Pressure to cut carbon emissions and get better gas mileage has led to a new generation of fuel savers

Green Your Ride

America’s relationship with the automobile has often been called a “love affair.” If so, this particular romance has lost some of its luster. Our desire for the big ol’ comfy galoot has cooled. Oh, there was a time when the bulky hard-charger seemed so wonderful. But things have changed, and suddenly Mr. Big is looking like a big waste o’ space, a danger to the wallet — if not the world.

But we really love our SUVs in Fairfield County. One need only visit any school parking lot at pickup time to see that vast armada of suburban tanks. Will all those drivers undergo a rethink?

It’s happening now. To the chagrin of manufacturers, who need four or five years to switch gears and bring a new car to market, fashion changes can happen overnight. The car market is about to go through an enormous transformation, and it’s not just driven by consumers horrified by $4-a-gallon prices. The government has stepped into the game (after thirty-two years of indifference) and set new rules for manufacturers.

According to the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) law just passed, automakers must make sure that their entire fleets maintain an average of 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020. And after the November election, we might expect even more energy-related legislation.
If you question whether or not we really need to transform the 16 million new cars we buy every year, ponder this: If every American drove a car that averaged 40 mpg, oil shipments from the Middle East would drop precipitously.

So what’s the hot technology that’s going to save the day? The answer is that automakers are frantically reaching out in several directions, and the smart consumer is going to have to be aware of several new technologies. Let us survey, then, what is available right now and next fall, and give some thought to what’s just around the corner.

For instance, we are still a good decade away from widespread availability of truly revolutionary technology, such as hydrogen-based fuel-cell power. And while a few high-priced boutique electric cars like the Tesla are getting attention, we are still a couple of years, at least, from a car you can “tank up” with an electrical extension cord.

Indeed, at the New York Auto Show in March, I visited every manufacturer’s space to inquire about their new fuel-savers. Many carmakers, ranging from the ambitious Korean Hyundai to the long-suffering American Ford, pleaded for more time, a couple of years, please, to see if Americans are really, really going to buy hybrids and the like. The German manufacturers are about to hit us with some amazing new diesels. And the three automotive giants GM, Toyota and Honda can say, Right this way, please.

Before we examine the new offerings, let us first confront that distinctively American issue: weight. If you buy a heavy vehicle, expect poor gas mileage. As manufacturers piled on amenities and safety features over the years, cars bulked up enormously. Even a relatively compact car like the Audi A4 now weighs two tons. In twenty years the Honda Accord went from a tiny flyweight to a full-fledged land ark.

Rudimentary thought: If you want to save on gas, get a lightweight car. The lovely Honda Fit and the Korean-built Chevy Aveo are just two of the scrappy new lightweights to gain a legion of new fans. In another year Ford will start importing from Europe a shapely and snazzy little sedan to be called either the Fiesta or the Verve.

And if you like ’em real small, Mercedes is finally importing the Smart car, a funky little two-seater. Prices range between $11,600 and $16,500. The mid-30s fuel-economy figures, however, are nowhere near as sensational as its micro-rollerskate appearance.

Future note: Manufacturers will start getting serious about paring the weight. Engines will shift from big, hearty V8s to more modest four-cylinder engines fortified with turbochargers.

Consumers seem to be somewhat aware of this issue and have switched allegiance from ponderous, high-bulk SUVs to the more manageable “crossover” type (that is, the nimbler SUVs that are built on a car chassis, not on a truck). In the past seven years, crossover sales have tripled. And manufacturers are poised to bring out some even swankier, niftier editions, such as BMW’s awesome new X6. But all the glitz in the world may not mean a thing if the customer looks under the hood and just sees some plain ol’ thirsty-as-hell lush.

Here, then, are the new gas-saving technologies to look for. Much of it is exciting, none of it is free. Every great advance has some hidden cost. Then again, at some time in history, they probably said that about the electric lightbulb.

Toyota sits atop this enterprise, having seen the geeky Prius gain such celebrity. In the next few seasons, the Prius name will grow larger and encompass three models: small, medium and large. The Toyota Camry Hybrid (currently selling decently well; owners claim about 38 mpg) will probably be absorbed into the growing Prius family.

The Prius’ biggest success was in allaying people’s fears and suspicions about the new hybrid technology, which is essentially this: A normal gasoline-engined car gets added power from an electrical motor. The boost, silent and seamless, provides power as the car moves away from a stop, which is where cars generally consume the most fuel and produce the most smog. So a hybrid helps on two vital counts, fuel and clean air. The added electrical power does not consume extra energy; the car produces its own.

If you still need power and pizzazz, the company also makes the Lexus GS450h, its fast, BMW-fighting sedan, plus the crossover pioneer, the RX400h.

American automakers have taken a cautious approach to hybrids, testing the waters with affordable samples such as the simple and frisky Ford Escape Hybrid (29 mpg, in a crossover that sells for less than $30,000). But GM is now getting serious and putting this technology where it’s needed the most: those mountain-of-steel SUVs.

