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Creating Good Car-ma: How to Choose Your Car



By Leslie Garrett

It wasn’t the Exxon Valdez captain’s driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours. -- Greenpeace advertisement, New York Times, February 25, 1990

I come from a car-loving family. My father has always loved anything fire-engine red that can accelerate like a rocket and sports a dashboard that lights up like a 747. For the most part, he’s leaned toward sports cars, though we did spend a regrettable few years in the 1980s with a navy blue Ford Thunderbird with faux leather luggage straps on the trunk. People seemed disappointed to discover it wasn’t Huggy Bear behind the wheel.

My brother can forgo the red, as long as the top comes down. My mom just wants something that can plow through three feet of snow without her having to get out and push. And my son, still 11 years away from getting his license, goes into paroxysms of ecstasy at the sight of any souped-up hot-rod or pimped-out monster truck.

So it might come as a surprise to discover that a bicycle has always been my transport of choice. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t got a clue how a car works—whereas I can easily replace a tube and fix a chain. Perhaps it’s because I take life a little slower than the horsepower junkies in my midst. Or perhaps that experience with the embarrassingly hideous Thunderbird made an impression. Thanks, Dad, but I’ll take my bike. . . .

However, a bicycle might have suited my purposes quite nicely when I was cycling solo. But it just doesn’t work when I have three kids and, frequently, two enormous dogs to cart around. So a minivan (oh, how I loathe feeling like a cliché) it is.

Still, I resolved this past spring to leave the van in the driveway as much as possible. My eldest child can now bike quite capably on her own—and my younger two fit (albeit a little snugly—must put them on a diet) into my bike trailer. So we spent much of the warm weather months on two wheels. I lost that final five pounds of post-baby weight that I thought was mine forever, my kids had a blast, and we saved a small fortune when gas peaked at more than $3 a gallon.

But in a climate that features plenty of snow, cycling days have to give way to driving days. And with my minivan coughing and sputtering and showing other signs of decline, it’s time to consider our next vehicle. I’ve discovered that, while there’s no such thing as an eco-friendly vehicle (except, of course, a bike), some autos are gentler on the planet than others.

Considering that cars, as we know them, have only been around for slightly more than a century, they’ve wreaked a lot of havoc. But ironically enough, Henry Ford foresaw a green future for automobiles. His Model T ran on gas, ethanol, or a combination of the two, and he proposed that fuel could be created from fruit, weeds, sawdust, or anything else that could be fermented.

These days, it’s hard for a mechanically challenged car-shopper such as me to keep up with the options: hybrids, biodiesel, ethanol, flexible-fuel vehicles, hydrogen fuel-cell cars—the list is growing longer.

What’s the Controversy?

Simple. Cars pollute. OK, maybe you need a bit more than that—they pollute a lot. The United States alone uses a quarter of the world’s oil production. Passenger vehicles suck up 40 percent of that. Then they burn it, releasing four hundred metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions (which cause climate change) and contributing to ground-level ozone pollution—better known as “smog.”

But that doesn’t deter us from driving more, driving farther, and driving larger. As a result, we’re driving this planet’s health—and our own—into serious decline.

There’s also the political element: By now we’re over our incredulity at George Bush’s utterly anticlimactic announcement regarding our “addiction to oil.” And most of us have discerned that the invasion of Iraq had less to do with the drumbeat of democracy than with drums of oil. Truth is, our love of the automobile has put us in the frightening position of needing a fuel source that exists largely in other countries. Whoops! Indeed, the Natural Resources Defense Council notes that the United States consumes 25 percent of all the oil produced in the world, yet controls only 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves. And, of course, much of it comes from the conflict-ridden Middle East, making us vulnerable to the political instability there and creating an increasing threat to American national security.

Canadians (those without dollar signs dancing in their eyes) are getting a wee bit nervous about the vast amounts of oil that lurk beneath Alberta’s tar sands. Extracting this oil would require stripping large areas of the Boreal Forest Natural Region, burning tons of natural gas, contaminating groundwater, and belching out greenhouse gases.

