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Green Cars for Dummies

Many of us are emotional about our rides. When it comes to our cars, we consider them an extension of self.  Some may care more about our own images than the others. Nevertheless, what we drive tells a lot about ourselves.

Besides reckoning with our images, luxurious or sporty, our cars need to be cheap, reliable, functional, ergonomical, and safe.  Whew, what a list. Now with gas prices at $4 per gallon, fuel economy becomes an additional and increasingly important factor in choosing a car.  Whether you believe in the idea of peak oil, you probably want to shed our dependence on foreign oil.  So I am offering my 2 cents on green cars.  This article won't make you an expert, but I hope it will help you understand basic tradeoffs.


Avoid Excess

Rule number one: don't buy a car bigger than what you need.  The jacked up truck with monster tires used to be a fun idea. Nowadays, the image it projects is "I have a small p@#*$". I apologize if my loud mouth offends someone, but the chances are he won't be reading this article anyways.  For that once-a-quarter trip we need to make when our auntie's family visit us from out of town, we can just rent the big car.  

Small Cars Advantages

The small car is fun to toss around the corners.  Top speed is only for bragging rights. Once we go beyond 65, we are going to see the red & blue light blinking behind us. And since not everyone is 6 foot 6, going pint-size is the easy way to save fuel.  There are many options on the road. Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Cruze, Hundai Elantra, Smart ForTwo, Mazda 3: the list goes on. However, when many of these models can get over 40 mpg on the highway, none can do that around the city. It is worth noting that the Fiat 500, despite of its small size, cannot make it onto the list.

Hybrids: Pay to Get One 

But then, some of us have families. The go-cart won't do. Then we pay to get into a hybrid. The additional battery reduces the need for the engine to ramp up and wind down, and accommodates the fluctuation in everyday driving.  Regenerative braking recaptures some of the energy that would have been wasted at the brakes.  The gas milage of hybrids is counter-intuitive: they consume less gasoline in the city than on the highway. 

Yes, there is the Prius. The Prius has been the reigning queen in gas mileage for years. And it does the job for most people.  In 2012, Prius comes in a station wagon, a smaller and younger version "C", in addition to the good old "classic" format. In 2012-1/2, there will even be a plug-in hybrid version (more about this later)! 

While I have been advertising for Toyota, other manufacturers are catching up. We now have a new generation of options. We no longer need to accept tradeoffs of the Prius: poor vehicle performance, worst-in-class braking distance, ugly design, and completely no-fun to drive.  The Ford Focus hybrid, and the Honda Insight and Civic, all get over 40 mpg average (note: this is not just for highway).  The 2012 Prius "C" claims to get 53 mpg average, while the Lexus 250h comes with some luxurious accommodation to pamper us.

Plug-in Hybrids: For the Long Haul

Add in more dough, we can do even better. Let's step up to a Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle. General Motors would rather call theirs the Extended Range Electric Car.  The battery gets even larger, and it allows the vehicle to run purely on battery alone. The 2012 Chevy Volt, the 2013 Ford Fusion, and a 2013 Toyota Prius , when run on electric mode,  can get up to 100 mpg equivalent.  The gas engine kicks in when the battery runs dry so we would not be stranded.  For the few lucky people who can afford $100,000+, the Fisker Karma has style, performance, luxury, and even size (it is not a small car).  The tradeoff is of course money.  We are paying for two sets of powertrain: a small gas engine, plus the electric setup.  These vehicles weigh quite a bit, so you can't expect a lot of carrying capacity (payload).

Electric Car: Pros & Cons

The electric (only) car gets rid of the tail pipe all together!  When the electric car came onto the market, I had several friends lined up to buy the Nissan Leaf.  Now we have the Ford Focus Electric, the upcoming Honda Fit EV, and the very good looking Tesla Model S (this is the new 4 door, not the low volume 2 door Lotus variation).  There are even a few low-volume, high-priced sports cars that pack some serious performance. The trade-off here is range. It takes a lot of juice to run a car. Our battery designs just cannot support the distance, yet. The ranges specified are not for going up hills. Living in the hilly Seattle Washington, I am not going to get the range as reported.  On the other hand, we all know our driving distance to work, no surprise there.

Another tradeoff is charging time. At 120V you need 8 hours. At 240V you need 4. It is not like you can fill it up at the gas station in 5 minutes and go again. So we need to think ahead. "Ooops honey, I forgot to charge it last night," and I will pay for it dearly. 

Thirdly we are assuming a car's tail pipe is dirtier than the smoke stack of the local utility plant. While it is definitely true for the Pacific Northwest where we run on hydroelectricity, I am not so sure when operating under certain coal-fired electric generators.

Lastly we have to get rid of the batteries when they retires. Someday, the large number of car batteries will create a waste concern for us. 

Cutting edge; bleeding edge.  But we all have to start somewhere, just like the first horseless carriage could not beat its predecessor, the horse.  If we can plan our lives around the tradeoffs, we will find how easy it is to maintain the electric cars, and no stops at gas pumps!

Diesel: Kinda Green but Fun

Europeans like diesel. Therefore we currently have a few clean diesel vehicles in the market. VW Passat earned the Motor Trend Car of the Year in 2012, and the Audi A3 TDI got the Green Car of the Year in 2010. Together with the Golf TDI, the VW family (VW owns Audi) have the fuel efficient clean diesel market cornered in US, at least for the meantime.  Mercedes and BMW are joining in though. They can achieve close to (but not quite) the hybrid type of mileage, but are more fun to drive.  But with diesel, we are still depended on imported oil.  We can switch to BioDiesel, but that may void the manufacturers' warranty.  In such case, we will need to graduate from being the dummy, and get to know more about our machines.

Bigger Vehicles: If You Really Need It

How about the hybrid SUV's? As the vehicle gets bigger, we will no longer have the magic 40 mpg anymore. The Lexus RX 450h, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and the Ford Escape Hybrid (which will be discontinued in 2013), get thirty some miles per gallon. They have the 4-wheel- drive gear and size, and they need to carry the big batteries.  As a result, they cannot carry as much payload as their appearance would suggest.  Since they cannot carry more people than the station wagon, it is the same as getting a 4WD Subaru.

As for the large SUV, most of us do not need such a vehicle. Yes there are a few rare occasions when the tank is needed. Years ago, I used to drive a midsize SUV, when I needed the 1500 pound payload to carry lots of books and when I lived up the hill with snow in winter.  Now looking back, if I need to carry lots of books, don't live up the hill. GMC Yukon, Chevy Tahoe, and Cadillac Escalade have hybrid versions, with low twenties mpg.  Then again, do you really need a big SUV? 


Back to rule number one, don't buy a bigger car than you need. The Lexus LS 600h is a hybrid, but it only has 19 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, or 20 mpg combined. That's worse than the Mustang.  So not all hybrids are green.  We all love some luxury, so if you can afford it, please do it in a smaller scale.  I heard it on the radio before, and can't remember who said it. "It is interesting to see how much energy we spent on just transporting the vehicle itself." (i.e., not the person inside).

Today, the writer drives a Prius, and is planning on upgrading to the next levels.  And I don't mind being a dork. But if you ask my brother, he just wouldn't want to get caught dead in one.


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