The Clean-burning, Efficient Car Guide

You stop at the gas station, slide the credit card, tap in your zip code and bam — you’re staring back at a hard, cold reality in brilliant LCD: $80 to fill up your SUV. Such is the state of life in America. And consider this: let’s say you purchased a large SUV two years ago, when the average price for mid-grade unleaded in most metropolitan regions was around $2.26 per gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Assuming your SUV holds around 26 gallons, the total cost at fill up was approximately $53. Now fast forward two years. That same gallon of gasoline runs an average of $3.01. If you fill up weekly, that’s $80 more spent on gasoline per month. You’re basically buying an extra tank every month. If, as most experts expect, $4 per gallon arrives sometime this year, that number accelerates to a whopping $104 per fill up. Imagine: $100 to fill up your car. Add to that the issues of pollution and oil dependency — the need for us to be more conscious in terms of what we drive — and the result is a dramatically changing set of priorities for car shoppers.

According to buyers recently polled at, only 35% percent say their current vehicle gets at least 25 mpg. Yet 71% say that their next vehicle purchase must get at least 25 mpg, while 43% say it will have to get better than 30 mpg – and 15% say it will have to get at least 40 mpg. This reflects a stunning shift in car-buying priorities, to be sure, but equally remarkable are the automakers’ efforts to keep pace. In fact, with new models and technologies hitting showrooms, car shoppers are faced with an array of choices and trade-offs, a head-spinning number of emerging initiatives, changing ratings and advanced technology that may – or may not – improve the efficiency of the vehicles we drive.

Currently, there are four main vehicle options for shoppers with a fuel efficiency mandate:

Diesel vehicles
Economy hybrids
Flex-fuel vehicles
Small cars

Finding the best deal within these options takes some careful research and a clear understanding of priorities. If you drive in heavy traffic, for example, buying a more expensive fuel-efficient hybrid or downsizing to a subcompact may be a good choice, as the combination of incentives and fuel savings will likely recoup your investment.

If you need more space or performance, and driving in traffic is a rare or occasional occurrence, chances are that buying a Toyota Prius or a Honda Civic Hybrid will offer less-than-ideal savings. If so, you may be happy with a more efficient traditional vehicle, say an SUV or larger car that registers 24 miles-per-gallon or better. Now consider pollution, and the importance of a vehicle’s emissions rating. Some smaller car, and hybrids, emit more pollutants than you may think. The 2007 Honda Fit, for example, gets great fuel mileage but is tagged with a less-than stellar emissions rating of LEV (Low Emissions Vehicle). If the money you save at the pump isn’t as important as buying a car that reduces your dependence on foreign oil, and your aim is to own a vehicle that’s more effective two or more years down the road, consider a flex-fuel vehicle. You pay the same for the option of E85, and set yourself up for the future – maybe. In the here and now, flex fuel, or “E85” vehicles provide little benefit, but, if fuel distribution increases, vehicle availability expands and the method of refining E85 fuel improves, you’d look very, very, smart. Then there’s diesel, a favorite in Europe but a cast-off in the US. With new engines that meet federal emissions guidelines, there’s an onslaught of diesel vehicles coming soon to the US. Diesel vehicles offer better performance and better fuel economy, but suffer from higher emissions ratings than comparable vehicles, and fuel availability is hit and miss.

Now add changing EPA ratings, engine technology such as Active Fuel Management, and gas card incentives used by automakers to foist the same old heavy metal on price-conscious buyers, and wading through even the definitions of what makes for a fuel efficient, low emissions car is as dizzying as a ride on spin-o-matic roller coaster:

CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy)
Emissions ratings
MPG ratings

The bottom line is that there are number of issues to consider, and options, for car buyers who desire a dependable and fuel efficient car with a good emissions rating – the kind that reduces our oil consumption. That’s likely to increase, too, as cars and trucks become more efficient and socially responsible. If you doubt the conversion, consider that in the end, what automakers build is based on what people will buy. With headlines screaming about terrorism, hurricanes and global warming, and with $4 per gallon shouting back at people from the scratched and dirty pump readout at the local filling station, you can bet that people just aren’t gonna go for less than 20 miles per gallon.