For those who just gotta tow that boat or simply need a driver’s view that keeps them eye-to-eye with sparrows and spy planes, the Chevy Tahoe is available now in a hybrid option. And there is a tradeoff. For the $8,000 premium, you get a massive vehicle that fetches about 21 mpg. The classic hybrid conundrum runs like this: How much fuel could I buy with the money I’m investing in this technology?

The hybrid premium also buys you one more thing: a big chrome badge that says “HYBRID,” thus giving you, in certain circles, eco style points. The Tahoe actually has five such badges. In the forthcoming Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, sure to be a hit among the stylin’, hip-hoppin’ tree-hugger crowd, the word H-Y-B-R-I-D stretches across the side panels like a Broadway sign. What else? Oh, the Caddy SUV’s city mileage figure rises from 12 mpg to 18 — which is still miserable, but it’s a start.

Techno note: You may hear mention of “two-mode” hybrids this season. This is the next step up and is the result of a collaboration by GM, BMW and what used to be called DaimlerChrysler. Broadly speaking, a two-mode pushes power through the transmission and provides help not just in urban driving, the hybrid’s normal bailiwick, but on the highway as well.

Right now, GM offers hybrid editions of the beautiful new Chevy Malibu and the thrifty Saturn Vue Green Line crossover — but it’s not the two-mode system that you get in the SUVs. When the two-mode system works its way through the GM lineup next fall, they’ll have some cars to brag about.

Chrysler, now separated from Mercedes, will offer the two-mode next year in its big muscular SUV, the Chrysler Aspen HEV. Audi will offer many new two-mode hybrids, including the slick new crossover, the Q7. 

Wait a minute! Come back here. You were just about to skip ahead because you remember those clattery, coffee-grinder diesels from the 1980s, the ones that stank up the whole neighborhood. Well, it’s a whole new remarkable world happening in the diesel ranks, and this writer, for one, is a fresh convert.

The big mind-changer for me was testing the Mercedes E320 Bluetec. After 500 miles of pretty aggressive driving, I was shocked to see it still had a quarter tank of diesel remaining. So a long-distance driver really can expect to go 700 miles before looking for a station. Its EPA numbers of 23 city/32 highway are legitimate (and 35 percent better than the normal, gas-engine E350). The thing is, it did this in stern, Germanic silence. And as for sheer thrust, it delivered hefty amounts of power any time it was nudged into action. I loved this car and immediately wondered where this technology would end up next.

Everywhere, it turns out. Mercedes is putting its new Bluetec diesel technology into its range of SUVs for 2009, including the sleek, vanlike R320 and more traditional GL320 and ML320. In a couple of years, even its big, thundering S sedans will be so powered. And since it is offering the Bluetec name to any other company that goes for the clean diesel technology, look for variations. Jeep’s Grand Cherokee, for instance, will have that option in 2009.

What’s so hot about diesels? The simplicity of the design has always meant an impressive longevity, and we’ve all known a Mercedes diesel owner who bragged about getting 400,000 miles out of it. Strictly speaking, a diesel engine is 30 percent more efficient than an equivalent gas engine. This helped make diesels very popular in Europe (in some counties you are taxed on actual engine size). The old bugaboo, though, was smog, but that has finally been fixed.

BMW is about to join the party, which is hardly a big deal for the company, considering that two-thirds of the cars it sells in Europe are diesels. The beloved 3-series sedan will be offered as the 335d, and the popular X5 crossover, which sometimes seems to be the official Fairfield County car, will get the diesel option as the X5 xDrive 35d. Their codeword for all this is BluePerformance. Audi and Bentley are contemplating this technology in their high-performance cars. Subaru, too.

Ahem. Are we concentrating too much here on the big gunboats? What about the customer who just wants big fuel savings? What about the driver who thinks a 30-mpg Mini Cooper is just too damned thirsty? Well, Volkswagen has your number.

Old hands at turbo-diesels (offered as the “TDI” option in the Golf and the nifty crossover Touareg), VW is now using Bluetec technology in its forthcoming Jetta, which is said to get 50 mpg in combined city and highway. The price should not be that far from $20,000. Early reports say that it’s quiet and peppy. Suddenly we have a car to seriously rival the Prius. A diesel, remember, does not require a hybrid’s elaborate batteries. But diesels are not without issues.

Techno brief: Connecticut is one of five states that subscribe to California’s very tough emissions standards. To meet these standards, the new “blue” diesel manufacturers added something called urea injection to kill off the final naughty smog bits. Yes, urea. It resides in a small tank that has to be refilled when you get a car service. Eventually, every corner Jiffy-Lube will carry the stuff.

