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Go green in environmentally smart cars

When it comes to cars that are environment friendly or "green," auto manufacturers are turning over a new leaf.

Due to new, ever-tightening emissions standards and gradually cleaner fuel, new cars are getting greener every year.

Thanks to very successful regulation from California and the Environmental Protection Agency, cars and trucks have gotten dramatically cleaner, says David Friedman, research director of the clean vehicles program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But we're not done yet. As people drive more and buy more cars, the problem keeps coming back. We still need to keep investing in technology to protect public health."

Typically, green cars do at least one of two things: produce a smaller than average quantity of harmful emissions or use less petrochemicals to get the job done, says Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the Green Car Journal. And some models -- like the advanced technology hybrids -- do both.

To get a truly green car, buyers also need to start looking at the amount of heat-trapping or "greenhouse" gases their vehicles produce -- something that is not accounted for under current tailpipe emission regulations, says Friedman, who recommends checking out the data on individual cars at www.fueleconomy.gov.

"From our perspective, a green car is a vehicle that has improved smog-forming emissions and reduced emissions of heat-trapping gases that cause global warming," he says. "And a big part of that is also choosing a car with good fuel economy."

Manufacturers are offering a host of new environmentally friendly options in 2004. In addition, this year buyers in a handful of northeastern states will have access to some models that had been available only in California. One example: natural-gas-powered, advanced technology Honda Civic GX, which boasts drastically reduced emissions.

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"It drives like any other Civic," says Cogan. "The only difference is, I had to fill up at a natural gas station. Those are not that prolific."

That's a common refrain with some green fuels. There are roughly 2 million flexible fuel vehicles on the road -- cars, trucks and SUVs, says Cogan. They can run on regular gasoline or E85 -- a fuel made of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline -- or any mix of the two.

But there are only about 100 stations that sell E85, and most of those are in the Midwest. Result: These potentially green vehicles are burning the same gas as the average car on the road.

On the plus side: Gone are the days when green meant small. Consumers, especially those living in California, can opt for a variety of environmentally friendly vehicles. And as access to cleaner gas spreads -- it's required to be available nationwide by 2006 -- so will the availability of many more green choices in all size categories.

Toyota Prius Hybrid
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One car -- the redesigned Toyota Prius Hybrid -- has actually grown since last year. While it's just 5 ½ inches longer and one inch wider on the outside, it's now a hatchback and the extra 12 cubic feet of interior space bumps it from a compact into the mid-sized category. The price tag is the same: $20,000.

"It has much better performance and fuel economy -- and much better styling," says Cogan. Toyota estimates it gets 60 mpg city and 51 mpg highway, says spokesman Sam Butto.

Along with the design, the green buyer's perception is also changing. Hybrids are becoming status symbols, says Cogan. "People want other people to know they are driving a hybrid."

If you're shopping green, here's a rundown of the major environmentally friendly fuel options and what makes them green, along with a few of the new models manufacturers are releasing for 2004:

Gasoline-powered lowered emission vehicles
What it is: These vehicles combine a new engine design with low-sulfur fuel to produce substantially less -- and in some cases virtually no -- smog-forming emissions. Depending on how much emissions these cars produce, manufacturers may refer to them by California emissions designations: ultra low emission vehicles, super ultra low emission vehicles, and partial-zero emission vehicles or advanced technology partial zero emission vehicles.

Adding to the consumer confusion, the federal government -- through the EPA -- has a separate set of classifications and you really can't mix and match the two.

For a greener car, you want an EPA certification that falls in Tier 2 and you want a binCQ number of 5 or less, says James Kliesch, research associate with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Bin is an EPA certification scale for emissions that run 1-10 with 1 the best.

"A generalization is that a Bin of 5 or [lower] would be a fair assessment of what would be a clean vehicle," he says.

Vehicles meeting California emissions standards are excellent options, says Kliesch, author of ACEEE's Green Book: the Environmental Guide to Cars and Trucks. "The place to look is under the hood."

What makes it green: What's coming out of the tail pipe is much cleaner -- with markedly less nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and, in most cases, particulate matter. To find out just how much less, check out the California or EPA classification.

The good news: While the cost is higher -- Cogan estimates a few hundred dollars -- car makers aren't passing it along to consumers. "People won't pay more for it, at least not at this point," he says.

The bad news: Low-sulfur fuel is being rolled out gradually, and the cleanest version won't be fully available nationwide until 2006.

Will the current quality of gas available in most states poison the emissions systems of super clean autos? There really hasn't been enough testing on them to determine that, admits one former fuels engineer.

"There is no clear answer," says Kliesch.

As a result, some of the cars are only available in areas that have -- or are soon planning to have -- cleaner fuel. That means California (where the fuel is available now) and a handful of northeastern states, which could include Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Other models are available nationwide. Consumers need to check with car makers to see if a particular lowered-emission model is available in their area.

New in the category for 2004: "Virtually every manufacturer has one," says Cogan. Among them: Nissan Altima; Dodge Stratus; Acura TL; Ford Focus; BMW 525i, BMW 530i, BMW 325i Coupe; Volkswagen Jetta 2.0 sedan; Honda Accord; Subaru Outback and the Subaru Legacy.

Hybrid vehicles
What it is: Uses a combination of a gasoline engine with an electric battery-powered system to produce more miles per gallon.

What makes it green: It can go farther on less gas. Hybrids capture normally "lost" energy -- like the friction you generate when you step on the breaks -- to charge the battery, says Kliesch. Because of the combination of battery and gas, hybrids get more miles per gallon. "There really isn't any downside," he says.

In addition, some hybrids are designed to produce less smog-forming emissions. These vehicles will also carry one of the California or EPA designations under the hood.

Honda Civic Hybrid
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New in the category for 2004: Dodge Ram Truck Hybrid and a redesigned Toyota Prius. Also, for the first time, an advanced technology partial zero emission vehicle, the Honda Civic Hybrid, is available outside California. Look for it in Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont.

Flexible fuel vehicles
What it is: You could be "driving one and not even know it," says Cogan. These vehicles run on regular gas, E85 or any combination of the two. And the price of the vehicle and mileage are roughly the same as with a conventional fuel system, says Cogan.

What makes it green: It has the potential to burn 85 percent less gasoline, because the gas is cut with corn alcohol -- a renewable resource. Some flexible fuel vehicles can also be designed for lower emissions, so check for EPA or California designations.

The bad news: There isn't exactly an ethanol station on every corner, so most of these vehicles are burning regular gas. "It's only green if you use the E85," says Friedman.

New in the category for 2004: Dodge Ram.

Natural gas vehicles
What it is: These are powered by the same natural gas used in many homes.

What makes it green: Cleaner tailpipe emissions. One example: natural gas vehicles produce 17 times less nitrous oxide -- one of the components of smog -- than gas, says Kliesch.

And "natural gas vehicles produce about 20 percent less greenhouse gas emissions," says Friedman.

The bad news: While the fuel efficiency is about the same, some tanks hold the equivalent of half the fuel. When Cogan drove a Honda GX, he got "about 200 miles" to the tank, he recalls. And it was more difficult to find a place to refuel.

One possible solution: Honda plans to market the car with a slow-fill device that would allow drivers to fill the tank overnight from their residential gas lines, but that won't come onto the market until next year, according to Andy Boyd, spokesman for Honda.

New in the category for 2004: Chevrolet Silverado; GMC Sierra. And, for the first time, the Honda Civic GX is available in a natural gas version outside of California. Consumers can look for it in Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont.

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

--Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

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