What’s Up?

Fuel-economy standards are certainly up from the mid-1970s, when the average passenger car got only 14 miles per gallon. Today, passenger cars are required by law to get 27.5 miles per gallon, a standard that hasn’t budged since 1990. And the heaviest vehicles—also the biggest offenders, such as the GM Hummer H2 or Ford Excursion—aren’t bound by the fuel-economy regulations at all. Clearly, we need—indeed, most consumers want—updated, responsible legislation.

Two bipartisan bills right now aim to require that automakers make vehicles that average 35 mpg by 2018 and save more than 2.5 barrels of oil per day when they are phased in. Indeed, the hope of one of the bills is to encourage debate among Americans and cue up the issue for the 2008 election, explains Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming Program. In the meantime, consumers have some car choices to make.

The problem for many of us is that each time we open the automobile section of our newspaper, we hear about another hybrid, flexible-fuel vehicle, or “cleaner” diesel on the market that promises to deliver us to greener driving. It’s getting hard to separate the news from the noise. Let’s look at the options.

Hybrids. Toyota sent much of North America into a wild case of Prius envy when it released its revolutionary hybrid in 2004. Waiting lists for the car were months long as the groundbreaking technology quickly proved itself, and a nation of gas guzzlers saw the green light. Dan Becker is a hybrid fan, but he warns consumers to be wary of what he calls “muscle hybrids”—those that are only marginally better in terms of fuel efficiency than their conventional counterparts, which have horrible fuel economy. Consumers also have a number of good resources to help them sift through the hybrid offerings: The Union of Concerned Scientists created , a site that includes a buyer’s guide, a comparison chart, reviews, testimonials, even the Hybrid Watchdog, which helps readers differentiate between a “hollow hybrid” and a full hybrid—indeed, it offers everything but the money to purchase one. Consumer Reports, another reputable objective resource, delivers its Greener Choices site (—click “cars”) for ratings. The government’s own Environmental Protection Agency has the Green Vehicle Guide ( ).

Becker’s bottom line? “Look at the combined mileage—55 percent of the city, 45 percent of the highway—the average of the two,” he recommends. “There are several good hybrids. . . . Ask yourself, is the fuel economy substantially better than regular technology?” If it is, and you can afford the higher price of a hybrid (money you’ll eventually make back due to savings at the gas pumps), go for it.

Automakers are now preparing to meet the demand for hybrid offerings, with more models expected to come on the market within a few years. But most hybrid aficionados note that the plug-in hybrid—think extension cord—is the gold standard. This car takes hybrid technology a step further along the continuum: it can be charged from a standard household outlet (hybrid electric batteries are currently—ha!—charged by the use of the gas engine and the motion of the wheels and brakes), thereby further relegating the gas engine to backup status. With your electric engine always ready to go, you’ll rarely need the gas engine for short trips—some say plug-ins can be twice as fuel efficient as other hybrids, which are already generally twice as efficient as traditional cars. Until recently, however, plug-ins were the domain of do-it-yourselfers who jury-rigged their hybrids. There are companies, however, that will convert hybrids to plug-ins. And GM, in late 2006, announced plans to unveil a Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid, while Ford promised an Escape plug-in hybrid—though neither company offered production dates. Becker recommends caution with this option, however. “We need to be careful to avoid a situation . . . where we’re effectively running cars on coal. We don’t want to run a lot of transportation off electricity unless we’ve first figured out how to clean up the electric grid.”

Diesel. There’s been much ado about cleaner-burning diesel fuel—prompting many to consider diesel a viable green alternative. Becker reminds us that it’s “cleaner” diesel, as in “cleaner than the dirtier diesel.” He points out that roughly a dozen states, including California and New York, won’t allow diesel cars to be sold unless they can meet the same air-quality standards as traditional cars, which, because they produce a higher amount of nitrous oxide (a major component of smog), diesels sometimes can’t. But diesel die-hards argue that their cars get 20 to 40 percent better mileage than similar gasoline-engine cars, thereby contributing far less greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. Moreover, low-sulfur diesel is becoming increasingly available, and diesel manufacturers are moving toward technology that is expected to cut particulate emissions and nitrous oxide emissions. Diesels account for less than 4 percent of the US market (it’s ten times that in the EU, where diesels have long been appreciated for their mileage), but things are looking decidedly diesel.

