Green Cars: What You Need to Know Before Buying a New Car

Sam Garst
Sierra Club North Star Chapter’s Green Government Initiative

February 26, 2001 was Green Car Day at the Minnesota State Capitol. Rather than just visit legislators to talk about a clean, healthy environment, the Sierra Club showed legislators real solutions for protecting our environment. Legislators, staff, and the press had the opportunity to take a test drive in the new gas-electric hybrid Honda Insight and Toyota Prius.

Three Insights and three Prius were made available for test drives by the Rudy Luther Group. The six cars were available for a test drive on the steps of the capitol. The response was uniformly enthusiastic. “I could drive roundtrip to the capitol from my home district for around $10, a third of what it normally costs!” said Rep. Bernie Lieder from Crookston after taking a spin in the Honda Insight.

The Insight and Prius are the first two products ever endorsed by the Sierra Club because of their positive contribution to global warming and air quality. The Insight coupe gets around 70 mpg and the four-door Prius family car gets 52 mpg in the city. These cars meet the stringent California SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) standard for air quality.

But driving is believing. The five speed Insight goes from 0-60 mph in only 8.5 seconds. “These cars do not fit the stereotype of an ugly, low performance “eco-toy.” They compete on performance, handling and style with any car on the market,” said Chapter Secretary Sam Garst who organized the demonstration and who recently purchased a Prius. Both vehicles carry a list price around $20,500.

The major question about hybrid cars is where to plug in. The answer is at the gas pump. Hybrid vehicles are just like your current gas powered car, except that they have an additional electric motor, which is charged by a series of methods including converting braking energy to electricity to charge the battery. The automatic transmission Prius comes with an eight-year 100,000 guarantee on battery life, even in the cold Minnesota climate.

American Car Manufacturers

Detroit is trying a middle ground. U.S. automakers will offer some “full hybrids” capable of running on battery power alone at low speeds, but they are putting their main focus on electrically assisted gasoline engines, which cost little more than conventional engines (around $1,000-1,500 more) but use less ambitious technology than some environmentalists would prefer. They will become an option or standard equipment on dozens of models by 2004.

Ford, GM and Daimler Chrysler have announced plans in recent months to sell full-hybrid sport-utilities by 2004. GM plans to sell some full-hybrid pickups and mid-sized cars then, too. Ford said recently that it would begin installing 42-volt systems in 2004 on many Ford Explorers.

In contrast to the Insight’s 144-volt system and the Prius’ 274-volt system, however, the smaller 42-volt systems are not powerful enough to provide much help in actually turning the wheels. The degree of fuel-efficiency improvement from adding a 42-volt system depends on how many of the car’s functions are redesigned to run on electrical energy. A full-hybrid vehicle, such as the Ford Escape sport-utility, which will go on sale in 2003, offers the biggest gain.

Mercury in Cars

Unlike most American built cars, the Insight and Prius contain no mercury in the headlights and electronics. Cars are one of the major sources of mercury in our environment. “Toxic by Design”, released by Environmental Defense, documents how General Motors, Ford and Daimler Chrysler have failed to fulfill voluntary commitments made in 1995 to eliminate the most frivolous uses of mercury. Foreign automakers, on the contrary, phased out their uses by 1995. Even more alarming is the fact that all automakers are introducing new applications of mercury, such as mercury vapor headlamps. These designs perpetuate the use of mercury, which has a major toxic impact on the environment throughout the life cycle of the product, from mercury production to final vehicle disposal.

The major source of air pollution in Minnesota is from cars, trucks and other moving vehicles. Burning fossil fuels is a major source of CO2 that contributes to global warming. The Prius and Insight are major technology break-throughs in our battle for cleaner air and a sustainable planet.

What You Can Do* Research vehicle fuel efficiency. The Department of Energy publishes the Fuel Economy Guide (

* Purchase the most fuel-efficient car possible. Remember that a Ford Taurus will generate 64 tons of CO2, while a Jeep Grand Cherokee can generate some 102 tons of CO2. A Honda Insight, in contrast, will generate 27 tons of CO2 and a Toyota Prius will generate 36 tons over the life of a vehicle (124,000 miles).

* Encourage your elected officials to upgrade the mileage of the government fleet by purchasing the most fuel-efficient cars available irrespective of manufacturer.

Read Up
Act Locally
Clean Car Campaign:
Green Cars, ACEEE’s Green Book:
EPA Fuel Economy Website: www.fueleconomy.govSierra Club – North Star Chapter

5500 Yorktown Lane N.

Plymouth, MN 763-557-7174

Green Cars

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