Getting There

A Guide to Planet-Friendly Cars

As a nation, we love our cars. America invented the drive-in restaurant and the drive-in bank. NASCAR racing is one of the fastest-growing spectator sports in the U.S., and car magazines have millions of subscribers. We love our cars so much, that we actually have more of them than we do drivers. For a total population of 292 million, there are 191 million drivers with a staggering 204 million vehicles parked outside their homes.

The 2004 Prius, a new roomier design, achieves gas mileage in the mid 50s and "super ultra low" emissions. Toyota received 10,000 advance orders for the car, which is priced at ,000.

The kind of car you drive does matter. If every new vehicle averaged 40 miles per gallon, we would save more oil than we now import from the Persian Gulf. What’s more, it would save you a lot of money—as much as $2,200 over the lifetime of your 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. Ever.

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

General Motors" first hybrid vehicle is a pickup truck.

Hybrid sales have risen consistently in the U.S., 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 two 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.

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.

PZEVs, now sold by a dozen manufacturers, emit 90 percent less pollution than standard models. "These cars have fewer emissions while being driven than your average car puts out while sitting still," says 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," claims Electrifying Times. The PZEV powertrain, built around a fuel-efficient 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine, became available nationally this year. 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 Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (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 adds that "drivers get half the pollution and half the gasoline bill."

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

efficient."

To read more about cleaner cars and effective mass transit, see E’s forthcoming guide to green living, available for Earth Day 2005.