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Fuel-Efficient Vehicles: To Buy or Not To Buy

Editors note: This is a guest post by Jennifer Barnett and Chrissi Nimmo, two of my classmates in my Environmental Law class at the University of Tulsa College of Law. Thanks for the great post!

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So, you want to buy a vehicle with better gas mileage. Perhaps a vehicle that is “good” for the environment? But where should you look? Commercials and news reports peak your interest, but you just aren’t sure if you have all the correct information. This article addresses these concerns and more, and will highlight some sources of information that will help you with the decision of which fuel-efficient car to buy.

What is a fuel-efficient car?

One of the most important things to consider when researching fuel-efficient cars is the vehicle’s miles per gallon (mpg) rating. Fuel-efficient cars create lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, one type of greenhouse gas. Burning one gallon of gasoline can produce 20 pounds of CO2. (www.epa.gov) A car that gets 25 mpg, as opposed to 20 mpg, can save the production of 10 tons of CO2 over the vehicle’s lifetime. (www.epa.gov) In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will amend its fuel-efficiency ratings to more accurately reflect today’s driving habits, which are much different than 20 years ago. Consumers have complained that the mpg on the car’s sticker doesn’t match how the car performs. As Dan Edmunds explains, “[t]he reason why fuel economy estimates have been coming out too high is simple: the EPA-specified testing and reporting method has not been updated since 1985.” (www.edmunds.com) A lot about car-driving has changed since ‘85 – for example, maximum allowed highway speeds are now up to 80 miles per hour (as opposed to 60 mph a couple of decades ago), and this affects the vehicle’s true mpg. So, note to the buyer: don’t be surprised if you are comparing sticker mpg between a 2007 and a 2008 fuel-efficient car. 2008’s sticker will look like it has a much lower mpg, but will more accurately reflect fuel usage. For the buyer who wants the greenest car they can buy (assuming that the electric car isn’t a real option), the source to turn to is the EPA’s SmartWay green vehicle rating system. (www.edmunds.com) Cars are rated on two separate scales from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. The two scales are: traditional tailpipe pollutants and the amount of CO2 produced per mile. This means that to qualify as SmartWay rated, a car must receive a 6 and a 7 rating, (the minimum combined score must be 13). The Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid are two examples of cars that have achieved the SmartWay rating, with scores of 18 and 19, respectively. For cars, like the Prius and Civic, that earn a score of 9 or higher in each category, the ultimate green rating is bestowed: the car is SmartWay Elite. Other Elite cars include the 2-wheel drive Ford Escape Hybrid and the 2-wheel drive Mercury Mariner Hybrid. (www.edmunds.com)

Which cars are the best-rated?

Across the board for the 2007 year, the Toyota Prius dominated the fuel-efficient car ratings. At 60 city and 51 highway mpg, this car is an efficiency dream. When re-evaluated using the new 2008 EPA standards, the Prius dropped to 48 city and 45 highway mpg. But remember, this is still the best in its class, and is probably what the sticker should have listed in 2007. Other comparable vehicles for fuel efficiency were the Honda Civic Hybrid (in 2007, 49/51; in 2008, 40/45), and the Toyota Camry Hybrid (in 2007, 40/38; in 2008, 33/34). (www.fueleconomy.gov) For trucks, the Ford Escape Hybrid led the pack with 36/31 mpg, followed by the Mercury Mariner Hybrid at 32/29 mpg. (www.edmunds.com) (1)

An important caveat

The buyer who truly wants a car that leaves the least footprint should consider every facet of the fuel-efficient car propaganda, because nothing is ever as it seems, right? Take the Toyota Prius – great mpg, looks pretty good, much better for the environment than, say, a Pinto – right? Well, maybe. If you, the buyer, truly want to be “green,” there’s something you should know. The Canadian plant that makes the batteries in the Prius (the special batteries that allow the Prius to have that awesome mpg and SmartWay rating) pours out poisonous sulfur dioxide fumes that have so totally destroyed once beautiful terrain that it looks like the moon’s craggy surface – astronauts use it to test vehicles slated for lunar exploration. That’s not very green. On the other hand, the Ford F-150 plant is pretty damn green. Sedum on the roof filters rainwater, and the plant boasts several energy-saving techniques. The Ford F-150 may have lower fuel-efficiency rating, but it isn’t destroying the environment around the plant like the Toyota Prius plant. (www.edmunds.com)

Are they safe?

