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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2008
Table of Contents
Savoring Wild Salmon
Are We There Yet?
No Do-Overs
The Tortoise and the Hare
Editor's Note
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
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Sierra Magazine
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Miles to Go
Readers respond to "Green My Ride"
May/June 2008

Sierra's "Green My Ride" car ratings (March/April) elicited a pileup of letters. Below is a sampling.

I was disappointed to see the contents of your article "Green My Ride" in the March/April 2008 issue of Sierra. Out of six display cars, only one of the headliners was American made.

There are domestic cars with fuel efficiency in the same ranges as your displayed vehicles. The minivan category in the article mentions the Chrysler minivan, without displaying it, at near-identical fuel efficiency to the Honda (photo included). The Ford Focus gets 24 miles per gallon city/35 mpg highway and isn't mentioned at all. The Chevrolet Cobalt gets 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway. I drive a Pontiac G6, and even with a six-cylinder, I regularly get 27 mpg on the highway (using cruise control and driving 70 miles per hour).

The general tendency some people may have is to immediately select or look toward the foreign markets for fuel-efficient vehicles. Historically American automakers have not done as well as Toyota or Honda in that arena; however, recently they have made great strides and continue to move in this direction. Companies like General Motors are investing millions of dollars to develop environmentally friendly transportation solutions.

While American-made cars typically include some (or many) foreign parts, the profits come back here to the States. If we are concerned with buying local and all the economic impacts that go along with that choice, then buying American cars is a choice in keeping with other Sierra Club values.
Kim Brown
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Editor's note: Due to space limitations, we were only able to highlight the top three mpg vehicles in each of our categories, using data from the U.S. Department of Energy's fuel-economy Web site, We too were rooting for the newly redesigned Chrysler minivan, but it got edged out by others in the category.

I enjoyed both the format and content of your "Green My Ride" article on fuel-efficient vehicles. However, I think you erred by choosing the government fuel-economy data for a Mini Cooper S with an automatic transmission while showing a photo of the basic Cooper convertible at $22,000. The Cooper S with an automatic has the poorest ratings of any of the Cooper offerings. The Cooper S model is the higher-performance, turbocharged version with 47 percent more horsepower. It also costs $3,000 more. I believe the convertible is almost $4,000 more than the basic Cooper. The government fuel-economy data for the basic Cooper with a manual transmission shows that it equals that of the Yaris and beats the Fit. It will also drive circles around both. In addition, the base price for a Cooper is in the neighborhood of $19,000.

I own a Cooper and attain 27 to 28 miles per gallon driving in urban Portland, Oregon, and have seen 37 to 41 mpg on the freeway. Other local owners have equaled or beaten what I have seen. It is also a blast to drive. After researching all of the relatively fuel-efficient auto choices available, I based my decision to purchase the Cooper on this combination of fuel efficiency and driving enjoyment. I've driven both the basic Cooper and the Cooper S, and since I primarily drive this vehicle in an urban environment, I could not justify the extra money and relative decrease in fuel efficiency offered by the S. I have yet to see another vehicle that combines both of these attributes. I salute your efforts to educate the driving public on the options available.
Tom Keilman
Portland, Oregon

Editor's note: The mpg numbers we used were correct for the pictured Mini Cooper convertible with manual transmission. It's true that the Mini Cooper hardtop gets even better fuel economy (28 mpg city, 37 mpg highway, 32 combined, per, but we wanted to highlight a vehicle that would make even the most ardent environmentalist squeal with delight. And there's not much more motoring fun to be had than driving a Mini with the top down and the wind in your hair.

It seems odd to me that you listed only one of the Toyota hybrids--the Prius, an excellent hybrid--but one that can't comfortably carry more than two adults. You left out the Toyota Camry hybrid, which can comfortably carry four, possibly five, adults. The Camry hybrid also provides better gas mileage than any of the other hybrids you listed, including Toyota's Yaris. Only the Prius does better. I know this because I'm a very satisfied owner of a Camry hybrid. I hope that your ignoring Toyota's accomplishment doesn't encourage them to stop the Camry hybrid's production. Publications that environmentally aware people read should encourage the good things that are done in addition to noting the negative policies of government and corporations.
Dan Scheinhaus

Editor's note: You may be confusing the Prius with the two-seater Honda Insight. Since the Prius has nearly usurped the Subaru as the Sierra Club employee's car of choice, we've had a chance to test out the Prius's seating and can report that three people fit comfortably in its back seat, making it a true five-passenger vehicle. (The EPA classifies the Prius as a "midsize" car.) The Toyota Camry hybrid came in fourth in our hybrid category (and hence did not make our top-three list), having been nudged aside ever so slightly by the Nissan Altima, which achieves one mile per gallon better mileage in city driving, according to

