Top 10 Ways to Equip Your Car for a Greener Planet

From Edmunds.com

Sometimes it seems as if we, personally, don't have the power to do anything positive for the environment. But the truth is: We can make a difference. It all comes down to the choices we make.

Take our vehicles. What we drive, how we drive and how we maintain our vehicles are all choices that are within our control. If you want to make more environmentally-friendly choices, check out the following ideas before you buy your next car or truck.

  1. Have a Hybrid
    If you can't avoid traffic, you can choose to drive a hybrid. The gasoline engine in these vehicles shuts off while you're idling, which reduces fuel consumption and emissions.

    What's more, "strong hybrids" like the Ford Escape Hybrid, Lexus RX 400h, Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Toyota Prius can run in electric-only mode when you're coasting or puttering along in rush-hour traffic. According to Ford, in primarily stop-and-go driving, you'll fill the gas tank on the Escape Hybrid about half as often as you would the conventional V6 version. In fact, these hybrids earn higher fuel economy ratings in the city than they do on the highway. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates the Ford Escape Hybrid at 36 city/31 highway (33/29 with all-wheel drive), the Lexus RX 400h at 31 city/27 highway and the Toyota Prius at 60 mpg city/51 highway.
  2. Go Lean With Engines and Options
    You don't have to choose a hybrid to get good gas mileage. Engine and transmission choice can make a big difference, even within the same vehicle family.

    For instance, a 2005 Honda Civic HX with the lean-burn 1.7-liter engine and a manual transmission is EPA rated at 36 mpg city/44 highway, compared with 32/38 for a Civic LX with the regular 1.7-liter and a manual tranny.

    That difference translates into a lot of gallons — and dollars — over time. According to the EPA, the estimated annual fuel costs for a Civic HX are $791, compared with $903 for the Civic LX.

    Another thing to consider is curb weight. Options like four-wheel drive and third-row seats add weight to your vehicle and increase fuel consumption. Skip this stuff if you don't need it.
  3. Shut Off Some Cylinders
    To improve fuel economy and reduce emissions without skimping on performance and towing capability, some automakers have created systems that seamlessly turn a V8 into a V4 — or turn a V6 into an inline three — during certain driving conditions.

    DaimlerChrysler was the first company to install modern cylinder-deactivation technology, using it in 2001 and 2002 V12 Mercedes-Benz models. Today, the company's Multi-Displacement System improves fuel economy by up to 20 percent in the powerful Hemi-powered Chrysler 300C, Dodge Charger, Dodge Magnum and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

    If you're shopping for a Honda Odyssey, consider getting either the EX with leather or the Touring model. These trim levels have the same V6 as the lower trims but add Variable Cylinder Management, improving the van's EPA ratings from 19/25 to 20/28.

    Other cars with this feature include the Honda Accord Hybrid; various V8-powered GM trucks, including the Chevy TrailBlazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL; and the V8-powered Pontiac Grand Prix GXP.
  4. Emit Less
    Today, the cleanest vehicles are ZEVs, or zero-emission vehicles (essentially the rare remaining electric cars). Next cleanest are the PZEVs, or partial zero-emission vehicles.

    According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), PZEVs are 90-percent cleaner than the average new 2005 vehicle sold in that state. PZEVs meet the SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) standard, plus they have near zero evaporative emissions and a 15-year/15,000-mile warranty on emission control equipment. Most PZEVs are offered exclusively in the green states (California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont). You can get a complete list of all 2005 PZEVs here. Additionally, the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide includes air pollution scores for all vehicles. If you don't live in a green state, you can still make an environmentally friendly choice by selecting a vehicle with a lower federal bin number.

    If you want to do even more to clean the air, consider a vehicle that comes with a PremAir catalyst on its radiator. The catalyst converts as much as 80 percent of the ground-level ozone it contacts into oxygen. The hotter and more polluted the air, the more smog-forming ozone PremAir destroys. PremAir catalysts currently are installed on all Volvos, as well as on the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Mitsubishi Galant.
  5. Choose an Alternative Fuel
    Another way to curb emissions, reduce reliance on foreign oil and, in some cases, support American farmers is to fill your tank with natural gas, biodiesel or ethanol.

    Natural gas is popular for commercial fleets, but it usually isn't practical for day-to-day use by individuals due to the sparse network of refueling stations. However, Honda has closed this gap on the 2005 Civic GX, by selling it with a device called Phill that allows owners to refuel the car at home using existing natural gas lines. Driving range is about 250 miles. Like hybrids, natural gas vehicles qualify for a federal tax credit in 2005 and 2006.