We know, we know. Diesels are loud, smoky and you can only buy the fuel at truck stops. Right? Ummm…ask us again next year when a new kind of diesel vehicle makes its way here, powered by cleaner fuel called Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD), and by quieter, more powerful and efficient engines that are clean enough to be legal in all 50 states.

Take that, you California tree huggers.
Up to now, five critical states, California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, pretty much do not allow the sale of diesel vehicles. That changes when the federal government makes everyone happy (except, perhaps, truckers) and establishes a uniform emissions standard for diesels. But wait a minute. All the fuss about diesel engines is because they are inherently different than gasoline-powered engines, in the way they work and what people get out of their use. Invented by Rudolph Diesel in 1892, the diesel was first demonstrated by using peanut oil – an interesting bit of irony for biodiesel fans. A diesel engine works without spark, unlike a gasoline engine, which is why it’s called a “compression ignition engine.” Where a gasoline engine uses a sparkplug, the diesel engine uses high temperature and compressed air to light the fuel. This makes the ratio of diesel compression higher than gasoline compression, which makes it more efficient, but heavier. When combined with richer fuel (more power per stroke) and turbochargers, this gives diesel cars more low-end torque for better off-the-line performance, but less horsepower than a similar gasoline engine. Mainstream diesel fuel results from the same oil refining process that gives us gasoline, but its place in that “spectrum” means that it contains more energy – thus better fuel-efficiency — but also more sulfur – thus the putrid clouds of pollution, the evil eye from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), and the subsequent change to federal standards. As a result, expect to see current diesel vehicles go away, replaced by diesel vehicles with engines that meet the new emissions. This includes automakers that previously did not bother selling diesel versions of their vehicles in the US, such as Honda, which announced recently that they will begin selling a four-cylinder diesel vehicle in the US within three years, with a six-cylinder engine to follow. Someday soon, you can expect to see a Honda Odyssey diesel minivan, and a diesel Acura RDX SUV. Based on recent news, happy automakers selling diesels in the US – that would be Jeep, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen — are planning to end production of existing models while making plans to introduce new models that meet the new requirements, and to watch demand for their new diesel vehicles skyrocket. A good example is Jeep: by killing the niche Jeep Liberty diesel and, at the same time, introducing the new 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel, Chrysler can usher in the Mercedes-Benz Bluetech diesel technology, confident that SUV buyers will appreciate the performance, efficiency and durability of a good diesel engine – one that reaches the average emissions requirements, from “California to the New York Island.”

-Better fuel mileage than gasoline and flex-fuel vehicles, comparable fuel economy to hybrids
-Markedly better emissions than the diesels of yore
-Diesel engines are traditionally more durable than gas-powered engines
-Despite improvements, still produces higher overall emissions than E85 or hybrid vehicles and many gasoline-powered vehicles
-Diesel is generally more expensive than gasoline per gallon
-Limited availability of diesel fuel at gas stations

Automakers have discovered two primary benefits to hybrid technology: more power, with better efficiency, and total efficiency. Trouble is, they aren’t necessarily willing to broadcast the differences. Case in point: the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and the Honda Accord Hybrid. Curious shoppers may think that they’ll get great fuel mileage and low emissions with these vehicles, but they won’t – at least not what many assume they would get from a hybrid vehicle. The Highlander and the Accord are power hybrids, designed to offer excellent torque and performance by basically mating the electric part of the hybrid powertrain to V6 engines. Other power hybrids include the recent batch of vehicles from Lexus, such as the 2006 Lexus RX 400h – a luxury SUV that gets about 26 miles to the gallon, and actually offers a more spirited drive than the more traditional RX. Also coming soon from Lexus is the world’s first rear-drive hybrid, the 2007 GS 450h – a powerful performance machine, not to be confused with, say, a Honda Insight.

