For the auto industry, predictions have been as reliable as a moth-eaten Yugo: Global oil prices are at a five-year low, sales of pickup trucks and SUVs are booming, and purchases of gas-electric hybrids have fallen. Yet automakers still face a monumental challenge to boost fleetwide fuel economy: In the United States, they must reach 4.3 liters per 100 kilometers (54.5 miles per gallon) by 2025, from approximately 7.6 L/100 km today. In the European Union, meanwhile, automakers face other headwinds, flowing from a requirement to cut carbon emissions and fuel consumption, even as sales remain mired in a vicious slump.
This year’s Top 10 Tech Cars reflects on the effects of those competing demands. Consider the Tesla Model S: Only three years ago this electric sedan dazzled pundits, who predicted that Tesla would revolutionize automobiles. But any such revolution depended on a lower-price follow-up—the Model X crossover—which has been delayed again. And while long-range electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids remain very much in play, the world is still waiting for one of them to go beyond a mere plaything of the wealthy to become the Model T of its age.
General Motors has paid homage to that ideal with the Chevy Bolt, an all-electric hatchback with a 300-km range. GM aims to sell it for roughly US $30,000—though the Bolt remains a lightly fleshed-out concept ahead of its anticipated 2017 arrival. Another drawing-board conceit was the Mercedes-Benz F 015, a car so automated that its driver would be able to swivel to socialize with backseat passengers—another car we’ll dissect if and when it reaches production.
One showroom car that did make our list, the Volkswagen Golf, shows that the technical contest among fossil-fueled vehicles, hybrids, and pure electrics is far from over. Among the world’s best-selling cars, this hatchback for the common man is being offered in four propulsive flavors: turbocharged gasoline and diesel models, the high-performance gasoline GTI, and an electric e-Golf. Even hydrogen cars, which had fallen back to pipe-dream status a couple of years ago, are on the upswing again, with the advent of the Toyota Mirai.
Ford chief executive Mark Fields is one of a group of industry leaders convinced that a return to pricey gasoline is only a matter of time. With Americans buying more cars than during any year since 2006, the whiz-kid models of 2015 face a tough challenge: to provide enough thrills to keep the party going, even as they face, someday, a last call on fossil fuels.
This article originally appeared in print as “Top 10 Tech Cars 2015.”