Green Autos In the Showroom, But Few on the Road

WASHINGTON, DC, February 21, 2003 (ENS) - Americans may be buying record numbers of large, gas guzzling cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles, but this does not mean there are not plenty of less polluting options available.

A new guide that offers advice on the environmental friendliness of passenger cars and trucks finds that Americans have increasing choice of less polluting vehicles, even as some automakers fight modest increases to fuel efficiency standards.

The good news is there are an increased number of vehicles that adhere to much tighter emissions standards than those that are federally mandated according to James Kliesch, coauthor of the guide and research associate at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a nonprofit research group.

And hybrids are coming of age, Kliesch said, with three hybrid gasoline electric vehicles currently available.

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The hybrid model of the Honda Civic demonstrates that hybrid cars are coming of age, said James Kleisch, research associate at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. (Photo courtesy Honda)
But this news is overshadowed by the finding that there has been "very little improvement" in fuel economy for the majority of conventional, gasoline only vehicles.

The overall fuel economy of the U.S. passenger fleet has declined, Kliesch said, largely because of the growth in popularity of sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

SUVs and minivans account for more than 50 percent of all new U.S. vehicle sales.

SUVs, minivans and other light trucks, on average, consume one third more fuel than cars, and sales of the largest, fuel hungriest SUVs increased by more than 30 percent in the past year.

Fuel consumption is "directly correlated to the amount of greenhouse gases the vehicle emits," Kliesch said.

ACEEE reports that some 90 percent of a vehicle's lifetime greenhouse gas production is due to fuel consumption.

The national fuel economy standard for light trucks and SUVs is 20.7 mpg. It is 27.5 mpg for cars.

The three largest U.S. automakers, General Motors Corporation, Ford Motor Company and DaimlerChrysler AG, are challenging a proposed 1.5 mile per gallon increase in the fuel economy standards for light trucks and SUVs.

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Massive SUVs, like this Ford Excursion, are far less fuel efficient and more pollutive than the average vehicle. Ford and other automakers are fighting federal increases to SUV fuel efficiency standards. (Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company)
The companies argue it will cost them billions of dollars and will force them to compromise safety of these vehicles.

But analysis by the National Academy of Sciences found that technology exists to raise the fuel economy of SUVs and trucks higher than the proposed increase, without compromising vehicle safety or making automakers spend more than they can afford.

"America's car buying decisions have significant energy, economic, and environmental impacts," said ACEEE deputy director Bill Prindle. "If new car and light truck buyers chose the most efficient vehicles in each size class, we would slash the 2003 fleet's gasoline use by 20 percent, reducing gasoline costs by $3.7 billion and saving the average buyer $220 a year.

"And, of course, we would also cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our dependence on imported oil."

The ACEEE Green Book for Model Year 2003 provides analysis of a vehicle's environmentally friendliness through a measure that incorporates fuel consumption and air pollution, including both tailpipe emissions and the emissions of greenhouse gases. It rates only vehicles that are commercially available and includes a list of the 12 "greenest" and the 12 "meanest" vehicles.

The three hybrid electric gasoline models, one from Toyota and two from Honda, earn three of the top five spots on the greenest vehicle list. Honda's Insight takes top honors, and Toyota's Prius grabs the fourth spot.

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The hybrid Toyota Prius ranks fourth in the ACEEE Green Book.(Photo courtesy Toyota)
But it is the third hybrid electric gasoline model, Honda's Civic hybrid, which marks the start of an important industry trend, Kliesch said. The Civic ranked fifth on the greenest list.

Honda is putting integrated hybrid technologies into a "popular mainstream vehicle," Kliesch said, and this is the first mass produced vehicle that integrates hybrid drive train technology into an existing platform.

The Civic hybrid is some 40 percent more fuel efficient than its conventional counterpart. Industry estimates find some 50,000 hybrids have been sold in the United States.

The second trend illustrated by the report is the increasing improvement in controlling emissions. Ten of the 12 greenest vehicles can be fueled at the gas pump, Kliesch said, as automotive engineers are "changing pollution control from an art into a science."

Only three years ago the top 12 list of greenest vehicles was half electric and alternative fuel vehicles. This year, the only non-gasoline vehicles on the list are Honda's natural gas powered Civic GX and Toyota's electric RAV4 EV sport utility. These ranked second and third, respectively, on the list, but fuel stations for these vehicles are very limited.

Seven of the cars on the list qualify as super ultra low emission vehicles (SULEVs), which means their emissions are twenty times cleaner than the federal standard, Kliesch said.

Yet most SULEVs are available only in California, where gas stations are required to sell the cleaner, low sulfur gasoline needed for advanced vehicle emissions controls to be fully effective.

The list includes SULEV models from Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Ford, but six automakers are now manufacturing SULEV certified vehicles.

Ford is the only U.S. automaker with a vehicle on the greenest list.

The list of "meanest" vehicles is topped by a pair of sports cars, but the reports authors are more concerned with the rest of the list, which consists of large SUVs and pickup trucks.

"From an environmental standpoint, the Ferraris and other exotics aren't a big deal, as their sales are very limited," said coauthor John DeCicco, senior fellow with the nonprofit Environmental Defense. "Of greater concern are the massive SUVs and pickup trucks, which not only have high emissions and consume a lot of fuel, but also are sold in large numbers."

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Ford has a low emissions model of its popular pickup, the Ford F-150. (Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company)
Kliesch acknowledged that the majority of the greener cars are either have limited availability or other constraints, but said the guide provides a "best in class" list that includes larger vehicles. These include the more efficient versions of the Chrysler Voyager minivan, Ford F-150 pickup, and Toyota Highlander SUV.

"We understand that not everyone wants to buy a compact car," he said. "We hope this guide helps people choose the greenest vehicle that meets their needs and fits their budget."

The online version of ACEEE's guide can be found at http://www.greenercars.com.