Biodiesel. A further argument for diesel-powered cars is their ability to run on biodiesel—fuel created from renewable vegetable sources. Becker cautions that there are “a lot of problems with biodiesel” but admits it can be a good choice as long as you have a reliable source of fuel of reasonable quality. And that’s the catch for many who can’t or won’t make their own biodiesel. Biodiesel fuel isn’t widely available—I would have to drive 40 minutes from my home to the nearest station. What’s more, Becker says using it in a diesel car can “void the warranty,” a pretty big risk to take.

Still, the National Biodiesel Board, the trade association for the biodiesel industry, has formed the National Biodiesel Accreditation Commission (NBAC) “to audit fuel producers and marketers in order to enforce fuel quality standards in the US. NBAC issues a ‘Certified Biodiesel Marketer’ seal of approval for biodiesel marketers that have met all requirements of fuel accreditation audits. This seal of approval will provide added assurance to customers, as well as engine manufacturers, that the biodiesel marketed by these companies meets the ASTM standards for biodiesel and that the fuel supplier will stand behind its products.” The organization points out that warranties cover only parts and service, anyway, not fuel—and that fuel suppliers must stand behind their product. There are a few keeners who make their own biodiesel, but most rely on the few biodiesel suppliers in the United States. To find one, visit the board’s website at

You can, after a conversion that will run you about $2,000, run your diesel on discarded vegetable oil (you might want to befriend your local Chinese restaurant owners). There’s a teensy little issue with legality—the EPA considers cars that run on straight veggie oil a violation of the Clean Air Act and, if caught, you might have to cough up a fine of close to $3,000 (which would pay for a lot of Chinese dinners). However, if living within the law isn’t high on your priority list, and you don’t mind emitting the odor of pork dumplings (no sulfur emissions, though!), this might be an option for you. There are plenty of veggie-fueled folks out there happy to guide you on your journey.

Electric cars. The summer of 2006 put electric cars on people’s radar, thanks to a short documentary with the provocative title Who Killed the Electric Car? As it turns out, it was General Motors, and I leave it to the film to fill you in on the gory details, not to mention entertain you. Zero emissions make electric cars appealing—though their use is limited because they can go only sixty miles or so between charges. Still, they appeal to many (George Clooney, for example) as commuter cars. They can be plugged into any electrical outlet for recharging, they have only one moving part (as opposed to a gasoline engine’s 150 to 250 moving parts), there’s no oil to change, the engine is quiet, and they cost little to operate. And, if you get your electricity from a renewable or green power source, these cars are virtually guilt free. The problem? Well, they aren’t widely available, most are expensive (like six figures expensive), and they’re very small, which is a plus or minus depending on your point of view. There are rumors of mass-produced electrics coming soon—so stay tuned.

Flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs). While FFVs ostensibly run on E-85, a blend of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol, a corn-based fuel, Becker says only a few hundred of the 176,000 fuel stations in the United States even offer E-85. Basically, making FFVs “helps companies evade an environmental law,” he explains. Under Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which were designed to persuade automakers to create more fuel-efficient vehicles, the companies can average the fuel-efficiency of their entire fleet. Vehicles that theoretically get better gas mileage, like FFVs, give automakers the leeway to produce less fuel-efficient vehicles (think Hummers) while still holding true to CAFE standards. Another serious problem is that FFVs generally don’t run on E-85. In fact, says Becker, some companies, believing that owners would not be using E-85, stopped coating the gas tanks (which they had been doing because ethanol is more corrosive than gasoline). So if E-85 was used—a few people create their own ethanol fuel—the gas tanks got corroded.

