Buying a Green Car

The age-old adage to ‘Know Thyself’ holds true in the quest for fuel-efficient cars. Here are some tips for buying a green car that’s right for you.
By Bradley Berman
GUIDE TO GREEN CARS, Summer 2012
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2011 Honda CR-Z EX in Silver
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Before you start the process of shopping for a green car — and enter the Byzantine world of car dealerships, option packages and price haggling — it’s a good idea to know what sort of buyer you are. This awareness can focus your research, narrow your options and help you choose the best green car for your needs.

What’s Your Green Profile?

Are you a deep greenie? In this camp are those who point to petroleum’s vicious environmental impacts — pollution and climate change — as well as the massive economic and military expense of oil dependency and say, “That’s enough.” For deep-green buyers, the only choice is a green vehicle that, to the greatest degree possible, removes petroleum from the transportation picture. Any sacrifices regarding consumer choice in brand, size or fueling options are considered, if at all, as minor inconveniences. The cutting edge green vehicles in this category — such as pure electric cars — don’t provide much leverage when it comes to deal-making or leapfrogging waiting lists, but for these buyers, the excitement of helping pave the way to a greener future is worth the price.

But maybe you’re a light-green buyer. Light greenies share many of the environmental and social concerns of their counterparts on the deep-green end, but they apply somewhat more flexible standards. They usually opt for the most fuel efficient vehicle — but one that conforms to an existing set of preferences regarding vehicle size, brand, technology or level of performance. The light-green camp starts the purchase process like any other consumer: Which automaker am I comfortable with? Which model has the most attractive styling? How many horsepower, seats or cup holders do I need? Where can I get a good deal? Folks in this category — whether buying a hybrid, clean diesel or high-mpg internal combustion gas car — go through the same process as any car buyer.

Tips for Buying a Car

Common-sense approaches apply for all shoppers: The chief strategy is to right-size your vehicle and its powertrain. While most of the headlines about green cars focus on exotic technology — such as lithium-ion batteries, biofuel-producing algae or hydrogen fuel cells — simply choosing a green car that meets, but does not exceed, your routine needs for space and power is vital. It’s much easier to find a fuel-efficient sedan or compact than a full-size SUV or pickup truck. Definitely buy what you need for transporting your family or performing the regular duties of a truck, but if you choose more passenger space, power or functionality than you really need, you’re already a big step behind on your journey to the most cost-effective ride.

Today’s small cars are no longer econo-boxes. Many are loaded with creature comforts, high-tech entertainment systems and desirable driving features. Even the smallest sedans are anything but Spartan. The small SUV, commonly called a “crossover,” is the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. car market. An easy green step is to swap out a boat-sized SUV for a crossover. Besides being lighter on the environment, the trade will help you avoid sky-high spending at the gas pump.

Once you’ve chosen the type of car you want — such as compact, hatchback, sedan, crossover, SUV or truck — then you can turn your attention to which technology or fuel gives you the best environmental bang for the buck.

The issue of payback periods or return on investment (ROI) for advanced clean-technology vehicles is covered in detail in The Green Car Payback Question, but I’ll quickly throw in my 2 cents. The issue is overblown, usually by heel-dragging naysayers who point to the most extreme examples of the higher cost of a hybrid or electric car versus a similar model that uses traditional gasoline technology. Nobody questions spending more on a car with European styling, more horsepower, bigger cargo space or extra towing capacity. For some car buyers, knowing that their ride has a lower impact on the environment or mitigates our oil addiction (while supporting the proliferation of cool new technology) is just as valuable and tangible an attribute as buying a vehicle with 500 horsepower (that is never raced) or has four-wheel drive (that is seldom taken off road). Besides, the economics of buying an electric car, hybrid or high-mpg gas vehicle can instantly change with every spike in the price of gas.

Fuel-Efficient Cars: Electric Cars

At this point, electric vehicles are the gold standard of sustainable mobility. The efficiency of electric motors and distributing “fuel” domestically via electric power lines rather than a convoluted, inefficient and politically problematic oil supply chain is a greener scenario regardless of your electricity’s source. Eschewing a tailpipe and bypassing gas stations might feel empowering, but expect the usual travails of the car-buying process.

In fact, in some ways, buying an electric car is trickier. Production is still limited for many electric models, so you might have to start the process on a waiting list. The process requires patience, but what if you just can’t wait? Some folks have bypassed the official ordering process by reaching out to local dealerships. Orphaned cars — those reserved but not actually bought when they arrive — come up all the time. Contact the car dealers in your area and express your interest. With demand still outstripping supply, don’t expect to get a bargain — but don’t pay a penny over MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) either. A federal tax credit of $7,500 is available for most electric car purchases, but only on the original new purchase. Many states offer additional local credits, rebates and perks.