The result of these power hybrids is great fun and improved efficiency, when compared to vehicles of similar performance character, but not when compared to hybrids that usually feature four-cylinder engines and continuously variable transmissions, such as the Toyota Prius, Ford Escape Hybrid or Honda Civic Hybrid. These are economy hybrids, and the focus here is what people generally think of when they think hybrid: high miles per gallon, low emissions, and, as a trade off, not-so-hot performance. In exchange, car buyers get tax incentives and special favors, such as up front parking spots and access to car pool lanes. The benefits vary by state, primarily because the federal government has yet to actually define what makes the grade when it comes to good-enough hybrid efficiency. The reasons? Changing EPA regulations (see the link at left), automakers that have lately been adding more performance into the hybrid mix and opportunistic politicians. The best rule of thumb is to go with the most efficient hybrid vehicles available, which means the Honda Insight (production ending later this year), the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid. These should generate the largest tax incentive, and qualify for car pool lane access in most states. Of course, it would be a, uh, good idea to check with your local state transportation department before buying. In California, for example, the Ford Escape Hybrid does not qualify for access into HOV lanes because it generates less than an estimated 45 mpg. That’s an arbitrary and ridiculous ruling, when you consider that even the gas-sipping Prius is lucky to get 45 in real-world driving.

-Low emissions, better for the environment
-Reduces oil consumption
-Best fuel economy available
-Tax incentives and potential access to HOV lanes (laws and incentives vary)

-Generally higher-priced than comparable gas, diesel or flex-fuel vehicles
-Compromised performance
-Limited availability
-Potential long-term issue regarding nickel-hydride battery recycling

It’s the kind of dream you swear is real, but, sadly, isn’t. At least – not yet. And maybe never, but hey – let’s be positive thinkers, eh? Flexible-fuel vehicles are a great idea that may one day prove to be a significant answer to our fuel consumption needs. Led by domestic automakers, especially General Motors, flexible-fuel vehicles run on gasoline or E85, which is an 85 percent to 15 percent mix of ethanol and gasoline. Currently, we’re all using ethanol as a replacement for the chemical MTBE, but “E85” is a much stronger mix. That makes it a clean fuel that technically reduces our oil consumption, and even offers a slight improvement in performance. Unfortunately, E85 is only available at a few hundred pumps nationwide, and the method of refining – using corn – so far has resulted in E85 prices that are virtually the same as regular gasoline. There’s talk of expanding the way E85 is produced to sugar cane and other types of agricultural waste, though it’s best to take a wait-and-see attitude, given the strength of American farmers and their desire to keep that corn subsidy.

Also hurting E85 adoption is its inherent inefficiency: during a recent test drive, we clocked an average fuel economy of 13.4 miles per gallon using regular grade unleaded. A tank of E85 gasoline, in the same vehicle, registered just 10.4 miles per gallon, making the use of E85 more expensive. For example, let’s say you drive 300 miles, at $3.50 per gallon. Using E85 instead of gasoline results in more than $20 spent at the pump – which is exactly the opposite of what people are currently looking to accomplish. So, E85 is a bit of a false promise. Still, it is an alternative, a cleaner way to drive big vehicles like SUVs and trucks, and that in itself, should they ever manage to find a way to distribute it throughout the nation, would provide an environmental benefit. Bottom line, driving a big SUV using E85 is at least a more responsible way to drive a large vehicle in a small car world, even if the fuel doesn’t quite measure up to its advertised benefits.

-Cleaner burning fuel, better tailpipe emissions than gas
-Reduces overall oil consumption
-Same sticker price as a non-flex-fuel vehicles
-Slight improvement in performance vs. gasoline
-Runs on either gas or E85

-E85 ends up costing more than gas per mile of driving
-Lack of fuel stations carrying E85 fuel
-Poor fuel-efficiency
-Still requires significant petroleum to produce
-Mostly only trucks and SUVs available as flex-fuel

As if through some sort of weird retro-looking-glass, small cars are getting popular again, just as they did in the seventies when the first of two fuel crises hit the United States. Today, the price at the pump is pushing people into downsizing their expectations and creating renewed interest in more efficient vehicles. And, just like in the seventies, import automakers are ready with an answer, having invested significant time and resources in stylish world cars that maximize interior space, offer great fuel economy and are inexpensive to build. Once again, some of the domestic automakers are left wondering just how the imports – Toyota, Honda, Nissan – got so lucky, as they scramble to make a supreme marketing effort, selling a skeptical public on the efficiency of new, large SUVs.

