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Fuel-Efficient Vehicles: To Buy or Not To Buy

Written by Brett McKay

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.

Slash Your Auto Budget With These 4 Car Maintenance Habits

Written by Brett McKay

Cars can be money pits. However, you can reduce the costs you put into auto maintenance by developing a few simple habits.

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1. Wash your car regularly. Set up a weekly or bi-weekly schedule for car washing. Washing your car regularly helps maintain the paint and avoids corrosion. Car washing is especially necessary if you live near the ocean where salt water can have a horrible effect on your car’s body. You don’t have to pay big bucks to have your car washed at a commercial place, you can learn how to wash your car like a pro.

2. Change your oil regularly. Changing your oil ensures good engine health. If you slack on this job, you’ll pay the price by having to replace an engine. Find out how often the car manufacturer recommends you change the oil. This can usually be found in your owner’s manual. As soon as you find out, set up a reoccurring event in your calendar so you’ll never forget when to go change your oil.

3. Rotate your tires. My wife and I have had some bad luck with tires. I’m sure we could have avoided these costs if we had kept a regular tire rotation schedule. This is a job you can easily do your self. You should rotate them 5,000 to 10,000 miles. You can probably do this every time you change your oil.

4. Keep track of your mileage when you fill up. One of the habits my parents have developed is to keep track of their mileage whenever they fill up on gas. Just keep a notebook in your glove compartment and write in the date you filled up, the mileage on your odometer, and how many gallons you filled up. You’ll then be able to compute your car’s fuel efficiency. By being aware of how many miles per gallon your car is getting, you’ll know how to budget for gas in the future. Moreover, you’ll be able to come up with ways to save money on gas.

Car Maintenance Myth Debunked! You Don’t Need To Change Your Oil Every 3,000 Miles

Written by Brett McKay

Ever since I started driving, one mantra that I heard over and over is you HAVE to change your oil every 3,000 miles. I remember being told grave things would happen if I went over 3,000 miles. Well guess what? We’ve all been suckered by the oil change places into believing this.

If you look in your owners manual, most recommend you change the oil every 5,000 miles. By going the extra 2,000 miles you can save yourself 2 trips to the quick lube for an oil change. If you want to save even more money, learn how to change your oil yourself.

I’ve got to hand it to the quick lubes. They’ve done one heck of a job marketing this whole 3,000 mile thing.

Save Money and the Enviornment With the Carpool Facebook Application

Written by Brett McKay

Over at my other blog, Best Facebook Applications, I did a review of a really nifty Facebook application called Carpool. Carpool hooks you up with drivers or people looking for a ride. For example, say you’re at school and you need to get home for Christmas break. You can use the Carpool app to find someone who’s going your way and arrange a ride with them. You can also use the application to find reoccurring trips so you can carpool to school or work.

If you want to beat high gas prices, carpooling is the way to go. You can also feel good because you’re helping the environment by reducing your carbon footprint. Al Gore will be proud of you.

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How To Jump Start Your Car

Written by Brett McKay

You jump into the car and turn the key. Nothing happens. You look up at the dome light and notice it’s on the “on” position. Doh! You left the dome light on all night and now your battery is dead. How many times has this happened to you?

Are you afraid of trying to jump start you car because you think you’ll blow your car up? In this post, I’ll give a step-by-step guide on how to jump start a dead battery so you won’t be left hanging next time you leave your car lights on.

  1. Always carry jumper cables with you in the car. You never know when you’ll need them or when someone else will need them.
  2. Make sure both cars are turned off.
  3. Connect one end of the red (positive) jumper cable to the positive terminal on the stalled battery.
  4. Then connect the other red (positive) cable clamp to the positive terminal of the good battery.
  5. Connect one end of the black (negative) jumper cable to the negative terminal of the good battery.
  6. Then connect the other black (negative) cable to a clean, unpainted metal surface under disabled car’s hood. Do not connect negative cable to the negative terminal of the dead battery, unless you want to see some sparks and possibly an explosion.
  7. Start the car that’s doing the jumping, and allow it to run for about 2 to 3 minutes before starting the dead car.
  8. Remove cables in reverse order.
  9. Keep jumped car running for at least 30 minutes to give the battery sufficient time to recharge itself.

I Hate Cars

Written by Brett McKay

Yesterday, I had to drop down a chunk of change into our car. First, we had the window replaced that was smashed last week. That set us back a little more than $150. After that I took the car in to get new break pads put on. The back wheels were making a horrible grinding sound, so we had some definite metal-on-metal action going on. Because of the grindage, we also had to replace the passenger side rear rotor. Total cost plus labor: $430.

The worst part was the amount of time I had to spend. I probably sat in that place for 5 hours. Not only did I have enough time to watch World’s Most Amazing Videos, I was also able to watch Dances With Wolves in its entirety.

Needless to say, I was ready to leave when they finally finished with my car. However, when I put the car in reverse, the stick shift was making this horrible grinding noise and wouldn’t let me change gears. I went in to tell the mechanic dudes and they said I had to wait until the manager got back. Commence waiting 20 minutes.

Mr. Manager got back and took a look at it. His diagnosis was the clutch must have snapped and I would have to take it somewhere else to get fixed. Meanwhile, my wife had to be at work in half an hour. I was pretty livid by this time and started to raise some hell. Mr. Manager said it was just a coincidence that the clutch went out while it was here. Right… I continued my needling. Because the place didn’t do clutches, they had to tow my car down the street. Mr. Manager paid for a tow truck to come pick up my car.

We took my car to some Podunk car shop. KC, the old shop owner, took a look at my car. Apparently, on my car, the break system is somehow connected with the transmission. When the first place replaced some tubing, they forgot to make a connection for fluid to get to the clutch. All they had to do was make a cut. It took KC 5 minutes to fix it, plus it was on the house. I was back on the road.

By now, I had been out doing car stuff for about 7 hours. Mr. Manager from the first shop called me to apologize again. He’s offered to give me a bunch of coupons for free oil changes at any of the chain’s locations in the Tulsa area to make up for the inconvenience. That’s pretty awesome.

I hate cars. They’re the biggest money pits. If it were feasible to get rid of ours I would. Alas, Tulsa has a crappy public transit system, so we’re stuck with it. Now we have to go pay to renew our registration. That’s another $80. Did I mention how I hate cars?