Buying an Eco-Friendly Car

With all the hype about hybrids, biodiesel and reduced emissions, many of us have tried to do the right thing: Buy a car that won't increase our dependence on foreign oil and spew ozone-depleting CO2 into the air. Here is a summary of what I've discovered: The choices are getting better, but it's still a limited market.

Hybrids

The recent craze over hybrid automobiles shows that we are at the nexus of environmentalism and market forces. Having a car that gets 50 miles to the gallon is good for the pocketbook and good for the guilty conscience. Hybrids work by capturing energy that is created when the car brakes. That energy is stored in batteries and used, whenever possible, instead of fuel.

Pros

Great Mileage: EPA mileage estimates for the Prius are 60 mpg city, 51 mpg highway. Hybrids are designed to look like mainstream vehicles now (not the moon units they used to resemble).

They are quiet (almost eerily quiet) and offer a smooth ride.

They run on gasoline; you refuel at traditional gas stations.

Carpool lane access in California and Arizona.

Cons

Batteries: There is much speculation on how long the batteries in hybrid cars last, but the owner of the first Prius (a taxi driver) has put 180,000 miles on his car without a battery replacement, and that's a good sign.

Vehicle Choice: Up until recently, you've only been able to get sedans that use hybrid technology. Manufacturers have recognized the popularity of the hybrids and have started to make SUVs with the technology. Here's the rub: Higher-powered vehicles (like trucks and SUVs) get better but not fantastic mileage, and they cost a lot more to purchase. According to Consumer Reports, the hybrid Escape from Ford gets city/highway mileage of 22/29, averaging at 26 mpg. The regular Ford Escape gets 12/27 mileage, averaging at 18 mpg.

Price: The 8 mpg differential is great, but for consumers, you have to factor in the increased costs of buying a hybrid. For the Escape, the MSRP on the hybrid is $8,000 more than the MSRP on the traditional, nonhybrid version of the same SUV.

BioDiesel

There is a lot of confusion about biodiesel, so here's the skinny: Biodiesel is a blend of traditional diesel (aka dino-diesel) and vegetable oil. The most important thing you need to know about biodiesel is that every existing diesel engine is capable of using biodiesel. You can switch back and forth between biodiesel and regular diesel if you have to. The only differencel when using biodiesel is you may have to switch your oil filter more often. Some people modify their diesel engines to run a fuel called straight vegetable oil. These are the folks who back up to a McDonald's and take all its fry grease. SVO and biodiesel are different animals in the same family. Biodiesel is a lot less hassle than running an SVO vehicle.

Pros

Lower emissions: The more vegetable oil that your blend of biodiesel contains, the lower your emissions.

Versatility: The greatest benefit to the consumer is the ability to switch between regular and biodiesel whenever you are away from a biodiesel refueling station.

Car selection: There are a lot of diesel models available that can be used with biodiesel, specifically Volkswagens, trucks and large SUVs.

Costs: Biodiesel fuel costs a little more than traditional diesel and significantly more than gasoline, but diesel cars usually get better mileage and last longer.

In 2007 you can expect to see more and more manufacturers offering diesel cars, including luxury models from the likes of Mercedes.

For a map of biodiesel stations:
http://www.biodiesel.org/buyingbiodiesel/retailfuelingsites/

Cons

Particulate matter and smog: Even though biodiesel cars emit less CO2, they still put out some nasty particles and pollutants. Current manufacturers of biodiesel are desperately researching for additives that will make biodiesel even cleaner.

Limited SUV choices: If you are interested in an SUV or a truck, the diesel options are heavy on the big models and light on the small to midsize options. Currently, the only small SUV is the Jeep Liberty. There are no fuel-efficient options for diesel trucks. The big trucks and SUVs are models like the Ford Expedition, the Dodge 2500, the Chevy Silverado and the Hummer H1.

Price: The price of biodiesel in combination with these fuel-guzzling trucks can make this alternative fuel price prohibitive.