Good luck with that endeavor.
Not that these new and small cars are the answer – just AN answer, and some are quite flawed. Shoppers, for example, should be aware of emissions ratings that are less than what they expect. The 2007 Honda Fit, for example, has an emissions rating of LEV (Low Emissions Vehicle), which some view as quite poor for a subcompact. Also ever present are the performance and safety tradeoffs inherent to small car design: no matter how many air bags, a subcompact will not fare too well against a large SUV, and performance-wise, small cars lack the punch and quiet ride we’ve grown accustomed to enjoying.

-Excellent fuel economy
-Nimble driving character
-Improved interior space vs. past small cars
-Low sticker price
-Most models produce low emissions

-Loss of performance
-Questionable safety based on curb weight disadvantage
-Some subcompacts rate poorly in emissions testing

If it sounds like an archaic government rule that makes little difference to the fuel economy of vehicles, well – it is. But that may very well change. Hamstrung by the price of oil and consumption demands, politicians have dusted off CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) in an attempt to deal with growing discontent over the price of gasoline and the issue of oil consumption. First enacted by Congress in 1975 during the Oil Embargo, CAFE is meant to “reduce energy consumption by increasing the fuel economy of cars and light trucks.” Given the fact that the standard set in 1975. Trouble is, the standard never changed – for 20 years – the result of furious lobbying efforts by automakers and a nation that really didn’t care too much about fuel economy.

Now that we do care, politicians in Washington are making all sorts of noises about upping the standard. And in fact, they already have, issuing a new CAFE mileage marker of 24.1 for light trucks (including larger SUVs), to be met by 2011. But before you think that the Feds are getting serious about this thing, consider that the new mandate requires trucks and SUVs that weigh between 8,500 and 10,000 lbs. to up their fuel economy by one mile for 2007 model year vehicles. Over the next five years, those fuel economy ratings must go up only about 4 miles to meet the standard.

The president also wants Congress to up the fuel economy standard for cars, which is currently set at 27.5 miles per gallon, and wants to change CAFE standards for cars to be based on the size of vehicles. On paper, that would make it a more precise tool to use in policing automaker fuel efficiency, helping to offset the practice of building a few super-small and fuel efficient vehicles to counteract the thousands of large, gas guzzling — and very profitable – SUVs and trucks.

It’s all a bit late in the game, and will have no impact in the here and now, as automakers will get years to meet the new standards. So… who cares? In the future, it could be more than a very past-due initiative that needs to be revised. In the future, CAFE – if used surgically instead of blindly, could result in automakers refining the efficiency of their engines and offer vehicles within segments that get better fuel economy and put out fewer emissions.

Figuring out vehicle emissions ratings is like listening to a commencement speech given by a 90-year-old librarian. It makes your head hurt, and you really aren’t sure you understand it, but you know – somewhere in the letters and acronyms, the dull forest of techno-gabble – there’s important stuff to be had. You just have trouble getting your head around it. When it comes to the cars that burn the cleanest, there are two sets of unbelievably confusing ratings to pay heed to. So – buck up, and we’ll try to make it at least a little more understandable. The two exhaust emission rating systems come from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Cars sold in the US must meet the EPA’s guidelines, and cars sold in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont must also meet the CARB requirements. The EPA uses a Tier and Bin method of grading vehicles, Tier meaning the overall requirements and Bin being the vehicle’s clean classification within the Tier. Bins start at 10, which is the least clean, down to 1, for most clean, with 5 being average:

Tier 2, Bin 10: Least clean…
Tier 2, Bin 9-6: Getting cleaner…
Tier 2, Bin 5: Average…
Tier 2, Bins 4-2: Getting even cleaner…
Tier 1, Bin 1: Cleanest, equivalent to CARB’s ZEV standard (see below)

California has chosen an alphabet game to label exhaust emissions, with the idea of making it more consumer friendly. It’s not, in fact, it’s probably more confusing than the federal standards. Currently, CARB is on phase 2 of its requirements, which are set up based on “Emissions Vehicle,” or EV, with an alphabet description tagged onto the front:

