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So Who's the Greenest of Them All?

Environment * Well, it depends on who you're talking to. In any case, there's hot competition among car makers to lay claim to the eco-friendly crown.

March 29, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most automobile shoppers in the United States, environmental pluses and minuses rate somewhere below the number and location of cup holders in the hierarchy of reasons to buy a particular vehicle.

Otherwise, how to explain the proliferation of gas-hungry, pollutant-spewing pickups and sport-utility vehicles on the road?

But things are changing, not least because auto makers have discovered that, hard as it is to be green, it is far preferable to being brown.

Welcome to the Green Wars.

The first shots are just now being fired as Ford Motor Co.'s chairman purrs around Dearborn, Mich., in an electric-powered Ranger pickup, Honda Motor Co. touts its Sierra Club award for the hybrid gas-electric Insight, DaimlerChrysler sings the praises of (and spends billions in pursuit of perfecting) the fuel cell, and General Motors Corp. executives wonder why nobody gives them proper credit for the sleek EV1 electric sports coupe.

"There is true greenness in Europe, where car-buying decisions are all about efficiency, not about Excursions that get 9 miles a gallon," said Herbert Tay, head of the West Coast automotive practice for consulting giant A.T. Kearney Inc., referring to Ford's biggest SUV.

"But as yet there is no market-wide concern for greenness in America. Still, everyone now realizes the need to do something."

Among auto makers, grabbing for the green crown is likely to be the next big marketing effort after years of competition for leadership in comfort, utility, quality and safety.

"After all, you can only put so many air bags in a car," said Bill Van Amburg, spokesman for Calstart in Pasadena. The nonprofit industry consortium was formed to pursue and promote development of advanced technologies, including alternative fuel systems, for the transportation industry.

The increased globalization of the auto industry also makes eco-friendliness a major concern.

"When you are selling in countries where every city is crippled by pollution, cup holders are no longer an issue," Van Amburg says. "Tailpipe emissions are."

*

But if it is hard for auto makers to be green, it can be even harder as a consumer to know just who is wearing the color honestly and how the mantle was won.

After all, if one environmental group lauds Honda as an environmental leader, another says Ford is on top and a third says Ford (quite literally) stinks, how is the poor motorist to know what to do?

For Californians, there are four key organizations that issue broad-based green ratings of auto makers and their products: the Union of Concerned Scientists, Calstart, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and the state Air Resources Board.

(Make that five, if you count the federal Environmental Protection Agency and its fuel-economy ratings, which address the environment obliquely: The farther a vehicle can travel on a gallon of gas, the fewer greenhouse gases it emits per mile and the less it contributes to global warming.)

All have their agendas, and although they are complementary, their ratings can result in what may appear to be conflicting messages when it comes time to rate the players.

In addition, some organizations have started issuing one-time commendations to the auto makers for environmental achievement.

When the Sierra Club publicly lauded Honda's Insight, representing the first such endorsement in the group's 108-year history, the event made headlines and gave the Japanese company a lot to brag about. Here, after all, is a vehicle with a hybrid drive train featuring an electric motor-assisted gasoline engine that delivers as much as 70 miles per gallon. And it is being endorsed by what for many is the premier environmental league in the land--a group dedicated to fighting much of what the auto industry has always stood for.

Almost immediately, an officer of another national environmental group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, took issue.

Honda's Insight might get great mileage, thus helping to reduce petroleum dependence and lessen degradation of the ozone layer, wrote UCS Transportation Program Director Roland Hwang, but it is no great shakes when it comes to emitting smog-causing pollutants.

Honda makes a Civic that runs on natural gas and has lower emissions than the Insight, he pointed out, and the company this year began selling a gasoline-powered Accord that gets a SULEV rating. Instead of lauding the Insight, given its ultra-low-emissions-vehicle rating, the Sierra Club should perhaps have scolded Honda for not pushing the technological envelope to achieve an even lower SULEV rating for the Insight, Hwang suggested.

Then three months later, on March 15, UCS (Hwang included) issued its first-ever pollution ranking of the world's auto makers.

Leading the pack, with "the best environmental performance in today's market," according to UCS, was Honda.

Confusing?

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