Are you ready to drive green today?
By Reed McManus
Scan beyond the hoods of all the 15-mile-per-gallon sport-utility vehicles on the market and the environmentally concerned car buyer will find several good choices. Heres whats in showrooms today and what you should be seeing in the not-so-distant future.
Buy It Today Among hybrid carsvehicles propelled by a small gasoline engine and an electric motoryou can choose from a pair of four-door sedans: the Honda Civic Hybrid, which attains 46 miles per gallon in city driving (and 51 mpg highway) according to EPA tests, and the Toyota Prius (52 city, 45 highway, with automatic transmission standard). Another option is the futuristic two-seat Honda Insight (61 mpg city, 68 highway).
Fans of electric vehicles can choose from the Toyota RAV4 EV (range: 125 miles between chargings) and the Ford Ranger EV (range: up to 89 miles). (Alas, the Toyota is available only in California, and the Ford only from one of 46 dealers nationwide.) The latest wave is the "neighborhood electric vehicle," including Fords TH!NK city and the Lido (from auto-industry icon Lee Iacocca, father of the minivan).
Among gasoline-powered vehicles, your best bet is the Honda Civic HX. With its "lean burn" engine, this subcompact attains 36 mpg in city driving (44 highway). Another top choice is the subcompact Toyota Echo (34 city, 41 highway).
Several major manufacturers offer vehicles that run on (relatively) clean-burning compressed natural gas, but there are only about 1,200 CNG stations around the United States. Volkswagen offers several diesel models that get laudable mileage, but their particulate exhaust is carcinogenic and they emit more smog-forming pollution than conventional cars.
Down the Road Ford plans to sell a 40-mpg hybrid version of its Escape SUV in December 2003 and a sedan the following year. GM says it will introduce hybrid versions of its large pickups and SUVs in 2004, but with a meager fuel savings of about 12 percent.
In 2004, GM will offer "displacement on demand" technology in its largest trucks and SUVs. It automatically switches off unneeded cylinders when less power is required, generating an average fuel savings of 8 percent. Hydraulic launch assist, which captures energy normally lost from braking to give the vehicle a "free" boost when it takes off from a stop, may be an option on Ford trucks as early as 2006.
Fuel-cell cars are on their way but wont be readily available until the end of the decade. Honda and Toyota have announced that they will sell fuel-cell-powered cars in Japan in 2003; DaimlerChrysler claims its offering will be on sale in the United States in 2004. The first models to arrive will be expensive, and refueling will be difficult because the United States does not yet have a hydrogen-fuel infrastructure.
Would you like to walk into a car dealership and know that every vehicle on the floor is as green as it can be? The Sierra Clubs Campaign for Responsible Auto Companies aims to reduce global warming by encouraging automakers to reduce the amount of oil burned by cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks. The Club is calling on auto companies to incorporate the "Freedom Package" in their vehicles, technologies already used in some cars today that, when combined, could significantly improve the fuel economy of every new vehicle on the road.
Key elements of the Freedom Package include a continuously variable automatic transmission, which helps boost fuel economy by providing an infinite number of gears; a variable-valve-control engine, which controls the mix of fuel and air in an engine more precisely; and an integrated starter-generator, which shuts off the vehicle when it is idling at stoplights or in stopped traffic. (Cars burn as much as 15 percent of their gasoline while idling.)
For more info, go to www.sierraclub.org/freedompackage. To encourage automakers to do their part, click here.
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