With an electric car, you’ll probably want to purchase 240-volt home charging equipment. Check to see whether the Department of Energy or other government entities subsidize such equipment and installation in your area. Without this support, the installation of home charging can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Choices for charging equipment are growing every day, so don’t be satisfied with what the dealer tries to sell you. Do online research on discussion forums (see “Resources for Green Car Research” later in this article) to discover lower-cost alternatives for these units, and be aware that the final cost can vary greatly depending on the capabilities and location of your home electrical panel. (For more information, read All About Electric Cars: A Plug-In Primer.)

Plug-In Hybrids
Cars that recharge via electrical outlets but also employ a gas engine help overcome concerns about limited driving range. Some would argue that having duplicate power sources on board is too complicated, but plug-in hybrids cleverly allow you to run many miles on cheap and efficient electricity, while giving you the option to refuel at a gas station when necessary.

Cost varies by model, but the battery pack in a plug-in hybrid is smaller than those used in a pure electric car, so the sticker price is usually lower. Many of the same issues surrounding shopping for electric cars (such as online orders, waiting times and tax credits) apply to plug-in hybrids, although tax incentives are commonly lower than those for pure electric vehicles. Depending on the specific plug-in hybrid model you choose, consider waiting to install 240-volt equipment until you see how you fare with recharging via a standard 120-volt outlet. You might find that recharging overnight or during the workday is enough for your needs.

Hybrids
More than 2 million hybrids currently ply U.S. roads: The technology is here to stay. Aside from a vehicle you can plug in, a hybrid gas-electric car is the most fuel efficient vehicle you can buy, with the Toyota Prius (regular version as well as the compact C model) standing above all other gas-powered cars with 50-mpg combined city/highway ratings.

Hybrids have entered the mainstream marketplace so thoroughly that the buying process is identical to that for any gas-only car. (Sorry, this does nothing to alleviate the pain most of us feel when interacting with car dealers.) As evidence of hybrids’ incorporation into the mainstream, tax incentives for these cars are a thing of the past.

One thing to consider is the hybrid’s resale value (which affects total cost of ownership when it comes time to sell the car) and the likelihood of getting a deal on a used hybrid. When gas prices spiked in 2008, the resale value of SUVs plummeted and prices for used hybrids went through the roof. In 2012, it’s déjà vu all over again. Tensions in the Middle East have some analysts predicting $5 gas for summer 2012.

As with any new vehicle, the value of a new hybrid takes a big hit as soon you drive it off the dealership lot. Finding a recent hybrid model with low miles and a good service record is a smart strategy. Hybrid batteries are built to last the lifetime of the vehicle and are not usually replaced until well after the odometer passes six figures, so there should be relatively little concern about battery replacement. Buying a used green car, and especially buying used replacement parts, helps greenies of any hue reduce the ecological effects of raw material extraction and high-impact manufacturing connected with new automotive products. (For more on hybrid cars, read All About Hybrid Cars.)

Clean Diesel and Biodiesel

Although the market for clean diesel cars includes only a dozen vehicles (compared with nearly three dozen hybrids), the buying process is identical to any other car. The vehicles are widely available, and they don’t entitle the buyer to clean vehicle tax credits or other similar perks. In general, diesel vehicles approach — but do not quite reach — hybrids in their efficiency and overall environmental cleanliness.

Many consumers prefer the way diesel vehicles drive (lots of torque) and the styling of vehicles from Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. Another major factor in the economic equation is durability. Diesel engines are built stronger to withstand ignition combustion, and are known for lasting much longer than gasoline engines. Given this longevity and their compelling efficiency, diesel vehicles can deliver a low cost per mile and a great ride for hundreds of thousands of miles. (For more on diesel durability, read The Longevity of Diesel Engines.)

If you own or purchase a diesel vehicle, you can turn it into a vegetarian — depending on your vehicle’s make and model. Some diesel engines can run on pure biodiesel, produced from plant substances as varied as corn, soybeans and algae — but a blend of petrodiesel and biodiesel is more common. In fact, nearly all new clean diesel cars can use a blend of these two types of diesel.

Vegetable-based diesel generally costs more and contains less energy than other liquid fuels. DIY folks can homebrew biodiesel at home and know with complete certainty where their fuel comes from, but doing so takes a commitment. Using waste vegetable oil, which involves filtering instead of brewing, makes the process a bit easier, but requires a conversion of your diesel engine. Late-model clean diesel engines are not calibrated to accommodate this homebrew, and you’ll void the factory warranty if you use an unapproved fuel. Be sure to check the vehicle warranty to confirm your carmaker’s official policy on any use of biofuels. (Read Fuel From Plants! The Basics of Biofuels, for more information.)