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Led by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has made the hydrogen highway his personal platform, this technology is gaining momentum. A hydrogen fuel cell converts chemical energy into electricity by combining oxygen from the air with hydrogen gas. (Keep in mind I barely get how an escalator works, but I’ve been told this by smart people.) A fuel cell won’t run down like a regular battery or require recharging. As long as hydrogen is available to it, it will continue to produce electricity. And it emits nothing more than a drip of water from its tailpipe. The controversy arises in how the hydrogen is obtained—whether from a renewable source of electricity, such as wind or solar (green hydrogen), or from coal, oil, or nuclear plants (black hydrogen). There are also safety concerns with storing hydrogen, which has a tendency to blow up. However, don’t discard this option yet. With Arnold and even George Bush behind it, it’s getting plenty of push. In fall 2007, GM will launch a fleet of a hundred SUVs powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

What Can You Do?

One step Becker would love to see is CAFE standards raised, which generally means getting politicians in office that would make this a priority. They aren’t there now, but Becker strongly encourages us to ask our members of Congress if they support raising CAFE standards. If they do, he says, thank them. If not, tell them you’ll vote for their opponent come election day.

In the meantime, you have plenty of choices in terms of what you drive. You can choose to keep your existing car. This is not a bad option. The manufacture—and transport—of a new vehicle comes with an eco-sticker price. If you do decide it’s time for a new vehicle, Becker puts it simply: “Look for the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can afford that meets your needs.” It’s easier than ever to discern: New vehicles come with a window sticker that reveals how much gas the vehicle consumes and how its mileage compares to that of other vehicles.

Buy a hybrid. Lift the hood of a hybrid and you’ll find an electric engine alongside the gas engine. The electric motor runs the car at low speeds and the gas engine kicks into use when you need more power, say above 20 miles per hour. When the car stops—at a stoplight or in congestion—the engine shuts off. It comes back to life at the press of the accelerator pedal, much like a computer awakens at the touch of the mouse. If you choose to go this route, there are tax credits available—the IRS can fill you in: visit,,id=157557,00.html .

Do or diesel. If you go with a diesel, run it as cleanly as possible, which generally means using the new low-sulfur fuel, or running it on biodiesel. You can opt for the do-it-yourself approach, or find an accredited supplier by visiting

Name that tune-up. Whatever vehicle you choose, keeping your car tuned up can go a long way toward improving its fuel-efficiency:

• Keeping tires properly inflated can improve mileage by 3 percent.

• Using the recommended grade of motor oil improves mileage by 1 to 2 percent (look for motor oil with “Energy Conserving” on the API performance symbol—it reduces friction).

• Keep your engine tuned, which can further improve mileage by up to 4 percent.

• Replace air filters regularly, which can improve mileage by as much as 10 percent and keep impurities from damaging your engine.

No Idle Thoughts. Turn off your car if you’re stopped for more than 10 seconds. And you don’t need to “warm up” an engine. Just drive.

Hitch a ride. While I relied quite effectively on my thumb while an undergrad living in Nice, France, I don’t recommend it as an option. Rather, I’m referring to ride-share services—basically a Web-based equivalent to those “ride wanted” or “ride offered” notices thumb-tacked onto a bulletin board at your local coffeeshop. These days ride boards are online—broader in scope and sophistication (see box on opposite page).

Share and share alike. For those who like the idea of sharing but prefer a car to themselves, car sharing is becoming increasingly popular. There are a number of different companies—such as Zipcar, Flexcar, and AutoShare—but the basic concept is the same. You pay a membership fee—Flexcar, which boasts being the “nation’s first and largest” car-sharing service, charges $40 annually. You’re then given 24-hour security access and a list of leased parking spaces where the cars are kept. You reserve your car, pay an hourly fee (Flexcar charges $7–$10 per hour or $35–$90 daily, which includes gas, maintenance, cleaning, parking, and 24-hour emergency service), and get going. Some companies allow “roaming,” which means if you’re visiting a city where they are set up, you can use cars in that city. You can also usually reserve a car for a few days, allowing for short trips out of town. Check what’s available either in your city or in the city you’re visiting. Some are for-profit, others are co-ops. But all seem to be a green option worth considering.

