- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

The popular tendency has been to demonize the car companies for producing gas guzzlers, but when was the last time you heard someone comment favorably on the variety of fuel-efficient products on the market? Lost in the SUV noise are the dozens of fuel-efficient and low-pollution solutions being offered in auto showrooms.

Even the largest truck or most elegant luxury car gets around twice the gas mileage of its counterpart from the ‘50s, and they emit between a twentieth and a hundredth of the pollutants common in that era. We can thank the application of computer controls to the engines, transmissions and even the power-robbing climate systems for the increase in efficiency. And these electronic marvels have made possible the use of better powertrains and allow cleaner fuels to be burned when they are available.

The most common emission-reducing scheme in use now is the hybrid powerplant where a very small gasoline engine is helped by electric motors during the brief periods when acceleration or heavy pulling is needed. Then these electric motors go idle and have their small batteries recharged when the vehicle is running at a steady speed or is braking. Usually when the vehicle stops for a light, the engine quits to save fuel and stop polluting.

The first hybrid cars introduced were the Toyota four-door, five-seat Prius that delivers an exceptional 52 miles per gallon in city driving, and the two-seat Honda Insight that shines with up to 65 miles per gallon on the highway.

Now Honda has added a hybrid Civic to the mix, and Ford will follow soon with a hybrid Escape small SUV, delivering between 35 and 40 miles per gallon. The Escape’s hybrid electric powertrain also will be used for future Ford vehicles. Other hybrids soon on the market include a Lexus RX330 luxury family crossover SUV and a more rugged Dodge Durango hauler. Look for hybrid electric assist packages on things such as full-size GM pickups that will enable them to pull heavy loads, yet still use a smaller and more efficient engine. These vehicles run on pump gas, do not require recharging and operate in any weather. Prius has sold 30,000 units since its U.S. launch in July 2000.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB)) classifies vehicles as low-emission vehicles (LEV), then moves to ultra-low-emission (ULEV) vehicles, then to super-ultra-low-emission vehicle (SULEV) based on their production of smog-forming exhaust gases. Put into perspective, a ULEV allows 10 times more smog-forming emissions than a SULEV and a LEV allows 11 times more smog-forming emissions than a SULEV. Most modern vehicles will meet LEV standards and most hybrids can meet the SULEV levels.

A conscientious buyer will check the emission rating of the passenger cars on the market and factor that into their choice. More and more companies are meeting the ULEV rating across the board, with some models going beyond that. The all-new Focus PZEV meets California’s stringent partial-zero-emissions standard without sacrificing performance, fun-to-drive capability or fuel economy. This PZEV (SULEV with zero-evaporation and extended emissions warranty) powertrain is the standard engine for all California, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts Focus models this year and in 2004, the all-new 2.3-liter I-4 engine will be introduced throughout the country. All 1.8-liter MY2003 Sentras sold in California are also PZEV certified and this technology is bound to expand within the Nissan lineup in future years.

One other way of increasing the emission efficiency of vehicles is to use alternative fuels, such as natural gas, ethanol or even propane and butane. While effective, these fuels are not always available everywhere, so they are only local solutions. Flexible fuel (or bi-fuel) vehicles operate on E85 ethanol, gasoline or any combination of the two fuels in the same tank, or have a separate gaseous fuel container. They offer customers the best of both worlds by being able to use whatever appropriate fuel is available.

All GM full-size SUVs equipped with the Vortec 5300 engine are E85 capable, a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. This includes the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban and the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL, plus the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups. Most of GM’s truck families have natural gas or propane capable models, and there even is a bi-fuel natural-gas Cavalier small sedan.

Ford has offered propane and natural-gas-powered trucks since 1964 and in 1993 introduced the flexible fuel Taurus. Ford offers products that operate on natural gas, propane, ethanol or combinations. Current offerings include dedicated natural-gas versions of the Ford Crown Victoria, F-Series pickup and Econoline Cargo Vans and Club Wagons; bi-fuel natural-gas and propane Ford F-Series pickups; and flexible fuel versions of the Ford Explorer, Ranger and Taurus, and Mercury Mountaineer and Sable.

But natural gas has other advantages not associated with ecology. It has an octane number around 130, significantly higher than premium gasoline so it has become the fuel of choice for some high performance cars. Ford has shown a supercharged Mustang Stallion, and DaimlerChrysler teased us with a high-powered Charger, both falling within California’s extremely strict SULEV standards.

Alternative-fuel vehicles help reduce dependence on foreign oil, and many state and local grants and incentives are available to help offset the cost. To check funding you may qualify for, consult this incentive guide: http://www.gm.com/automotive/innovations/altfuel/cost_calculator/index.htm.

The eventual goal is zero-emission vehicles (ZEV), which has only been reached in consumer models with electric cars. But in three years of marketing by GM, Ford, Honda, Nissan and Toyota, just over 2,000 electric cars were sold despite many subsidies. The limited range and cost of replacement batteries seem to have been the drawback, but in some controlled communities electrics such as DaimlerChrysler’s GEM series that resemble an improved golf cart have been popular.

Eventually, we will have an infrastructure of fueling stations in place for ultraclean hydrogen fuel. DaimlerChrysler has driven an A-Class-based NECAR across the country, converting methanol into hydrogen on board. Just about every car company is poised to offer these emission-free hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles as soon as the hydrogen supply is common, and that should occur within 10 years.

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