Diesel production leaders Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen make the most common diesel-powered vehicles that can run on biodiesel. Unfortunately, there are no tax credits for these vehicles, even if they are running on purely renewable fuel.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)

The natural gas version of the Honda Civic held the No. 1 greenest car title for eight years in annual rankings from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and was named the 2012 Green Car of the Year by Green Car Journal. One of the newest electric cars, the Mitsubishi i, recently dethroned the Civic CNG in ACEEE’s rankings, but there still are benefits to using domestic CNG as an automotive fuel. The federal government recognizes these benefits with a $4,000 tax credit on the purchase of a new CNG version of the Civic, and many states add credits and perks, such as access to car pool lanes even if driving solo.

It’s also a pleasant novelty to pump in a gaseous, rather than a liquid, fuel. But one of the problems is finding local, accessible CNG refueling stations. Check with Department of Energy websites for one near you. Home-based, wall-mounted CNG pumping stations can run a few thousand dollars to install — although the cost of home-sourced CNG can be as low as the equivalent of $1 a gallon. Even when buying CNG from a public station, the fuel costs a lot less than gasoline. However, CNG does contain less energy than petroleum.

The biggest drawbacks to CNG are lack of performance and lack of consumer choice. It’s exciting to see Honda push out the $27,000 Civic CNG from four to 36 states — but the utilitarian and somewhat boring model is the only choice you have for a new CNG-powered car.

Green Car Alternative: High-MPG Gas Cars

Automotive engineers have been quite creative in increasing fuel efficiency, even without using electric, hybrid or clean diesel technology. Top strategies include direct injection, turbocharging and engine downsizing. As a result, some gas cars now have highway fuel economy ratings of 40 mpg or above. Carmakers love to advertise this number, but realize that gas-only vehicles’ city fuel-efficiency numbers typically are much lower. Considering that new, small, efficient non-hybrids can carry a sticker price several thousand dollars below the electric or gas-electric competition, high-mpg gas cars are usually the most economical of the greener choices, at least for now. You’re not pushing the envelope of advanced oil-busting technology, but you’re likely to drive off the lot with the least impact on your wallet.


Small Differences Can Equal Serious MPG Savings

When comparing fuel economy estimates for different cars, it can be easy to get lost in the numbers. In the end, you need to make the best decision for your needs, but it’s important not to undervalue seemingly small differences.

Studies have shown that consumers think fuel consumption is reduced at an even rate as mileage increases. For instance, most people rank an improvement from, say, 35 to 51 mpg as saving more gas over 15,000 miles than an improvement from 14 to 16 mpg. But actually, the savings are identical.

That sounds like fuzzy math, until you break down the numbers, as Jim Kliesch, clean vehicles research director at The Union of Concerned Scientists, has done:

Let’s assume annual travel of 15,000 miles. A truck that gets 14 mpg will consume 1,071 gallons a year (15,000 ÷ 14). A slightly more efficient truck (16 mpg) will consume 937 gallons annually (15,000 ÷ 16). Thus, by opting for the vehicle that gets 2 mpg more, you’ll save 134 gallons of gas (1,071 – 937). Remember that number. 

Now, consider a car that gets 35 mpg. Its annual consumption will be much lower at 428 gallons (15,000 ÷ 35). With a more efficient car that gets 51 mpg, fuel consumption would drop to 294 gallons a year (15,000 ÷ 51). The difference between the two cars? By switching to the more efficient model, that driver would save 134 gallons each year (428 – 294). This breakdown shows how incremental differences in fuel efficiency are not linear when compared with the actual gallons consumed. 

In Europe and Asia, mpg estimates are presented in a different way: How much fuel does it take to go a set distance? The measure is liters per 100 kilometers. (So, for example, in U.S. terms, the Prius at 50 mpg would translate to 2 gallons per 100 miles.) This method makes more sense when you’re talking about saving money on fuel, reducing CO2 emissions or minimizing our petroleum dependency.

“The take-home point here is that if you’re in the market for a pickup or large vehicle, don’t dismiss a small mpg improvement when considering your options,” Kliesch says. “It can amount to serious savings, in fuel and money.”


Resources for Green Car Research

The official website from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency provides basic fuel economy stats, calculators and side-by-side comparisons for all cars and trucks.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s comprehensive environmental rankings of vehicles. Highlights are free. Detailed data requires small fee.

The first independent, dedicated shopping website, Plug-In Cars, for electric cars and plug-in hybrids. Has a vibrant community of plug-in car drivers.

The Official Kelley Blue Book is the ultimate source for determining what you should pay and how much your current car is worth.

U.S. News, the media company known for rankings, provides great information on all cars and trucks, with well-organized highlights of reviews from across the Web.


Bradley Berman writes about electric and hybrid cars for The New York Times, Yahoo! Autos and Reuters. He was the founder of HybridCars.com and PluginCars.com and consults on green cars for the Natural Resources Defense Council and eBay. 


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