Lean, Green Driving Machines

By Maureen Sangiorgio

How today’s “green” vehicles are helping to clean up the environment.

When I was growing up in the 70s, I was deeply moved by the TV commercial featuring the American Indian Iron Eyes Cody shedding a tear over pollution. The voiceover proclaimed, “People start pollution; people can stop it.” I have been an amateur tree-hugging environmentalist ever since. Back then, it was commonplace for tractor trailers, trucks, and even some cars to belch out black smoke polluting the air. Fortunately, automotive technology has come a long way since then, with a focus on producing environmentally-friendly vehicles. Now there is a huge array of “green” vehicles on the market, many of them available right here in the Lehigh Valley. Here’s how you can choose which green vehicle is right for you.

What’s In A Name?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a “green” vehicle as one that has low emissions and good fuel economy. Low emissions produce very little air pollution because less carbon dioxide (a harmful greenhouse gas), is added to the atmosphere. The better gas mileage a vehicle gets, the less fuel it burns, conserving natural resources.

The goal here is to choose a vehicle that has zero or close to zero emissions (no carbon dioxide output) while getting the highest miles per gallon. To help consumers identify the greenest vehicles in any class, the EPA offers an online Green Vehicle Guide (epa.gov/greenvehicles). You can search the guide’s comprehensive database and compare the environmental performance and fuel economy of all vehicle models and types, including cars, sport-utility vehicles, pick-up trucks, and vans. The Guide compares vehicle emissions using Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas scores. The scores are used to rate the amount of smog-producing pollutants and carbon dioxide emissions on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the “greenest” score in each case.

The goal here is to choose a vehicle that has zero or close to zero emissions (no carbon dioxide output) while getting the highest miles per gallon.

Options Abound

There are several types of green cars on the market. Most use regular gasoline, several run on diesel. Others are hybrids, which means they run on both gasoline and battery power, and others are electric cars, which are powered exclusively by electricity. This year, Green Car Journal chose the Audi A3 TDI as their 2010 Green Car of the Year. Green Car of the Year Jurors noted the model’s styling, upscale appointments, and 42mpg fuel efficiency–a 50 percent improvement over the gasoline A3 variant that makes the car economical to operate with low CO2 emissions. “What’s important to note here is that the cars that the Audi A3 TDI were competing against were all hybrids,” says John Buckner, Audi Sales Manager, Knopf Automotive, Allentown. “Hybrid vehicles have been historically well-known as very green. The Audi A3 TDI is not a hybrid vehicle, and yet it beat all its competitors. Hybrids do have a downside, though. They are more harmful to the environment than gasoline or diesels because they create a larger carbon footprint. For example, you have to dispose of all those batteries. Consumers should also be aware that most hybrids are more expensive to purchase than a gasoline or diesel-powered vehicle.” Other nominees included the Honda Insight Hybrid, Mercury Milan Hybrid, the recently recalled Toyota Prius, and the VW Golf TDI.

According to Buckner, other factors to consider when shopping for a fuel-efficient car are the engine size and type of transmission. “Generally, the smaller the engine, like a four-cylinder instead of a V-6 or a V-8, the better the fuel economy. Also, a manual transmission comes standard on most vehicles, and gets better gas mileage than an automatic transmission. The down side to a manual, though, is that it does make it more difficult to drive around the city with all the stop-and-go traffic.”

The EPA’s recent top picks for fuel economy models include the Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Mercury Milan Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid, Honda Insight Hybrid, Lexus HS250h Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid, Mazda Tribute Hybrid, Mercury Mariner Hybrid, Smart fortwo Cabriolet, Smart fortwo Coupe, Toyota Camry Hybrid, and Lexus RX450h Hybrid.

It’s Easy Being Green

Here’s what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint:

Drive fewer miles. Vehicles make up almost one-third of smog-forming emissions nationally, and because we are driving more and more miles every year (up 127% since 1970), vehicles continue to be a significant contributor to air pollution. Whenever possible, take public transportation, carpool, and combine activities into one trip. Bicycling or even walking can be suitable (and healthy) transportation alternatives.

Maintain your vehicle properly. Your vehicle is designed to perform best when maintained according to the instructions found in the owner’s manual. A poorly tuned vehicle can pollute significantly more than one that’s well-maintained. Keep your tires properly inflated — low tire pressure means lower fuel economy. And don’t forget to replace your air filter regularly — a clogged air filter can reduce fuel economy significantly.

Refuel wisely. When the weather is warm, try to refuel early in the morning or late in the evening. This will reduce the amount of evaporative emissions being pushed out of the tank during the heat of the day, when smog most easily forms. On Ozone Action Days, try not to refuel at all. And never top off your tank beyond the automatic shut off point.

Drive smart. Watch that speed — obeying highway speed limits can save fuel, as well as prevent pollution. Avoid rapid accelerations and braking, which burn more fuel. Whenever safely possible, use cruise control and overdrive gears. When you aren’t in traffic, turn off the engine rather than idle for more than 30 seconds.

Lighten up. Remove excess weight from your trunk, and if you have a removable roof rack and aren’t using it, take it off.

Use Alternative Fuels. If you own a Flex Fuel Vehicle (FFV), you can fill your tank up with a fuel blend containing 85% ethanol or with traditional gasoline. Ethanol is produced from renewable crops such as corn, and has lower greenhouse gas emissions. To find out if you own a FFV, go to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center. Their Fueling Station Locator will help you locate alternative fuel stations in your area.

Maureen Sangiorgio, an award-winning writer, frequently reports on consumer topics and was the executive editor of Der Gasser, the Porsche Club of America’s magazine. She is a member of the Club’s Philadelphia chapter and has also written on Club events for their national publication, Porsche Panorama.

Follow @LehighValleyMarketplace on Instagram