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Service Me

They're cute, smart and full of good, clean fun--my date parade with envirocars

By Allie Gottlieb

IF YOU'RE like me, and you are, you want a good, cheap, fast, safe and cute car that can take you to work and back, and out for fun, on little or no gas. You also need room to cart around your laptop, your nonfat latte, a pal and your four-piece silver-sparkle Ludwig drum set, which in my case is named Natasha J. Sparky.

Since we've got so much in common, it makes sense to share car-search secrets. I'll start. What I've learned about the latest electric, hybrid and just plain cuter- or cleaner-than-thou vehicles that you can buy or lease at this moment there are plenty of choices, combinations and features. Sorting them all out is confusing but not impossible.

The ones accessible to me as of presstime were the BMW Mini Cooper, the Honda Insight, the Honda Civic Hybrid, the Honda Civic GX natural-gas vehicle, the Toyota Prius, the Toyota Rav4 EV, the Corbin Sparrow, the Ford Th!nk, the Ford Ranger EV and the DaimlerChrysler GEM.

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Mini + Me: Allie Gottlieb gives the new, clean cars a road test.

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Idling Politics

Here's another thing I've learned. Despite all the chatter about fuel efficiency from the Legislature lately, and the attempts by various cities to get their fleets on a greener track, this has been a slow-going revolution with plenty of setbacks.

Witness last month's rise and fall of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards: Senator John Kerry's (D-Mass.) proposal to require new vehicles to average a respectable 36 mpg of gas by 2015 did a giant belly flop. SUVs get to be an estimated 25 percent more polluting than other cars. California air still sucks, and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is suing the Bay Area for smog dumping. Gasoline has drivers over an oil barrel, and so, as they do in any time of war with oil-producing nations, gas prices are going up.

Despite all this, a good clean car is still hard to find. Although they do exist, I had to drive my 1992 Honda Civic hatchback and its old-fangled internal combustion engine all over the freakin' place to find them. I went to dealers in San Francisco, Los Gatos, Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Jose and Berkeley, where a guy sells electric cars out of his house.

It seems like we should have evolved more by now. For years, there's been hope that cars will become greener in the form of research on cleaner cars. The web is overflowing with information about "alternative fuel vehicles" from the U.S. Department of Energy and agencies like the Natural Resources Defense Council that push for fuel-efficiency legislation.

Car dealers, however, blame the public's disinterest for the Greenmobile's underwhelming entrance into the market. Almost no one pays any real attention to environmental ratings when buying a car, the dealers say. Not like, say, the kind of cup holders it has, or how the bike rack attaches or that all-important consumer issue: color.

And those fuel inefficient SUVs remain hugely popular, regardless of the fact that they are extraordinarily polluting. According to GreenerCars.com, SUVs pollute about twice as much as, say, my Civic, which on average discharges 2 tons a year more carbon dioxide badness than the Insight.

"Although engines in general are becoming more efficient, smoother and better-performing, the trend toward larger SUVs and pickups has contributed to the average fuel economy dipping to its lowest point in more than 20 years," notes Consumer Reports' 2002 auto trends report.

So that's the bad news, but there's hope.

Frankenfans

Existing green cars have their fans. According to a Department of Energy report, last year there were nearly 500,000 alternative-fuel vehicles on the roads in the United States, 73,494 of which were driven in California. Of those half-million cars, 10,400 were electric.

Consumers dedicate websites to electric cars and half-gas, half-electric hybrids, or frankencars. One Los Gatos resident posted a diary all about his 1999 electric Sparrow on the Internet and has kept it up for three years. Another self-described electric-car enthusiast, Joseph Lado from Virginia (who doesn't actually drive an electric car, evidently is dissatisfied with the way they are charged and is trying to help start a company that sells better ones) summarizes alternatives to Old Man Combustion.

"We can manufacture a practical electric car NOW," Lado declares in a column he sent out for publication. Lado touts regenerative braking, used currently by the hybrids to recharge their batteries. He lauds solar power as another recharging source. Lado seems an appropriate representation of the electric-car industry. He sounds half-reasonable, half-kooky. Another recharging idea he lists in his column is the robot in the driveway: "It's either a robot arm or some other mechanical device that automatically pops up and connects your electric car to a source of electricity (i.e., an outlet)."

Who's Driving Whom?

Currently, car manufacturers that distribute in the United States are producing cleaner cars. They have to because the Environmental Protection Agency makes them. By 2003, zero-emission vehicles must make up 10 percent of each major automaker's stock. However, manufacturers apparently aren't required to make these cars entirely available to the public. They only need to meet their quota of zero-emission vehicles. Then dealers get to decide which cars to push, and buyers get to pick the ones they want.

Despite being shoved around by the EPA and CARB, car makers aren't the innocent babes they might appear to be. They can design problematic eco-friendly cars. These cars mostly cost too much, because, industry reps claim, they're more expensive to make.

Honda sales rep Kevin Brooks estimates that it costs $90 more per car for a manufacturer to make a catalytic converter that cleans a car enough to meet California's "super-ultralow emissions" standard, rather than just the "ultralow." Manufacturers pass on the higher cost of making cleaner cars to customers. (You might, too, if you had to pay for say 10,000 cleaner cars.)

The government doles out incentives for green car-buying. California tries to appeal to drivers' yen to beat traffic with a carpool-lane exemptions for electric and compressed natural gas (but not hybrid) vehicles. Drivers can file for an occupancy-exemption sticker from the Department of Motor Vehicles. The federal and state governments also try to entice car buyers into the cleaner emissions scene with thousands of dollars in tax breaks and credits. PG&E also offers an electricity discount to electric-car owners for charging during the wee hours.

But some of the lower-emission technology, like powerful electric batteries, is so expensive that the financial incentives seem meaningless for those unburdened by wealth. For instance, you can get $9,000 back after buying the RAV4 EV, but this small SUV, which was "envisioned as a second or third car," according to Eric Doebert, Magnussen's Toyota of Palo Alto business development manager, costs more than $42,000!

Most of the cars I test-drove fall well outside my price range of $8,000 to $10,001. Most also fell into California's two least-polluting categories: Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle or Zero Emissions Vehicle. The Cooper weighs in with ultralow emissions and boasts the further distinction of being the only stick-shift I test-drove.

Yeah I'm Green ... If Green Means Cheap

Most conversations about fuel efficiency in the news magically turn into moral debates about the bad people who drive SUVs or the showy liberals who can afford expensive statement cars. That's kind of stupid given that, ultimately, cars are practical, point-A-to-point-B tools. I think driving an electric car is pretty much like driving a cell phone: the roaming limitations are highly inconvenient, and there's always the vague lingering concern that somehow it will give you cancer.

When it comes down to it, my concern for the environment pretty much disappears when I buy a car. Sure, intellectually I'm rooting for the ozone layer. But I have to be able to afford a car before I can drive it. And it has to work the whole way to my destination. And it must look cool--the way the Mini looked when Mary Stuart Masterson drove it as Watts (a drummer; everything comes full circle!) in 1987's smash hit Some Kind of Wonderful.

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From the April 17-24, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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