I was pleased to see in "Green My Ride" that the gas mileage of my ordinary 2004 Honda Civic comes very close to that of the Toyota Prius hybrid. How to explain this? Manual transmission. I don't understand why, in all the debate about fuel efficiency, manual transmission goes unmentioned. It gives the driver more control over the car, especially in bad weather, and increases fuel efficiency. Furthermore, the manual transmissions of today are very easy to drive. In fact, the rest of the world drives them. Why would Americans, the biggest polluters living in a car-dependent society, write off this practical, inexpensive, utterly proven technology?
Lynn Palermo
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania

Editor's note: For the most part, you are correct that a car with a manual transmission should get better mileage than one with an automatic. However, many cars these days offer continuously variable automatic transmissions, which often match or best their manual-shifting brethren. When considering a new car purchase, always compare the numbers at

Thanks for the article on greener new cars, but I hope I can do better than that. I get more than 41 mpg on the highway in my 1996 Nissan Sentra GX stick shift. It probably actually does 45 mpg on the highway, but I've never driven it through a full tank of gas on the open road to be able to measure it. I bought it new in 1997 for $12,000 including tax. Will I be able to get a reliable, economically priced new stick shift that does as well in the future?
Constance Spenger
Big Pine, California

Editor's note: Unfortunately, 1997 dollars are long gone. But you can do pretty well with your 2008 dollars with cars like the highlighted Toyota Yaris and Corolla, Nissan Versa, and Honda Fit. Because of the additional weight and safety equipment of modern cars, you won't reach the 40-plus-mpg range you're accustomed to without opting for a hybrid.

I see you covered all the gasoline-powered cars and SUVs, but you, along with all the people who write for car magazines, forgot one segment: cars with diesel engines.

Excuse me for saying it out loud, but you, and the guys who write for car magazines, are brain-dead when it comes to diesels. The American public is the same way.

Let me tell you about my experience with diesels. April 20, 1983, I bought a used 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit diesel, 1.6 liter, 54 horsepower, with a body weight of 2,100-plus pounds. I put oversize tires on it and always got 65 to 66 miles per gallon on the highway. That's when I drove at 45 miles per hour. You're thinking I'm crazy, right? Wrong! On a few trips coming home in the middle of the night, I sped up to about 70 mph and got just under 50 mpg. Speed not only kills people but fuel efficiency as well. You never mentioned speed as a way to economize! Go back 35 years or so, and you'll find the reason Congress lowered the speed limit to 55 mph was to increase fuel efficiency.

But the Rabbit died, so I bought a 2002 VW TDI (turbo direct injection), 1.9 l, 90 hp, body weight of 3,100-plus lbs. Bought that three months after September 11. I also put oversize tires on it, which means I have to add almost 10 percent to the odometer reading. Well, with that, and even with the new low-sulfur diesel fuel, I get 63 to 65 mpg highway--when I drive between 45 and 50 mph. Not bad, eh!

I'm guessing, but the number one reason you won't even look at a diesel is because of the smoke/soot that comes out the tailpipe (especially pickups), right? Well, first of all, the new VW diesels have passed California inspection quotas. Secondly, they do emit smoke, but only if you stomp the fuel pedal! I don't stomp mine, so you'll never see smoke coming out of my tailpipe. With low-sulfur fuel, there are less of the other pollutants that gasoline cars give out. Yes, more soot, but less of the other crap.

Another reason you and I hate diesel pickups is the noise. Under my VW hood are two clatter traps wrapping the engine up pretty good--top and bottom, plus there's a sound blanket on the bottom of the hood--but nothing like that exits in any of the pickups. I know--I come from a diesel family, and those guys like noise. I have three or four uncles who have diesel pickups, and they are as noisy as a semi! And if they want to smoke you, all they have to do is stomp the fuel pedal, and they pass in a cloud of smoke. I call 'em "black smokers."

Anyway, if you compare the amount of miles/kilometers you get out of a gallon/liter of gasoline with that of diesel fuel, I think you'll find we'd all be better off if we went with diesel instead of gas. Europeans get better mileage than we do, and it's because they drive mostly diesel cars.

The future, of course, is to build lots of nuclear, solar, wind, and geothermal power plants and to go electric. Sooner or later they'll come up with a turbo battery-charging system so batteries can be supercharged in five minutes; then we'll be in business.
Michael R. Kelsey
Provo, Utah

Editor's note: Sierra will be covering automakers' new diesel offerings in our July/August issue. Only this year have automakers begun to meet the strict tailpipe-emissions standards used by California and northeastern states, the Holy Grail that will allow automakers to sell diesel vehicles in all 50 states.

I was shocked to see a car with a combined-20-mpg fuel "economy" listed in the "Green My Ride" article by Frances Cerra Whittelsey.

