An Olive Branch

The Sierra Club Embraces Ford for Producing Fuel-Efficient Hybrids

The Sierra Club’s climate campaigner, Dan Becker, routinely bashes the auto companies. Here’s a typical outburst, from PBS: "They churn out more and more gas-guzzling SUVs, so now we’re producing less-efficient cars on average than we were in 1980." Given his background, it was surprising to hear his kind words in a press release dated July 11: "For years," he said, "the Sierra Club has pressured Ford to make more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. They are now beginning to do that, and we want to help them succeed."

Come again? The Sierra Club is helping Ford? Is this the same Dan Becker who in 2002 worried that Bill Ford might be "showing his true stripes as just another short-sighted auto executive with no interest in the environment, our oil dependence or the truth"?

Environmental groups usually see car companies (even the greenest ones) as the devil incarnate. Bluewater Network took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal this week lambasting Volvo, of all companies, for not being green enough. The group hates Ford, so the amiable tree huggers at Volvo became fair game when the Swedish company was acquired by the American auto giant. Against a photo backdrop of a Volvo wagon pulling down a tree, the ad reads, "[N]ot a single new Volvo averages more than 26.1 miles per gallon, less than half of the best-performing four-door sedan on the market. That’s bad news for already dangerous levels of air pollution and global warming." Since Volvo cares very much about its environmental image (and goes the extra mile with rigorous green campaigns on reducing manufacturing pollution, adopting water-based paints and insisting on life-cycle analysis), this ad caused great consternation in both Dearborn and Gothenburg.

The hybrid Mercury Mariner will mostly be sold online.

I’ve long wondered why Volvo didn’t address its fuel consumption issues by building a hybrid of its own, especially since it recently showed off the 3CC, an electric concept vehicle with a theoretical 190-mile range. But the company’s acquisition by Ford probably makes the idea moot, since any Volvo hybrid would compete with the blue oval’s own entries.

Hybrid technology has clearly arrived, with no less than 10 models on the market, ranging from the tiny (Honda’s Insight) to the mighty (Lexus" 400h). A hybrid version of the best-selling Toyota Camry is on the way. Keep in mind that all hybrids are not created equal; some (like the Lexus and the Honda Accord Hybrid) don’t offer huge fuel savings, but do offer extra performance as part of the incentive. The military obviously appreciates the potential of hybrids: The U.S. Army and the EPA are co-sponsoring research on a hydraulic hybrid delivery vehicle, and the Defense Department has a diesel-electric pilot program.

Bluewater Network, Rainforest Action Network and Global Exchange will undoubtedly keep up the pressure on Ford, even if the company were to introduce a zero-emission fuel-cell car tomorrow (unlikely). But despite the prior bad blood, the Sierra Club is now working to help promote the Mercury Mariner Hybrid SUV, a close cousin to the Ford division’s already extant Escape Hybrid that will be mostly sold online. The club is introducing the Mariner to its 300,000 members in the Insider newsletter. Additionally, 3,000 Sierra Club leaders will have a chance to test drive the Mariner (and other hybrids) at the upcoming Sierra Summit in San Francisco in September. The Sierrans also say they will help Americans learn how to get the best mileage out of their hybrids. "It’s not every day that the Sierra Club is able to applaud Ford’s actions," says a truly reborn Dan Becker.

Auto companies make green statements every day. It ain’t news. Mary Ann Wright of Ford’s Sustainable Mobility Technologies and Hybrid Programs, for instance, proclaimed, "Ford is committed to improving fuel economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions across its range of vehicles." Yawn. Dog bites man. But when an implacable foe becomes a friend, that’s worth headlines. And it’s especially so when the vehicle is pretty darned good. Ford is making the Escape available to journalists, so let’s take a closer look at it:

To most observers, the 2006 Ford Escape I’m currently piloting is just one more gas-guzzling SUV, indistinguishable from the thousands of others around me (all chosen because their owners wanted to show how individual they were).

But this land barge has a green heart. The Escape Hybrid, selling for a base price of $26,380 (or $33,000 fully optioned with all-wheel drive) is the first credible "full" American hybrid. Although, as they say, "actual mileage may vary," the Escape Hybrid achieves an EPA rating of 36 miles per gallon for city driving. That’s a 70 percent improvement over the conventional Escape V-6. It can travel 576 miles on a tank of fuel.

The Escape Hybrid: Few visual clues.

But there’s more to the Escape than just good fuel economy numbers. It’s also an emissions champ, designated an Advanced Technology Partial-Zero Emission Vehicle (AT-PZEV) by the California regulators. The bottom line is that in addition to having a tailpipe as clean as the Prius ("partial zero" translates as a 97 percent reduction in hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides over the average 2005 car), it’s also a global warming fighter with carbon dioxide emissions halved because of its excellent mileage numbers.

The Escape is that rare animal: a practical SUV. I used it to move a collection of furniture, and discovered that (with the headrests removed) the rear seats fold down to make a flat floor that can accommodate 44-inch wide loads. And even when loaded to the gunwales, the Escape does stop-and-go driving mostly in full electric mode. The "312 miles to empty" readout advanced to only "308 miles to empty" after I lurched through the usual 20 miles of gridlock. When traffic stopped altogether, I just sat there enjoying CD music and cold air conditioning, but burning no fuel.

When you think about it, isn’t "city" performance the key? Even when we’re commuting on the highway, it’s all stop-and-go. Zero to 60 times are quite beside the point when cars hardly ever reach 60. We’re going to have to adjust our standard benchmarks.

In place of the standard V-6 drivetrain, Ford uses a 2.3-liter Duratec four attached to a 70-kilowatt permanent magnet electric traction motor (generating approximately 94 horsepower). If it’s brawn you’re after, you"ll hardly notice the difference in power between this and a garden-variety V-6 Escape. The gas engine can start up in 400 milliseconds, and its comings and goings are barely perceptible.

It was something of a revelation to learn that Ford had licensed Toyota’s Prius technology for the Escape, but the company downplays this. The company line is that Toyota is not directly providing any components. But the performance will certainly seem familiar to Prius owners.

If the Escape fails in the U.S. market (the jury’s still out) the mysterious "coolness" factor may be involved. The Prius, with at least a six-month waiting list, shouts out the driver’s green virtues with distinctive styling. The Escape (like the Honda Civic Hybrid) is practically indistinguishable from a conventional model. Maybe some unique design touches for the 2007s?

The Es

cape Hybrid would be a perfect fleet vehicle for state and federal agencies with green procurement policies to acquire in droves. It’s made in the U.S.A., versatile and practical, with more rear legroom and better gas mileage than a recently introduced competitor, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Just last week, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission approved the Escape (and five other hybrids) for street duty. Considering that the ubiquitous Ford Crown Victoria costs just as much but gets only 18 mpg in the city, doubling the mileage around town can’t hurt the taxi companies" bottom line.


Bluewater Network’s Volvo Campaign

Sierra Club

Ford Escape Hybrid