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Driving Green 

Hybrid cars are fast becoming an attractive alternative in an increasingly environmentally conscious market.

The passage of new federal fuel-economy regulations in December was hailed as a big step toward reducing emissions and oil consumption in the United States, but it comes with a price. Some say the regulations — which require automakers to increase the average fuel efficiency of all vehicles from 26.4 miles per gallon to 35 mpg by the year 2020 — aren't coming fast enough, considering that hybrids and other fuel-efficient vehicles have been available for several years.

The state of California, historically the nation's leader in environmental practices and regulations, believes progress can and should be made much faster. In fact, California is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for upsetting years of precedent by denying California's request to mandate lower emissions sooner than 2020.

Many consumers have resisted hybrid and fuel-efficient technology in recent years, balking at the higher price tags and worrying that buying a hybrid vehicle isn't cost effective. Given the astronomical prices at the pump, however, and the federal mandate for automakers to begin making cleaner vehicles, the industry is paying more attention to hybrids — and consumers who once held out might now reconsider their options.

With the advent of technologies that improve both conventional combustion engines and alternative-fuel technologies, green driving is fast becoming environmentally and economically smart.

According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a nonprofit, independent research group based in Washington, D.C., the average fuel economy of all new cars, passenger vans, SUVs and pickups steadily declined in the U.S. from 1998 to 2004 with the rising popularity of large SUVs and pickup trucks. In 2005, however, the average fuel economy of American vehicles began to rise slightly, reaching 20-25 mpg in 2006 and 2007 as sales of compact cars increased and oil prices rose. Still, that average is nearly 10 percent below what it was 20 years ago; and the country continues to trail Europe and China, whose vehicles are expected to average 43 and 35 mpg this year, respectively.

The good news, according to ACEEE, is that as more and more consumers start buying green, automakers will begin to look at environmentally friendly designs as an opportunity for growth, not just a burdensome obligation. Car manufacturers say they'll produce more fuel-efficient vehicles as demand increases, while some consumers contend they would buy fuel-efficient cars if they were more accessible.

In actuality, they are accessible — much more so than just the Toyota and Honda models consumers are accustomed to. And, given current oil prices, consumers ultimately may save enough in fuel costs to make up for the hybrids' higher price tags. Moreover, greener cars are likely to have higher resale values.

Motorists who are thinking about driving green may need a little help sorting through the wealth of information available on new and emerging technologies. Everyone can buy green to some extent, says ACEEE. The most environmentally friendly thing a consumer can do is evaluate his or her needs and budget, then look for the model with the greenest scores among the cars and trucks that meet those needs.

Greenercars.org, a Web site prepared by ACEEE, is designed to help consumers make those choices. It evaluates such things as emissions and fuel consumption to compile a "green score," ranking the most environmentally friendly vehicles in each class.

The Top Ten Greenest Vehicles of 2008 (see table) shows a mix of hybrid-electric and conventional gas vehicles, choosing the top 10 from all classes combined to show a variety of ways to go green without necessarily going hybrid. Some of the top 10 vehicles listed below may not yet be available in the New Orleans area, however. The Honda Civic GX, which tops the list of "green" vehicles, runs on compressed natural gas (which produces no emissions) but is available only in California; Nissan currently does not offer the Altima hybrid in Louisiana; and Daimler Chrysler's Smart Fortwo, a 106-inch-long super cart popular in Europe for the past eight years, only recently hit the U.S. market and even then with limited availability. The closest place to get one is Jackson, Miss.

Greenercars.org also offers additional lists that identify the greenest cars in each class that don't appear in the overall top 10. For example, hybrid SUVs are now available, such as the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, the Ford Escape Hybrid, the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid and the GMC Yukon Hybrid. Consumers can also expect GM to release the Chevy Silverado Hybrid in 2009.

On average, a new SUV produces 40 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than a new car, so the fastest way to save fuel and reduce emissions is to improve gas mileage in large SUVs and trucks first, according to Greenercars.org. Upping the fuel economy of a Yukon Denali from 14 to 16 mpg, for instance, would save the average Yukon driver over 100 gallons of gas a year and eliminate 1.3 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Achieving that same result with a Honda Civic would require raising a 42-mpg rate to 67 mpg. A truck or SUV — hybrid or not — can still be green when its capacity is put to good use. For example, carrying multiple passengers in an SUV can be more environmentally friendly than several smaller compact cars carrying individual drivers.

The ubiquitous Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid hold fast to second and third place on the Greenercars.org list and serve as the hybrids of choice in the emerging national green market. Locally, the Prius starts at $23,000, and its cousin, the Toyota Camry Hybrid, starts at roughly $26,500. The Honda Civic Hybrid starts at approximately $23,200 versus a comparably equipped Honda Civic LX at $18,400.

Though options for fuel-efficient vehicles in New Orleans are confined to basic hybrids and small or compact cars, consumers can look forward to developing technologies in the next few years. Both Toyota and GM expect to release a modified version of the hybrid, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, by 2010. These vehicles are different than standard hybrids in that they would run on lithium ion batteries similar to those currently used to power computers. They will be recharged externally through a standard electrical outlet.

Test runs on a Prius plug-in have shown that it can get up to 99.9 mpg. The downside? It can only go for 7 miles on electricity before it has to switch over to gas power. Despite the limited range and the fact that some consumers may not like the idea of having to plug in their car, GM believes it will have an electric plug-in — the Chevrolet Volt — that will reach 40 miles a gallon by 2010. GM also is looking to the Saturn Vue as the first small SUV commercial hybrid plug-in.

It is estimated that a plug-in would save three-quarters of a pound of carbon dioxide emissions per mile compared to its conventional gas counterpart — but some environmentalists note that if the electricity used to power the cars comes from coal-fired plants, it would negate the vehicle's overall benefit to the environment. Likewise, hydrogen cars, which produce zero emissions while running on liquid hydrogen, would not be effective unless the hydrogen itself is produced from clean, renewable energy sources.

Consumers also can expect improvements in conventional engines, such as a trend toward the use of turbocharged engine technology, direct fuel injection, variable valve timing and cleaner diesels.


Greenercars.org's Top Ten Greenest Vehicles of 2008 City MPG Hwy. MPG

Honda Civic GX* 24 36

Toyota Prius 48 45

Honda Civic Hybrid 40 45

Smart Fortwo Convrt/coupe* 33 41

Toyota Yaris 29 36

Nissan Altima hybrid* 35 33

Toyota Corolla 28 37

Mini Cooper 28 37

Ford Focus 24 35

Toyota Camry hybrid 33 34

Honda Civic 26 34

Honda Fit 28 34

* Not available in New Orleans

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