I am also missing a diesel car for comparison. In many European countries like France, Germany, and Italy, about 50 percent of all cars have a diesel engine. Admittedly the choices are limited in the United States (it might be a good idea for Sierra to look into why that is the case, as far as legislation in this country goes). However, there are, for example, the VW Golf and Jetta models.

I drive a 2004 Golf diesel, four cylinder, 100 horsepower, which gives me an average of about 54 mpg and enough room to store gear for a boat. No hybrid is required for that. A single tank (about 14 gallons) brings me from Washington, D.C., to Florida. How is that for fuel economy?

Due to the higher ignition temperatures of a diesel engine, as compared with a gasoline engine, the amount of toxic emissions is also significantly reduced. And there is no problem with adjusting the ignition (emission tests) either; a diesel does not have spark plugs. A diesel being too slow and not zippy? Not at all--diesels have a high torque and display a lot of power particularly at low revolutions per minute. My Rabbit can jump if needed.
Norbert Zacharias
Edgewater, Maryland

Editor's note: We listed the Honda Odyssey EX-L minivan with a combined EPA rating of 20 mpg because it is the best in its category. Some purchasers, particularly families, have determined that a minivan, rather than a compact like your VW Golf, best suits their needs. (Families should also consider the Mazda 5, a "mini-minivan" that achieves a combined EPA rating of 24 mpg.)

The recent article on recommended green cars was awful. You are greenwashing cars getting 17 to 23 mpg in town. Does anybody read this crap before you publish?
Carol Anderson

Editor's note: We recommend buyers make decisions based on their own needs. For a family that needs a minivan, we point them to the most efficient model. For a driver who absolutely wants a sporty convertible, we suggest the most efficient of the bunch. In the final analysis, the best way to reduce fuel use is to drive less, so the bus commuter who pilots his or her snazzy Mini Cooper convertible only on weekends may be among the greenest of drivers.

"Green My Ride" had some good information. But important omissions were the exclusion of pickups and diesels. Pickups are fuel inefficient to be sure. But many of us will buy them because we need them. (Abstinence-only education is rarely successful.) Customers choosing the least fuel-inefficient pickup trucks can make a big difference to the environment. By the way, the minivan and sports car you featured as green choices are just as gas-guzzling as the best gas-mileage pickup according to the EPA (the Mazda B2300 with a five-speed manual transmission).

A new generation of diesels are being touted as green because of their increased fuel efficiency. It would have been helpful to hear whether these claims have merit.
Al Franklin
Auburn, California

Editor's note: Due to space limitations, we were unable to include pickups. As you noted, they tend to be inefficient, and people who truly need them will buy them no matter what. For comparison mpg figures, go to

I have been conducting an experiment to increase the gas mileage of my car (a 1998 Nissan Sentra, silver). Since January 1, I have been driving with the heat turned off and have found that my gas mileage has increased by 2.2 to 2.7 miles per gallon. Not bad! All I had to do was purchase a used snowmobile suit to wear over my normal work clothes and carry a pad of steel wool for occasional defrosting of the windshield. It is very easy.

We all think to turn down our thermostats at home but forget about our cars! Just think if everyone increased his or her mileage by 2.2 to 2.7 mpg. It would amount to millions of gallons per day, right?

Editor's note: Even without donning a snowmobile suit, you can improve your fuel efficiency by monitoring your driving habits: Don't stomp on the gas pedal, use cruise control, keep your tires properly inflated, and replace your air filter regularly.

I take offense when writers reinforce the stereotype that rich folks don't care about the environment ("If you can afford the $150,000 Aston Martin DB9 Coupe, you're probably not bothered by its 10-mpg-city, 16-mpg-highway rating," "Green My Ride").

The hottest, highest-performing car to be developed in years is the all-electric Tesla. Its 135-mpg-equivalence blows away even the beloved Prius. This revolutionary car, and other quantum-leap environmental products, would not come to market if it weren't for environmentalists who are rich enough to support these nascent products.
Nick Wilder
Boulder, Colorado

Editor's note: The $90,000 all-electric Tesla, which Sierra wrote about last year ("Innovators," May/June 2007), went into production in March.

I am the proud owner of a Honda Fit. I love small cars. I live in downstate Illinois, and we generally don't have much snow accumulation that often, but this has been a record year, and it's still snowing! My Fit has been grounded, and I'm not happy. I live in a rural area near a highway, but snow is still a problem for my light and low-riding Fit.

II might be making a move to Wisconsin soon, and I'm thinking that's the end of the Fit. So what auto would you recommend for a snowy area? The Honda CR-V is the best value, and a pretty clean machine as far as that goes, but it's too bad I might have to change cars. And I don't want to spend more money!