    Virtually any diesel vehicle can run on at least some biodiesel, a fuel made primarily from soybeans, and automakers have begun promoting its use. The Jeep Liberty CRD comes from the factory with B5 in its tank (a blend of 5-percent biodiesel, 95-percent petroleum diesel). Volkswagen has announced it will provide warranty coverage for vehicles running on B5. Warranty coverage for higher-percentage blends is likely in the near future.

    Ethanol, which typically is made from corn, is another homegrown, renewable fuel that has a positive effect on greenhouse gases. It usually is mixed in a blend of 85-percent ethanol and 15-percent gasoline, known as E85.

    If you choose a flexible-fuel vehicle (FFV), you can run any combination of E85 and straight gasoline. Unfortunately, because FFVs are not optimized to run exclusively on E85, fuel economy may drop as much as 25 percent, according to the EPA. On the plus side, ethanol has a much higher-octane rating, so horsepower may increase, and sulfur and aromatic hydrocarbon emissions will decrease.

    GM is the biggest proponent of ethanol. The automaker offers flex-fuel versions of all of its full-size trucks and SUVs.

    To find out if biodiesel and ethanol blends are available in your area, visit the National Biodiesel Board and the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition. You can get a list of flexible-fuel vehicles from the EPA.
  6. Consider the Content
    Many automakers are using green materials, including recycled components and parts made from plants. Volvo goes especially far to ensure its interiors are environmentally-friendly, using nickel-free surface treatments, low-PVC trim materials, environmentally certified fabrics and chromium-free leather.

    Those who prefer not to eat or wear animals can opt for a non-leather interior in most lower- and midpriced vehicles, and it's getting easier to find leather-free luxury cars, too. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently pressured Mercedes-Benz into offering a leather alternative. Soon, you'll be able to special order a cloth interior in your new Benz.
  7. Tend to Your Tires
    Underinflated tires produce extra rolling resistance, so they not only wear out faster, they reduce gas mileage. Plus, they adversely affect handling, increase stopping distances and increase the chance of tire failure.

    Because most people don't check their tire pressure regularly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has ruled that all 2006 model-year cars sold in the United States must have a tire-monitoring system as of September 1, 2005. Trucks and SUVs will be required to have them by the 2008 model year.

    Tire-monitoring systems alert you when you need to add air to a tire, and they're already available on many vehicles. You can also retrofit an aftermarket system.
  8. Choose a Better Route
    Traffic doesn't just eat up your time, it eats up fuel. Fortunately, real-time traffic reports tied into a GPS-based navigation system make it easy to find a better route.

    The Acura RL is the first U.S. vehicle to include real-time traffic as part of its standard navigation system in conjunction with XM Satellite Radio. Similar setups are available for retrofit from aftermarket audio companies. You also can get personalized traffic reports and route assistance if you upgrade from standard Tele Aid to the Tele Aid Luxury & Convenience option in a Mercedes-Benz vehicle.
  9. Pick a Winner
    Quite a few groups give green awards. For example, every other year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) ranks the six largest automakers in the U.S. market according to environmental performance. Last December, the UCS named Honda the greenest automaker for the third time running.

    The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) rates vehicles according to the health problems caused by the pollutants they emit (including greenhouse gases), and it factors in estimated pollution from vehicle manufacturing and the production and distribution of fuel. For 2005, ACEEE named Honda's natural gas-powered Civic GX the greenest vehicle of the year, followed by the Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Corolla. If you buy a subscription, you can view ACEEE scores and compare vehicles by body style.

    The AMES (Automotive Market Environmental Superiority) Awards go to the top 25 percent of vehicles in various classes (luxury car, subcompact car, full-size SUV and so on) based on emissions and fuel economy. You can view the list for free at the AMES site.
  10. Compare Factories
    Some automakers have made huge strides in greening up their manufacturing facilities — and you can reward them for their efforts. For instance, all the major Honda plants worldwide meet the toughest international environmental management standards (ISO 14001), which cover such factors as waste disposal, water treatment and energy use.

    Another example: Ford's Dearborn Truck Plant at the Rouge Center in Michigan has the world's largest living roof, with 10.4 acres of drought-resistant plants busy absorbing CO2. The factory also has the world's largest porous parking lot, which is part of a water cleanup system. And its fumes-to-fuel program captures paint fumes and converts them to hydrogen to power a stationary fuel cell.

If you take even a couple of our 10 suggestions when buying your next car or truck, you'll feel better knowing that you've made the choice to drive in a more environmentally friendly manner.

Copyright Edmunds.com, Inc. All rights reserved. First published on www.edmunds.com and excerpted with permission.