A Guide to Planet-Friendly Cars

Americans love their cars. America invented the drive-in restaurant and the drive-in bank. NASCAR racing is one of the fastest growing spectator sports in the United States, and car magazines have millions of subscribers. 

Americans love their cars. America invented the drive-in restaurant and the drive-in bank. NASCAR racing is one of the fastest growing spectator sports in the United States, and car magazines have millions of subscribers. 

Americans love their cars so much that the United States actually has more of them than they do drivers. For a total population of 292 million, there are 191 million drivers with a staggering 204 million vehicles parked outside their homes.

Americans also love big cars and are buying as many light trucks (the category that includes sport-utility vehicles, or SUVs, as well as pickups) as they are passenger automobiles. The result is that the United States is the largest per-capita consumer of oil (using up 8 million barrels of it a day) and the largest per-capita producer of carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading global warming gas.

The kind of car one drives matters. If every new vehicle averaged 40 miles per gallon, the United States would save more oil than it now imports from the Persian Gulf. What's more, it would save individuals a lot of money — as much as $2,200 over the lifetime of a car or truck, says the Sierra Club.

Fortunately, even as SUVs seem to be getting the upper hand, cleaner, greener vehicles are finally available. These include cleaner versions of popular models (known as partial zero-emission vehicles, or PZEVs), and hybrid cars with both gas and electric motors to optimize fuel economy and reduce tailpipe pollution. Consumers have a real choice for the first time since the early 1900s, when the gasoline car had serious competition from battery electrics and steam cars.


Hybrids were first developed in Japan, where a wide variety of models are now on sale. Despite the common misconception, hybrids do not need to be plugged in.

The first American hybrid to appear was the 35-mile-per-gallon Ford Escape SUV, which hit showrooms this summer. U.S. carmakers, citing high sales, are likely to concentrate their hybrid plans on light trucks.

Hybrid sales have risen consistently in the United States, from 9,350 cars in 2000 to 20,287 in 2001, 35,000 in 2002, and 47,525 in 2003. Automotive analyst J.D. Power and Associates foresees annual sales totaling 350,000 by 2008, accounting for 2 percent of all car sales. The 2004 Prius, an all-new design, received 10,000 orders before it was delivered, and waiting lists stretched six months or more.

Beyond the hybrid and the PZEV, the long-term solution is likely to be the fuel-cell vehicle, which runs on hydrogen gas, the most abundant element in the universe. The fuel cell has the potential to eventually replace the internal-combustion engine because it's far more than just the best environmental choice. The reason the auto industry is spending billions of dollars on fuel cells is because it also sees the potential for improved performance and range. 

Legislating Change

California's tough air-quality standards, set by its pioneering Air Resources Board, have also been adopted by several Northeastern states, including New York, Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. In early 2004, New Jersey and Connecticut became the fifth and sixth states endorsing the standards. In New Jersey, automakers are required to sell 40,000 gas-electric hybrid vehicles and 128,000 low-emission vehicles by 2009.

The PZEV (which costs car manufacturers a premium of $300 to $500 per vehicle) would never exist were it not for California's emissions regulations. Rich Varenchik, spokesperson for the state Air Resources Board, said that PZEVs help manufacturers satisfy California quotas for environmentally friendly vehicles.

PZEVs, now sold by a dozen manufacturers, emit 90 percent less pollution than standard models and are even cleaner in some cases than hybrids.

"These cars have fewer emissions while being driven than your average car puts out while sitting still," said Violette Roberts, spokesperson for California's Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District.

To be called a PZEV, a vehicle has to have extremely low tailpipe emissions, as well as next-to-no evaporative emissions (the gasoline vapor that leaks out through gas caps or imperfectly sealed engine systems). And those emissions standards have to be guaranteed for 15 years or 150,000 miles.

Automakers obviously could be doing more to "green" their fleets, but there are nonetheless some new-model cars that get both excellent gas mileage and low emissions. Here are five choices:

Ford Focus PZEV

The Ford Focus PZEV has achieved California's strict certification as a partial zero-emissions vehicle, even though it is solely powered by a gasoline engine. The feat was achieved by moving the catalytic converters closer to the exhaust manifold, allowing quicker warm-up times, and improved recirculation of exhaust gas to ensure more complete combustion.

"It emits fewer smog-causing hydrocarbons per day than a small pine tree," claimed Electrifying Times. The PZEV powertrain, built around a fuel-efficient 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine, became available nationally in 2004. Focus cars begin at $12,820. Fuel-economy specifications for the PZEV manual transmission model are 25 mpg in the city, 33 mpg on the highway (for the automatic, 24/30 mpg).

Ford Escape Hybrid

The Escape hybrid is a PZEV, which means it's as clean as the Prius in tailpipe terms. The car borrows from Toyota's blueprints for the Prius, and combines a 300-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack (under the cargo floor) with a more efficient version of the Escape's standard two-liter engine (which shuts off at traffic lights, thanks to an integrated starter generator). Also part of the package is a 65-kilowatt electric assist motor, plus a 28-kilowatt generator.

The Escape has a range of 500 miles and is a full hybrid, which means it can go as fast as 25 miles per hour on battery power alone. The brakes are regenerative, feeding the battery when in use, and allow accessories like the CD player and climate control to run on battery power alone. Ford is expanding its hybrid technology to other vehicles, including a midsized sedan.

Honda Civic Hybrid

The Civic Hybrid impresses with its sheer ordinariness. It's not special or for purists only. It's just like any other Civic, except it's a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle, gets 52 miles per gallon and has a range of 600 miles. If there's a sacrifice, it's in the $20,000 purchase price. But even that can be offset with federal income tax credits, as well as state incentives if they apply.

To get 93 horsepower out of a 1.3-liter engine requires some wizardry, and under the hood is the integrated motor assist system from the two-passenger Insight, plus a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Toyota Echo

Looking a bit like a low-rent Prius, the Echo is a bargain at less than $11,000. This small car, with unique high-tech styling, offers excellent fuel economy of 39 miles per gallon on the highway (33 mpg around town). The Echo offers the same interior dimensions as the Corolla, with a uniquely tall glass area, or "greenhouse," that gives very good headroom for taller drivers. The Echo is a low-emission vehicle, or LEV.

Toyota Prius

The wheelbase on the 2004 Prius is stretched six inches from the 2000 original, but the car still achieves a combined miles-per-gallon rating in the mid 50s, while also accelerating as well as a late-model Toyota Camry and winning certification as a super-ultra low-emission vehicle (SULEV).

Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicle Program describes the car as "a shining example of the gains possible with advanced technology."Roland Hwang of the Natural Resources Defense Council added that "drivers get half the pollution and half the gasoline bill." Unlike the much-hyped Segway scooter, the 2004 deserves the praise it's getting.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is vocal about his Prius: "It's a step in the right direction," he said. "We have the technology to make every car produced in America today just as clean, cheap and efficient."

Jim Motavalli is editor of E/The Environmental Magazine.

Related Links

American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (publishes the Green Guide to Cars and Trucks)
Federal automotive gas-mileage database
Clean Car Campaign

Source: E/The Environmental Magazine