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EARTHWATCH

Used Cars a Smart Deal for Buyers--and Planet : Recycling extends to vehicles, because the electricity required to produce an auto could power the average home for a year.

March 02, 1995|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: What's the fastest way to make up for wasteful home electricity use? Answer: Buy a used car.

Yep. In this country it takes the same amount of electricity to manufacture a new automobile as it does to run the average home for a year.

Such intriguing comparisons as this one, from the Washington-based World Resources Institute, reveal the essence of one of environmentalism's main slogans: "reduce, reuse, recycle." Buying a pre-owned car accomplishes all three. There are savings involved for you in terms of money and for the planet in terms of resources and energy.

And, even buying a car that's two or three years old will still get you a machine engineered to cut down on air pollution--via newer, fuel-efficient engines and improved exhaust-control equipment.

Ironically, the information cited above was garnered by looking at recently modernized steel-production processes, which consume Titanic amounts of power, much more than in previous decades. More than 20% of steel production goes to make cars. And then all the various parts have to be welded and bolted and buffed--using even more juice. Doesn't this make you look at new-car ads a little differently? Think of all those generators roaring away--polluting the Grand Canyon or drinking up the nation's dwindling supplies of oil.

But don't flagellate yourself for lusting after those shiny new cars. You can satisfy the urge quite nicely--and environmentally--by buying an "off lease" (which has returned to a dealer at the end of its lease) car, according to Ken Smokoska, of Todey Motor Co. Inc. in Ventura.

Smokoska has been mentioned in this column before because he's a promoter of cleaner-burning vehicles powered by natural gas. But he's not a fanatic. He thinks that a 2-year-old, well-maintained Geo Prizm or Chevrolet Blazer still under warranty is a pretty good deal for the planet.

"The newer generation of used cars get better mileage and (produce) less pollution, he says.

Asked if he isn't competing against himself--with both his compressed natural gas sales effort at Todey's and the "front lot" of new cars--he said, diplomatically, "It takes a lot of energy to make a new car."

But, as Earthwatch research found, there's a bottom-line factor at work here. Dealers now see a bigger profit margin in selling used, leased cars than in selling new cars. This has been documented by observers such as CNW Marketing/Research Inc. of Brandon, Oregon. The name of the company's recently launched monthly used car reference guide, "Used Gold," says it all.

Those of us who have been putting off getting rid of our 10-year-old cars don't need to wait until we can buy a $20,000 new model. No matter how lovingly tuned-up or otherwise environmentally well-maintained our dear old thing may be, it's going to become a smog-maker.

But thanks to the recent market and manufacturing changes, for under ten grand we can go ahead and get a clean and clean-running car, practically new, under warranty, fit to pass smog checking, and miserly at the gas pump.

Believe it or not, even Ralph Nader would approve of such goings on--even if you buy something like a Saturn station wagon! His old nemesis, GM, now makes this and several other models that Nader's researchers rather approve of.

A group he founded, Public Citizen, has published "The Green Buyer's Car Guide: Environmental Ratings of 1994 Cars & Light Trucks." It is still a valuable asset to someone looking for a used car.

Most of the vehicles listed in a 1994 edition of such a guide were manufactured two years ago. Those that initially went out as leased cars are beginning to come back to the dealerships for resale--still under warranty and with low mileage. The Nader group survey was quite comprehensive, rating 900 vehicles on the extent to which each minimizes smog and carbon monoxide pollution, minimizes global warming and thinning of the ozone layer and cuts solid wastes via use of recyclable parts.

Some used gold, it turns out, can be green gold.

Details

* BUYER'S GUIDE: "The Green Buyer's Car Guide" a consumer publication from Public Citizen is available by calling (202) 833-3000.

* DEALER'S GUIDE: Auto dealers interested in the professional journal "Used Gold" can call (503) 347-4718.

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