Cold weather: Be aware of cold weather viscosity problems with all diesels. The higher the vegetable oil content of the biodiesel you use, the more viscous the fuel becomes in cold weather.

Natural Gas

For the past three years, I have been an earth warrior. Well, not exactly. When I commuted across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, the 14-mile trip could take an hour each way. I noticed all the carpools whizzing by me avoiding the traffic and sailing into the city. My schedule was too erratic for a regular carpool, so I started researching the alternative-fuel vehicles that get access to the high-occupancy vehicle lanes in California, even when there's only one person in the car. At the time, hybrids did not get this special access, so I purchased a natural gas car.

Why Natural Gas?

Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel -- score one for the environment. But natural gas is still a fossil fuel. The good news is that most natural gas used in the United States comes from within our borders (including offshore drilling) or from Mexico. The bad news is that the quest for more natural gas is one of the biggest incentives for oil companies to lobby for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As the driver of a natural gas vehicle, my motto of compromise was "I may be riding with ANWR, but at least I'm not riding with Saddam."

Pros

Fuel prices: The cost of CNG (compressed natural gas) is traditionally cheaper than regular gas. That's why so many fleet vehicles are run off CNG.

Clean burning/longevity: The cars last longer than traditional gasoline vehicles because the engine burns so clean.

HOV access: Carpool access in California and Arizona.

Cons

Vehicle selection limited: The lack of options when buying a CNG vehicle. Honda makes a natural gas Civic, Chevrolet makes a few CNG trucks, Ford offers vans and a pickup truck (the F-150).

Reduced range: Because natural gas has twice the volume of gas (it takes up twice the space of its liquid, gasoline equivalent), a tank of CNG will not take you as far as a tank of gas.

Refueling stations sparse: Adding to the refueling woes, finding a natural gas station can be difficult. It was fine for me when I was commuting because I stuck to the same route every day. But natural gas cars are not for road trips; you'd zigzag your way to your destination going from one obscure CNG fueling station to the next, praying you didn't run out of gas.

If you want to see if you have fueling stations available in your area, check out the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuel Data Center:
http://www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/infrastructure/refueling.html

Ethanol

Ethanol is a wheat-based fuel additive, based on corn, barley or wheat, that has been around for many years. E85 is the most popular "brand" of ethanol; it is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The benefit of this fuel is that it increases the octane in your fuel and reduces emissions. E85 also costs less for the consumer than traditional gasoline. Because the fuel is crop-based, many American farmers support ethanol and want to grow corn to fuel the country's escalating fuel needs. Ethanol is a good thing: it's domestically produced, crop-based and puts out reduced emissions.

Pros

Fuel versatility: Ethanol FFVs (Flexible Fuel Vehicles) allow you to use either E85 or regular gasoline. You are not tethered to your local E85 station; you can take a road trip and not worry about your refueling options.

Price: The price of E85, as mentioned above, is usually less than gasoline.

Vehicle selection: another pro on ethanol vehicles -- the variety of cars available. American carmakers have embraced this technology and offer station wagons, light-duty trucks, sedans and minivans with the FFV option. Check this Web site for a list of makes and models: http://www.e85fuel.com/e85101/flexfuelvehicles.php.

Overall, I would say ethanol is a great alternative fuel solution if you live in the Midwest or in a location where E85 fuel stations abound.

Cons

Refueling stations limited: The availability of E85 stations varies wildly, depending on where you live. According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition's Web site, (http://www.e85fuel.com/database/search.php), there are no public E85 stations in the state of New York and one in California. In Illinois, there are more than 100 E85 stations listed. Check the map before you buy an ethanol vehicle.

Hydrogen

Much hype has been put into hydrogen cars. The reality is that they aren't happening now or anytime soon. There is no viable way to make hydrogen fuel without converting fossil fuels, no infrastructure for refueling stations, and no major car manufacturers planning a line of hydrogen vehicles.

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