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Guide: It Isn't Easy Being Green

Autos: The average vehicle sold in the U.S. flunks a national consumer group's rating for environmentalism.

February 18, 1999|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Compared with General Motors Corp.'s EV1 electric car, the average 1999 passenger vehicle gets a solid F in environmentalism, according to a rating guide released Wednesday by a national consumer environmental group.

The good news is that, with several hundred models on the market, there are still numerous conventional vehicles out there with high "green" ratings for shoppers who consider environmental impact when looking for a new car or light truck.

There are even a few sport-utility vehicles--ugly brown smudges on most green lists--that rise above the muck and get better-than-average ratings in the new Green Guide to Cars and Trucks, published by the Washington-based American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

A number of the greenest cars and trucks--including two of the top 10--are vehicles from car makers with U.S. headquarters in Orange County.

Irvine-based Mazda led the pack with four of its six vehicles tabbed for best-of-class rankings: the Miata roadster, Protege compact, 626 midsize sedan and B2500 compact pickup.

Other "green" cars from Orange County companies: the Mercury Tracer station wagon from Irvine's Lincoln Mercury; Brea-based American Suzuki's subcompact Swift sedan and Esteem wagon; and the Mirage subcompact, Galant midsize sedans and the Montero sport-utility from Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America in Cypress.

The guide, first published in 1998, is an attempt by the 19-year-old nonprofit council to give consumers information "so they can see the greenest vehicles in whatever class they are looking," said coauthor John DeCicco. "The absolute best and worst in the ratings isn't really the message."

Nevertheless, the best of the 319 models of cars, wagons, minivans, pickups and SUVs rated was the EV1, with a green score of 57. The guide uses a scale of 0 to 100--the highest score based on the as-yet-unobtainable absolute zero-emission standard.

The worst, with 7 points, was the Dodge Ram 2500 pickup with a 5.9-liter V-8 gasoline engine and an automatic transmission.

About 45% of the vehicles on the list scored at or above the average of 21 points. A total of 1,503 vehicles with various combinations of engine, transmission and federal or California emissions ratings were evaluated.

The guide's ratings are based on such factors as a vehicle's emissions, especially the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, its fuel efficiency, the pollutants and greenhouse gases generated in the manufacturing process, and the estimated effect on U.S. health costs for treatment of lung or other pollution-related diseases.

The average score was unchanged from last year, DeCicco said. That's not to say there has not been improvement, though.

"We are seeing progress [by auto makers] in cleaning up tailpipe emissions, but the industry is still dragging its feet on fuel economy," he said. Still, he said, "there is a realization that there is some potential market value to be tapped into" by making cleaner vehicles.

If car buyers selected the "greenest" versions of the models they preferred, DeCicco said, it would "be an important step for improving both air quality today and for protecting the planet from the [long-term] risks from greenhouse gasses."

DeCicco, the council's transportation director, and coauthor Martin Thomas, a council researcher, cited Honda Motor Co. for taking the lead last year by marketing its California-emissions-standard vehicles nationwide. California's standards are regarded as the toughest in the country.

Ford Motor Co. also won a nod from the authors for beginning to make California-standard vehicles available in other markets this year and for making all of its sport-utility vehicles meet California's low-emission-vehicle standard.

In fact, the two-wheel-drive Lincoln Navigator, which got a 9 for last place in the inaugural guide last year, scored a 12 this year, jumping ahead of its chief rival in the luxury-SUV class, Cadillac's new Escalade, which got a 10 with California-emissions package and an 8 for the version sold in most states.

The best gasoline-powered car was the manual-transmission Chevrolet Metro--a three-cylinder economy subcompact--with a score of 38.

All of the electric vehicles on the market today topped that mark--indeed, they account for six of the first seven places on the "Green Guide's" top 10 list. The natural-gas version of the Honda Civic GX finished in fourth, with 46 points.

Gasoline-powered cars rounding out the top 10 were the Metro, in eighth place, followed by the 1.3-liter, manual-transmission Suzuki Swift subcompact, with 37 points, and the 1.5-liter, manual-transmission Mitsubishi Mirage subcompact with 34 points.

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