LEV-II: Low Emissions Vehicle, meaning least clean…
ULEV-II: Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, fifty percent cleaner than LEV-II…
SULEV-II: Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, cleaner than ULEV-II…
PZEV: Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle, the same as SULEV but with a near-zero evaporative emissions standard and a 15-year, 150,000 mile warranty on emissions equipment…
ZEV: Zero Emissions Vehicle, which means absolutely, positively, we promise NO tailpipe emissions

For car shoppers who want the cleanest possible vehicle, the reality is that they would shop for SULEV or PZEV cars/Tier 2, Bin 2-4. Most vehicles qualify in Tier 2, Bin 5, so anything lower than 5 is a cleaner-than option. Among the cleanest on the road, according the EPA classification is the 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid, which qualifies at Tier 2, Bin 2 – one Bin higher than even the Toyota Prius. The Prius, meanwhile, comes in at a CARB rating of PZEV, and an EPA rating of Tier 2, Bin 3. Either are basically the cleanest cars you can currently purchase.

You don’t have to shell out for a hybrid to drive clean, however. In fact, many carmakers offer PZEV and Tier 2, Bin 3 or better cars without the hybrid powertrain premium. Smart shoppers with emissions as a priority would do well to take a look at these vehicles, among others. Also, check out the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and their Green Car Guide, for more information about choosing a clean-running vehicle.

You look at the window sticker and it reads “35 mpg,” so you think to yourself – why, that’s great, perfect, a nice car with great gas mileage. Sold!

Not so fast. The numbers that more Americans are considering seriously when it comes to the purchase of a vehicle may not be very accurate, and, in fact, they may be changing. According to Autobytel’s own analysis of recent vehicles and a report from Consumer Reports, the EPA’s rated miles per gallon can be much greater than what you will get on the road, especially when it comes to hybrid vehicles. According to Consumer Reports, they found that the EPA’s estimates ran 35 – 50 percent higher than the vehicle’s actual fuel efficiency. Hybrids averaged 19 miles per gallon less than their EPA ratings, according to the publication, and ratings were too low for 90 percent of the vehicles tested. Autobytel’s own road tests support these findings. For example, a road test in the Toyota Prius consistently registered a combined fuel economy of 45, compared to its listed EPA rating of 60/51, and the Ford Escape Hybrid registered just 25 combined city and highway miles per gallon – though the EPA fuel economy is listed at 31/27. Worse yet is the new Toyota Highlander, whose “real world” miles per gallon came in at 19.8, compared to a stickered EPA estimate of 31/27. The same holds true for traditional powertrains – though the difference is generally not quite so dramatic.

Part of the reason for the difference lays in the laboratory approach the EPA uses to test its vehicles. According to, “the vehicle’s drive wheels are placed on a machine called a dynamometer that simulates the driving environment—much like an exercise bike simulates cycling. The energy required to move the rollers can be adjusted to account for aerodynamic forces and the vehicle’s weight. On the dynamometer, a professional driver runs the vehicle through a standardized driving routine, or schedule, which simulates “typical” trips in the city or on the highway.”

It promises to get even loopier, when the EPA revises its ratings beginning with the 2008 model year, with another adjustment in 2011. All of a sudden, buyers used to seeing one thing will get a lower, and more accurate rating. It makes fuel economy rating more realistic, especially when it comes to hybrids, and that’s a good thing for car buyers. For example, according to Toyota, the Prius hybrid will be adjusted downward, 20 percent for city driving estimates and 11.8 percent for highway driving – a decrease that brings the Prius down to earth in terms of fuel economy, with a 48 city and 45 highway rating. This is a stunning adjustment, especially when you consider that many hybrids claim to be notably fuel efficient in city driving circumstances. But then again, “your mileage may vary.” Below, we’ve taken a calculator and come up with possible mpg adjustments for several notable hybrid cars. Note that the Toyota Prius is an estimate provided by Toyota. For other vehicles, we use the highest percentage as reported by the EPA: 20 percent for city, and 15 percent for highway estimates.

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