If you’d like a fast explanation of why we’re not shopping for electric cars today, just park your notebook computer in your lap for a while. Feels warm, doesn’t it? Well, the concept cars that run on big electric motors have the same sort of batteries — lithium ion — and engineers haven’t figured out how to make them: (a) run cooler, (b) last longer, and (c) be more affordable. But all this will happen. GM has very boldly said it will do it by 2010, which is just around the corner.

The Chevy Volt is GM’s big attention-getter here. It’s very modernistic and racy looking, all to broadcast very loudly that it contains radically new technology. The essential offering is this: You plug it into your house current at night (when the city’s electrical grid is relatively untaxed), and in the morning you have a commuter car good for forty miles. If that’s all you drive, your daily fuel bill is zip aside from your monthly electricity bill. If you drive farther, the Volt also has a gas engine that is not connected to the wheels but charges up its battery, thereby extending the range to 640 miles.

Oh, but there are questions. If everybody owned an electric car, wouldn’t that tax the power grids? GM avers that power companies would not presently be overworked. And, anyway, by the time the world is really ready for an electric car, we will all have solar panels on the roof, and wind turbines will be cranking out at sea. Won’t we?

Be assured that most auto manufacturers have concept cars in the shop. GM already attempted it in 1996 with the EV1 (subject of the derisive documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?). And the automotive and business press has already been treated to rides in an all-electric sports car, the Tesla, built by Silicon Valley mogul Martin Eberhard. Its tiny electric motor produces 248 horsepower and can propel the Lotus-built sports car to blistering speeds. And those hotsy-totsy lithium-ion batteries? They’re encased in the liquid-cool refrigerants. The Tesla has proven that it can be done. Its chief concerns are actually getting the transmissions sorted out before they can sell it. And, oh yeah, the price tag is $100,000.

Flex-fuel goes by a variety of names. Ethanol. BioFuel. Essentially it’s fuel that’s grown by farmers. It is more popular, understandably, out in the nation’s breadbasket. Ethanol has some merits: It’s pretty clean burning, and you don’t finance any nasty regimes by buying it. In Brazil, where the government began pushing it in the 1970s, ethanol comprises about 40 percent of all fuel used. Although there are also growing controversies about it here.

Growing a lot of corn to turn into automotive fuel might make corn farmers happy, but researchers are now questioning if this a good use of land and resources. When you add up water use, trucking, tilling the land, refinery costs and so on, ethanol production might not actually shave any national energy use. Farmers are now countering with corn substitutes such as switchgrass.

The ethanol future is unclear, but you can still buy, without risk, all manner of Dodge Caravans and Chevy pickup trucks with the flex-fuel option.

Techno note: A flex-fuel engine requires any mixture of ethanol and gasoline as long as at least 15 percent of it is regular gasoline. Thus it will take up to 85 percent ethanol, which leads us to a term you may have seen, “E85.”

The best alternate fuel of all might, of course, be no gasoline at all. President Bush was throwing his support to the hydrogen fuel-cell car way back in his first administration. Some cynics theorized that he liked hydrogen because it appeared that big-oil interests could control the market for it. But that doesn’t disprove the fact that it’s a workable option and someday might carry the freight.

Right now, Honda has offered its revolutionary FCX Clarity to a number of customers in California for real-world testing. It looks, handles and goes about the same as any garden-variety Accord. But it’s powered by hydrogen.

Now, if you’ll just stop making wisecracks about the Hindenburg, we’ll tell you that hydrogen is a whole new thing. And right now it has very limited availability. Honda does offer, however, the Honda Home Energy Station IV, which uses natural gas to create hydrogen, as well as heating and electricity for your home. Honda claims that this power creation reduces CO2 emissions by a third and total energy costs by half.

Honda says nothing about bragging rights, but I think these should be monumental.

Techno note: Howzit work? Hydrogen gas goes from a tank into a “stack” of fuel cells, gets jacked around, forms catalytic reactions that produce electricity which then powers an electric motor. Excess electricity gets stored in the lithium-ion batteries. Water is produced in this cycle, which helps cool the stack. The only emission is, uh, water.

How suitable this would be in a Connecticut winter, I don’t know.

Arch-rival Toyota is not standing pat. It is currently testing a fuel-cell hybrid called the FCHV. It looks like a normal Toyota Highlander, but inside is a wizard’s brew of power plants enabling it to produce its own hydrogen. They are still perfecting it but are confident enough to turn it over to journalists for 400 miles of nonstop cruising.

GM, meanwhile, has been showing off its hydrogen-powered concept car, the Sequel (which looks like a Chevy Equinox). It’ll presently do 300 miles to a tank. Before you reach for the checkbook, however, remember that these are million-dollar experimental cars.

The important thing is, it does work. The real customers might well be our kids — the ones who stare at us accusingly for driving smog-producing beasts that are killing all the polar bears.

You might not have any notion to try a revolutionary engine, but there’s a generation coming up that expects — demands — a high-tech transformation every year. They will be ready for all this.

And we won’t get into the subject of world events, which might require that we be ready for this faster than we thought.

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