Go public. There are certain cities in which public transit is a pleasure. I never read so much as I did when I lived and worked in a big city with an awesome subway system. I also loved eavesdropping on conversations in pre-MP3 player days.

Muscle power. Walk. Bike. Skateboard. Skate. You’ll be healthier. Our planet will be healthier. Win-win.

Keep things close. Our suburban lives are in many ways responsible for our reliance on our wheels. Living close to work, amenities (groceries, a medical center), schools, and so on could cut our own addiction to oil.


Visit the following sites to help you determine which car is the right ride for you.

Fuel Economy. Find the fuel economy of any car you’re considering from model years 1985 through now; plus find out more about hybrids, where to find E-85, how to drive any car more efficiently, and more.

Sierra Club. The Sierra Club has a long history of environmental stewardship. This site offers the opportunity to sign a petition to President Bush, get easy-to-understand facts about the impact of vehicles on climate change, and check out the miles-per-gallon calculator. .

Clean Car Campaign. Sign the Clean Car Pledge to persuade the powers that be to deliver greener cars; check out the fuel efficiency of cars from 1978 to date; explore articles, links, and more. Created by Environmental Defense, a highly respected nonprofit. . The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy offers its ratings of green cars. .

Car Talk. A fun site that offers everything from info on alternative fuels to the top gay and lesbian cars of all time. Learn how to change a tire, avoid blowing up your car trying to jump-start it, and other useful tips. . The Union of Concerned Scientists is noted for being incredibly thorough—and concerned. The result is info you can trust. .

It’s Not Just the Price That’ll Give You a Headache

As the child of folks who always bought their cars secondhand (and paid cash!), I never had my full whiff of “new-car smell” until my husband and I bought our brand-spanking-new minivan. The heady sensation of having a vehicle that no one else had already spilled coffee in soon gave way to headaches. I had to drive—in January—with the windows open. Not surprising, says the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based environmental nonprofit that has studied the issue. “Our research shows that autos are chemical reactors, releasing toxins before we even turn on the ignition,” says the center’s Clean Car Campaign director, Jeff Gearheart (his real name—how appropriate for a car guy!). These toxins include PBDEs and phthalates, used to soften the PVC so ubiquitous in car interiors, which were found in “dangerous amounts” in dust and windshield film samples and which are linked to birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, and premature births. As usual, the United States lags in protecting its people. Europe has legislation phasing out PBDEs in electronic and electrical equipment, and Japanese automakers have voluntarily agreed to reduce the use of these chemicals. Some states, namely California, Hawaii, Michigan, and New York, among others, have passed laws banning the two worst forms of PBDEs (penta and octa). But there’s no legislation at the federal level. In the meantime, certain cars are better than others for their attention to reducing “new car smell.” Volvo leads the way, even instituting a “sniff test” where materials must pass muster with the hired noses. Wouldn’t you know we’d traded in our Volvo for our stinky minivan? With all those new chemicals wreaking havoc with my brain cells, no wonder I kept getting lost.

For more information and a chart outlining which cars are the most chem free, check out .

What the Hell Were They Thinking?

The province of Alberta’s premier, Ralph Klein, went head to head with Al Gore in mid-2006 for comments the former presidential candidate made about Alberta’s oil sands and the resulting pollution from tapping the oil-rich tar sands. Klein, who has gone to Washington trying to drum up support for the oil sands (bet that’s a tough sell!), has notably rejected scientific data in the past that connects industrial pollution with global warming and has gone on record as saying that global warming trends that occurred millions of years ago may have been caused by “dinosaur farts.” Klein has since come around, acknowledging that global warming causes are “manmade.”

