Let’s say, someone wants to give you a new car
as a gift.
A nice* new car.
(This actually happened to us.)
And it’s a good thing, too, because we needed one.
We had some money to play with.
In this price range, you can find a number of nicely equipped, popular, mid-size sedans, similar to the Honda Accord. If you stick with the four cylinder engine, these cars get good gas mileage, are reliable, safe, and each have qualities that will appeal to some consumers more than others.
Since we are inclined to choosing the greener alternative,
the Prius, Civic Hybrid, and Insight are also appealing in that price range.
Hybrids are sleek, modern, and designed to appeal to practical, tech-savy, enlightened folks who don’t need a lot of horsepower. With hybrids, we would sacrifice a bit of space, power, and would be forced to choose a lesser trim package, but we would get nearly double the fuel economy
Camry, Accord, Altima and Malibu hybrids are also available, but they are less fuel efficient than either Prius or Insight (about equal to the Honda Fit or conventional Civic)
and are likely to cost more than $30,000 when all is said and done.
We could also consider the VW Jetta tdi, which is slightly more expensive than the Prius, Civic hybrid, or Insight, but gets gas mileage in the range of the Prius.
There has been a heated debate on the internet about hybrid vs. diesel.
The US Department of Energy estimates the Jetta to return mpgs in the range of the conventional Civic or Honda Fit (in the mid-30s). But Popular Mechanics finds the Jetta to compare much more closely to the Prius, especially with a lot of highway driving.
They find that the Prius returns steady mpgs in the mid-40s, which is better than the Jetta tdi in the city but not on the highway.
Anecdotal reports about normal driving conditions suggest that the Jetta tdi is a few mpgs short of the Prius, but on long trips it can outperform the Prius in terms of fuel economy.
One of the common complaints about diesels is that they emit harmful particulates.
Diesel engines use a less refined fuel and so are inherently less “clean.”
Also, as compared to diesel, burning a gallon of gasoline uses fewer barrels of oil.
On the other hand, diesels are more powerful than current hybrid engines, available in manual transmissions, and reputed to last many more miles than conventional gasoline engines. Diesels are meant to feel and drive much like their conventional counterparts and have their devotees because of reliability, durability, torque, and fuel economy.
Also, the engines are much simpler, mechanically.
Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel created one of the first internal combustion engines in 1892.
They were first designed to run on vegetable oil,
and today, recycled vegetable oil (SVO) has achieved cult status as an alternative fuel source.
(Some concerns remain about the safety of recycled veggie oil, and running SVO on a new car will void the warranty.)
You can also use biodiesel in any diesel car without any problems. In Houston, you can pump B100 for under $2.00 a gallon, which is a lot cheaper than gasoline, much less than conventional diesel.
Biodeisel, and even some processes for producing Ethanol, should not be considered “food.” These fuels are being made from cellulose (even algae and kelp can be used) rather than sugar. So they use organic material that is not edible by humans. (And with the cows eating fish, it’s not clear who biodiesel steals food from.)
But some might still find it tough to feel green with a black cloud coming out of their tailpipe.
For 2009, VW updated its Jetta tdi with a cleaner exhaust (with a urea filtration system), more powerful engine, and six-speed manual transmission.
These features make the upsides of the diesel better and the downsides less bad.
The ultimate combination for mpgs with current technology would probably be a hybrid diesel.
In either case, hybrids and diesels are generally priced at a premium.
If you drive a lot and plan to own the car for six or more years, you will make up the price increase in savings at the pump.
(Since diesel costs about %30 more per gallon than gas, it takes longer for the diesel to make up the price premium: over 200,000 miles of driving.)
So, to return to our options, we are comparing a Honda Accord or similar mid-size sedan, Toyota Prius or similar hybrid, and Jetta tdi. While the Jetta and Prius return great fuel economy (say, 40 and 45 mpgs respectively), the Accord gets mid- to high-20s.
Which option is more green?
A recently debunked “study”, claiming that the Hummer III is actually more green than the Prius, reminds us that this question is more complicated than it looks.
While the “study” apparently weights initial assumptions in order for the Hummer to come out on top,
it does introduce an important aspect of “greenness” that is often not considered:
the environmental impact of the full “life cycle” of the automobile; production to disposal.
In fact, we should consider the full life cycle of all the stuff we buy,
It goes in one end and out the other.
However, the difficulty in making a consumer decisions based on the environmental impact of the full life of your stuff is that numbers on the production and disposal of consumer goods are really hard to come by. It’s likely that the companies themselves don’t even keep rigorous tabs on these kinds of numbers.
Some studies suggest that, just in terms of CO2 emissions/energy consumption, vehicle use accounts for only %70-80 of total emissions.
So this would appear to weight the consideration heavily in favor of high mpgs.