It's a fact that some of these really great light, small cars just don't belong in challenging rural areas.
Martha Thompson
Champaign, Illinois

Editor's note: As anyone who regularly drives unplowed snow-covered roads knows, ground clearance is paramount. Check out the specs of the CR-V and other small, (relatively) high-mpg SUVs, and you may be tempted to trade in your Fit. But if your Fit is, well, a perfect fit most of the year, consider buying an older truck for those days when you're snowed in. Or just stay at home with a hot cup of cocoa.

I love telling people about my natural-gas-fueled Honda Civic GX. It's a great green option: It uses no gasoline, has almost no smoggy emissions, and uses a domestically produced fuel. It doesn't have a spiffy fuel-consumption display like the Prius, but it gets filled up using a compressor installed in my garage. Why wasn't it included in your article on green automotive choices?
Jo Pitesky
Studio City, California

Editor's note: The natural-gas-fueled Honda Civic GX, honored by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy as the "greenest vehicle of 2008," is only available in California and New York.

Regarding the article "Green My Ride," I was disappointed to note the omission of natural-gas vehicles as a viable alternative. Natural gas is--on average--much less expensive than petroleum (64 cents per gallon statewide in Utah!), is relatively available, and has a much lower impact on the environment than even the thriftiest hybrid. In order to equal the cost of operation of an NGV Honda Civic, a gasoline-burning hybrid would have to achieve more than 150 mpg! And even then the hybrid would still produce significantly more pollution than the natural-gas vehicle.

The total airborne emissions produced by a new Honda Civic NGV, based on a yearly average of 15,000 miles of usage, is less than that produced by pouring one cup of gasoline on the ground. As we fill our gasoline-burning vehicles, whether we drive a hybrid or not, it is normal to spill small amounts of gasoline on the ground, not to mention the drops of gasoline that are left in the nozzle to evaporate into the atmosphere. Even careful usage of gasoline results in our spilling at least a cup of gasoline on the ground each year.

And what about those battery packs that must be replaced every 100,000 miles or so? Where do the discarded ones go? Natural-gas vehicles also last much longer than gasoline-burning vehicles, reducing the necessity to replace them, thereby further preserving natural resources and energy. Furthermore, NGV vehicles can (with specialized equipment) be fueled directly at the owner's home, reducing the need for service stations and the pollution they produce.

Natural-gas vehicles are produced by Honda, Ford, General Motors, and other companies. However, Honda is the only company that produces a fully dedicated natural-gas vehicle. More information can be found at the Natural Gas Vehicles for America Web site,, and the Questar Gas NGV Web site. Natural-gas fueling stations can be found using the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fueling Station Locator.
Michael Hughes
Orem, Utah

Cars of any sort aren't the most forward-thinking subject in the pages of Sierra magazine, but most of us have them and good recommendations are worthwhile, so I was surprised to find Honda's nonhybrid Civic absent from your "Green My Ride" guide. It gets better mileage than the listed Honda Fit and as good or better mileage than the Corolla and Nissan Versa (which also has worse emissions ratings). It's also available in an even cleaner natural-gas-powered version that you can fill at home, which means never going to a gas station again! With its reputation for longevity, it may well be the last internal-combustion vehicle you'll own and at least deserves honorable mention.
Ky White
Santa Cruz, California

Building vehicles in the future that get better mileage is a very good idea, but I would like to know when we are going to push for technology that will improve mileage for existing vehicles. There are still lots of vehicles out there that are gas hogs. No matter how many new vehicles are made that get better mileage and or burn cleaner, there will still be lots of gas-guzzlers that have not worn out yet for years to come.
Doug Goodall
Reno, Nevada

After reading "Green My Ride," I got to thinking about this online community that tries to push the limits of mpg in all automobiles. They have great tips on beating the mpg given to a car or truck by the EPA and other energy-conservation tips:
Kyle Kidder
Natural-resource specialist
Shore Fishery Unit, Alaska Department of Natural Resources
Anchorage, Alaska

There's never an issue of Sierra that fails to extol the virtues of higher-mileage/alternative-fuel cars. Regardless of the fuel required to power it, a civilization based on personal motor transport can never achieve sustainability. Cars just take up far too much space and are largely responsible for a cascade of consumption of all resources, especially land. What is Sierra doing to promote the improvement of passenger rail service in North America?
Thomas J. DeMarco
Whistler, British Columbia

I am curious why the Sierra Club has not taken a position against the tremendous creation of pollution and wasting of oil by the multimillion-dollar business of auto racing, namely NASCAR. The February 23 TV schedule indicated automobile and truck racing continuously from 11:30 a.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday! Doesn't this sort of "sport" deserve some mention for its harm to our environment? How about promoting a total ban on such activities?
Philip W. Stokes
Ypsilanti, Michigan

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