increase in charging points to 11,000 by 2013, although that's still way short of the estimated 190,000 fuel pumps in the UK.
The biggest challenge for all new technologies, though, has to be acceptance. It may be that used-car buyers are the key. If they're confident enough to buy, fleets are confident enough to invest, too. And only then will any of these exciting new cars be accepted into the mainstream and start to sell in numbers that make the car makers' investments worthwhile.
DEMYSTIFYING THE ECO-AUTOMOBILE
Existing tech is being refined to offer hybrid-style economy and emissions. Fleets will love these more traditional cars, as they're a known quantity on the used market. Don't expect petrol cars to give up the fight either - expect smaller-capacity, higher-output petrols with good mpg and low CO2.
Now accepted as part of our everyday motoring lives and set to increase in numbers over the next year. Full hybrids, with either petrol or diesel engines, are capable of running on battery power alone over short distances. The electric motors of mild hybrids can take only some of the load off the car's conventional engine.
A hybrid crossed with a full EV. Battery power is good for a short range of around 12.5 miles and can be recharged from a power point. After that, the hybrid system seamlessly takes over.
Using battery power alone, EV cars will have a range of about 100 miles, enough for many but introducing 'range anxiety' for some. They're expensive to buy, even with government incentives, and question marks hang over longevity and used values. They're fun to drive, though.