Green Guidance: Nothing Crude about It

Most motor oil changed at service stations gets recycled, but if you’re a DIY grease monkey, make sure you’re a green one. Used motor oil (from cars, boats, even lawnmowers) can be rerefined, which takes from 50 to 85 percent less energy than refining crude oil, say the folks at the American Petroleum Institute. To get step-by-step instructions on how to change your own oil and where you can take the dirty stuff for recycling, log on to: .

Meet The Virtuous Consumer Next Door: Mark Evanoff, AlterNetWays

Mark Evanoff is the creator of San Francisco’s AlterNetWays, a ride-share service with a primary focus on commuters, but also with a wider intent to help travelers share rides to airports, to ski resorts, even across the country. Evanoff spent months contemplating this dream of a ride-sharing society while “sitting in my car in bumper-to-bumper traffic” commuting to a job. He finally decided to give it a try, noting that “I have always wanted to do something that was not only a good business but also something where I helped, in a small way, to make things better.” It’s simple and, better, it’s free. You simply go to his site ( ) and become a member; then you’re free to post a ride or see who’s going your way. For safety reasons, “a person does not have to reveal any direct contact information,” explains Evanoff, “not even their email.” He achieves this with a blind email application that allows two people to correspond until they feel comfortable.

The Greener Clean: How to Wash Your Car

Few people consider when they wash their car in their driveways that the water (now contaminated with detergent, gas, oil, and exhaust residue) runs right into storm drains—and into rivers, streams, creeks, and wetlands. Commercial car washes, however, are required by law (in both the United States and Canada) to drain their wastewater into sewer systems, so it gets treated before being discharged into our waterways. And thanks to those high-pressure hoses and nozzles, less water is required for cleaning—up to 60 percent less. Indeed, some car washes recycle water and reuse the rinse water.

Other Tips

  • If you use soap at all, pick a biodegradable soap formulated for car parts (Simple Green’s Car Wash or Gliptone’s Wash N Glow), or something like Dr. Bronner’s, which you’ve likely been using for your own body parts.

  • Unfortunately, many car care products are ripe with VOCs and petroleum-based cleaners. Optimum Polymer Technologies promises a greener clean with its products that include biodegradable No Rinse Wash and Shine (two capfuls, the Optimum folks promise, along with just two gallons of water is enough to scrub even the dirtiest car clean), VOC-free tire shine, and a petroleum-free UV car wax. Check them out at .
  • Avoid the driveway. Wash your car on a lawn or over dirt, which will act as a natural filter.
  • If you’re a frequent washer (that is, if you’re in love with your car), start collecting rainwater for just such a purpose. Frankly, I consider my car washed every time it rains. At the least, keep an eye on water usage—use a bucket or a hose nozzle that controls the flow.

Get out of (Eco) Jail Free Card

If guilt about driving is driving you crazy, consider TerraPass. For every pound of gas burned, 28 pounds of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) are pumped into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to climate change. Purchasing a TerraPass (see ) will offset those emissions by funding clean energy projects that reduce industrial COc emissions. Don’t worry, the TerraPass folks will do the math for you—and each purchase they make is third-party verified to be accurate and measurable. For your fee (around $40), you also get a bumper sticker and a window decal, so not only do you know you’re morally superior to the guy idling in the SUV beside you, but now he’ll know it too. Hard to put a price tag on that!

“Don’t make me stop this car . . . ”

According to Car Love (, about one in three parents has uttered this threat. I was surprised, believing this to be a near-universal 1970s experience (just ask your friends!), until I realized that just one in three parents has admitted in a survey to uttering this threat.

Going Green

Your options of traveling green are growing. Whether you choose to ride share or rent a hybrid for a weekend escape, you’ll be doing your bit to help. To help you find what you’re looking for, check out these car-sharing resources:

And for those who want their auto assistance program to go green, check out . Offering itself up as an alternative to traditional auto clubs (think AAA), Better World Club provides eco-travel services, discounts on rental hybrids, and bicycle roadside assistance among other, greener options.

Excerpted from The Virtuous Consumer by Leslie Garrett. Copyright © 2007 by Leslie Garrett. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. $15.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657 ext. 52 or click here.

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