But this figure doesn’t include the impact of mining and disposal of the metal, plastic, rubber, fluids, sprays, paints, etc. that go into the car in the course of its lifetime.
These environmental costs are going to be large for any automobile. Amounts may vary by make and model, but not by much.
But here is where some people have concerns about the hybrid, because of the battery.
Battery technology is getting better all the time, the current batteries are much less toxic and longer lasting than older ones, and the possibilities for even better batteries are on the horizon. But in all cases, batteries require metals that are hard to mine or recycle and batteries will not last forever.
The battery in a hybrid is the main component its electrical engine. So replacing the battery is not like replacing the tires, or fan belt. And replacing it is expensive; estimates are in the $8,000 range just for the battery.
But major expenses down the road are not entirely unusual for many contemporary cars. Automatic transmissions frequently need replacing after 200,000, which is about what people expect from the hybrid batteries.
So the hybrid vs. diesel debate is a complicated one and there are apparent pluses and minuses on both sides.
The more important point to realize is that cars are huge pieces of equipment. They are incredibly complicated and difficult to produce.
The impact of your car is a lot bigger than the fuel you burn.
We should probably use our cars a lot less.
Leave them in the garage.
Or don’t buy one at all.
But entirely freeing yourself from car culture can be very difficult and even impossible for many people.
For example, us. We need a car to commute to work and get to most places around Houston. And now we have the money to spend.
So which car should we choose?
At first we were thinking new, but now it seems that a used car is much more green than a new car, other things being equal.
Even though the used car buyer should assume some responsibility for the production and disposal costs, the used car buyer enters the stream at a later point than the new car buyer. There is already some “recycling” effect and thus the environmental impact is considerably less.
Here, warranty might come into consideration. On this count, new is certainly better than used, but most dealers provide certified pre-owned cars with extended warranties.
Besides, if you can get over the “someone else’s car” idea, or your need for that toxic new car smell, buying used provides huge financial savings.
With the immediate savings of buying used, our options suddenly look much better. The Prius, or Jetta tdi can be purchased with luxury trim for well under $30,000. And suddenly entry-level luxury cars start to appear within the range…
Now we can wander over to look at the 2006-07 Volvo S40, Infinity G, Audi A4, or BMW 3-series. These cars look, drive, and feel luxury. They return mpgs slightly lower than the Accord (even more so in the case of the four wheel drive packages). But with some current, aggressive financing offers, they can be financed for right at $30,000.
Now our options look differently: if we choose the Prius or Jetta tdi, we sacrifice some of the financial value in the gift.
(The $30,000 are for financing a car and can’t be substituted with cash.)
And this raises a peculiar question: should we try to maximize the financial value of the gift?
Or should we select a less valuable gift?
So someone is basically asking us to take $30,000.
We can respond, “Oh, thanks, but you can go ahead and keep $5,000,”
but that just sounds stupid.
However, if we take a slightly broader view and consider the cost to the environmental from differences in fuel ecomony, we find that this offer comes with a slight provision.
The question becomes something like: “Would you like me to give you $30,000 and cut down 500 trees,
or would you like me to give you $25,000 and only cut down 250 trees?”
Whatever the environmental cost of burning twice as much fuel for every mile you drive, surely it’s worth $5,000.
Now, this calculation may sound perfectly rational and persuasive.
But buying a car is about more than just crunching the numbers on price and fuel economy.
There are subjective factors that come into play: interior ergonomics and space, performance, features, durability, safety, reliability, resale value, and the ever-so-personal aesthetic feel of driving.
Now, I happen to really enjoy driving.
And, for my money, there really is only one ultimate driving machine.
When you consider price, mpgs, trims, and features on a car, you can crunch a bunch of numbers and be very analytical.
But when you sit in a car and really think about driving it for a couple hundred thousand miles, you think differently. More emotionally.
On that gut level.
This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and things become a little more hazy than they are on paper.
That haze can easily cloud your judgment if you test drive, say, a BMW 330i next to a Toyota Prius.
All of the sudden, when you squint your eyes and look at all of the uncertainty surrounding the “total environmental impact” of the automobile, you might be inclined to wonder,
“why should I buy a highly fuel efficient economy car when I can get a moderately fuel efficient luxury car?
And I live in Houston, TX anyway, where everyone drives a beemer (or worse),
so my choice doesn’t really make that much of a difference.”
As much as I’d love to own a BMW 3-series, I can’t justify the carbon footprint.
For us, the choice basically comes down to: a used hybrid (Civic or Prius) or Jetta tdi, keep the change.
(If only that 335d were available stateside…)
In the end, we chose the Jetta.
We’re really happy with our new Jetta tdi. We’re excited to learn more about biodiesel, and we’re happy with what it says about us*
*We care about being green.
You see: our choices really are real!
Our stories are made from them.
In turn, those stories make us who we are.
This is our story.