What Exactly Are PZEV Cars?

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly are PZEV cars? Someone told me they were very clean, and on the market now.

—Tim Lyons, Jamaica Plain, MA

Thanks to rigorous auto emissions standards in California—where regulators are trying to clean up the worst air in the country—no less than a dozen car companies now offer Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV) cars for sale in the U.S. While these cars run on gasoline and don’t necessarily get better mileage than their traditional counterparts, they do produce much cleaner emissions by controlling exhaust gases with sophisticated engine controls and advanced catalytic converters.

PZEV car
This Subaru Outback is a PZEV car. Credit: Greg Goebel, FlickrCC

Most auto pollution is released while a car is warming up and the catalytic converter is still cold. But PZEVs, through the use of lightweight steel and aluminum components, computerized valve timing and other advanced engineering technologies, heat the catalytic converter quickly, which reduces emissions significantly. These reduced emissions qualify the cars as “low-emission vehicles” (LEVs) in the “clean car states” of California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, each which requires automakers to sell a certain percentage of “green” cars.

Environmentalists are optimistic that the fast-growing fleet of PZEVs on America’s roads will have a much larger and more positive impact on environmental quality than the even cleaner running gasoline-electric hybrids, which are still niche vehicles. In fact, already for every hybrid Prius sold by Toyota since it was introduced in 2000, Ford has sold three PZEV Focuses.

Indeed, what’s perhaps most striking about the push by automakers to produce PZEVs is the lack of hype surrounding the vehicles, especially in light of all the attention being paid to the hybrids and to the coming hydrogen fuel cell cars. All new versions of Ford’s popular Focus model, for example, meet PZEV standards, but consumers wouldn’t know it unless they were to ask. Compared to a similar size traditional car, the PZEV Focus produces 97 percent fewer hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emissions, and 76 percent less carbon monoxide.

According to California’s DriveClean website, car buyers looking to jump on the PZEV bandwagon will have to shell out a few hundred dollars extra for the greener technology, but have several models to choose from, including BMW’s 325i, Dodge’s Stratus and Sebring, Honda’s Accord, Hyundai’s Elantra, Mitsubishi’s Galant, Nissan’s Sentra, Subaru’s Legacy, Toyota’s Camry, Volkswagen’s Jetta, Volvo’s S60 sedan and V70 wagon, and of course, Ford’s Focus. Consumers in the five “clean car states” should be able to order any of the PZEV models at local auto dealers. Only the Ford Focus is readily available in all 50 states but, according to the magazine Green Car Journal, “it’s just a matter of time until the rest of the country catches up and we can all breathe a bit easier.”

CONTACT: Ford Focus, www.fordvehicles.com/cars/focus ; California”s DriveClean Website, www.driveclean.ca.gov ; Green Car Journal, www.greencar.com .