Another concern of people tempted to buy a hybrid may be the safety of these vehicles. Many of them are much smaller than your average car and may give green-minded people nightmares about driving in rush hour traffic surrounded by huge SUV’s. The Toyota Prius, the smallest of the “mass market” hybrids, has a surprisingly good crash test rating. (www.motortrend.com) The Prius receives 5 out of 5 for side impact collisions and 4 out of 5 for front end collisions. (www.motortrend.com) This is comparable to similarly sized gasoline compacts and even better than some of Toyota’s other gasoline models such as the Matrix. (www.motortrend.com) The bottom line on most of these cars is that they are as safe (sometimes safer) than their purely gasoline-driven counterparts.

However, what about the really “green” (and small) cars? The Smart Car, available from Daimler Chrysler and available for sale nationwide in the U.S. beginning in 2008, is very small. It is a mere 8.8 feet long and 5.1 feet wide. (www.smartusa.com) The web site boasts that you can fit two of these cars in one parking space! (www.smartusa.com) So, they are small, but are they safe? As the owner of a small car myself (a Toyota Corolla, which measures 14.85 feet long and 5.57 feet wide, www.toyota.com) and the typical skeptic, I jumped at the recent chance to test drive one of these funny little cars during a national tour stop in Tulsa. As my partner and I had already decided on this paper topic, I took the test drive very seriously, asking questions and taking notes. The promoters assured me that the car had many advanced safety features, such as the “tridion safety cell” (which basically means the entire passenger compartment is made from a unified steel cage). While the SmartCar was fun to drive around city blocks, I think I would be a little nervous to drive this glorified golf cart down the expressway next to a tractor trailer rig. However, because I live downtown and do most of my driving in town, I could see myself in this little car, it definitely has enough “get-up” for city driving and I would always be able to find a parking space!

Cost

Everyone wants to help save the environment right? But can the average American afford to go green? The SmartCar, mentioned above, is surprisingly affordable. The base model starts at just $11,590, making it one of the cheapest new cars, green or otherwise, available for purchase. (www.smartusa.com) However, most hybrids are much more expensive than their counterpart gasoline models. For example, the 2008 Honda Civic hybrid has a base price of $22,600 and gets 45 mpg, while the base price for the gasoline model with the same features is just $15,810 and gets 36 mpg. (www.motortrend.com) (www.automobiles/honda.com) So, is the initial difference of $6,790 worth it? Well, $6,790 worth of fuel in the gasoline-only model would get you 90,869 highway miles, whereas in the hybrid, it would get you 113,587 miles, and save you from burning 504 gallons of gasoline, which according to the estimates from above keeps you from emitting 10,080 pounds of CO2 into the air. (Author calculations using the current gas price of $2.69 per gallon). In addition to the gasoline savings, almost all hybrid cars qualify for a federal, and in some cases state, including Oklahoma, income tax deductions. The federal tax deductions range from $650 to $3,150 dollars depending on the model. The above mentioned Civic qualifies for a $2,100 federal income tax deduction. (www.hybridcars.com; www.irs.gov)

Bottom Line

The hybrid cars are as safe as pure gasoline models, comparable in price, and have far better fuel economy, so the big question is why everyone isn’t buying them. We think the answer to that question, is they will. (Some of these cars/dealerships even have waiting lists, see www.smartusa.com). Remember, the hybrid car has only been available nationwide in the U.S. since 2004 (the first models, introduced in 1999, had only limited availability). (www.motortrend.com) It seems that as the fuel efficiency, options, and availability of these cars increase, so will their sales. The bottom line is to find the car that fits all of your needs: price, safety, reliability, and “greenness.”

1. Author’s note: there are several great websites to visit for research. Consumer Reports gives the reader a very comprehensive list of fuel-efficient car ratings, including top lists of vehicles tested by their researchers. The EPA’s website is also a great place to get the scoop on past, current and future fuel-efficiency ratings, and includes tips and information from the basic to the technical. Dan Edmunds, mentioned above, heads a terrific website for the technically unsavvy buyer. Mr. Edmunds is the Director of Vehicle Testing, and his articles are informative, and his research is broken down into easy to navigate lists of efficient vehicles.