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RUMBLE SEAT DAN NEIL

Ahhhh, it's like a breath of fresh air

Ford's low-emission 2005 Focus is among a growing class of gas-powered vehicles that are actually greener than electrics.

June 09, 2004|DAN NEIL

No one loves breathing more than I do. Some think breathing is overrated -- the dead, for instance. Not me.

So props to the members of the California Air Resources Board for being such sticklers about, well, air. In the past 14 years, the board has put the screws to automakers, requiring them to sell more clean vehicles as part of the state's zero-emission vehicle mandate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 15, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Car emissions -- A column in last week's Highway 1 section about the Ford Focus PZEV vehicle said that vehicles qualifying as partial zero-emission vehicles produce less emissions than electric vehicles. While PZEV vehicles can be as clean as hybrid gas-electric vehicles, pure electrics are cleaner.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 16, 2004 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Car emissions -- A column in last week's Highway 1 section about the Ford Focus PZEV vehicle said that vehicles qualifying as partial zero-emission vehicles produce less emissions than electric vehicles. While PZEV vehicles can be as clean as hybrid gas-electric vehicles, pure electrics are cleaner.

Much of this history is of the seeing-sausage-made variety. However, as it stands now, beginning in 2005 automakers can partially fulfill their rising quota of California-certified green vehicles with PZEV vehicles. PZEV stands for partial zero-emission vehicle and it is the highest standard for gasoline-engine vehicles.

To qualify as a PZEV, a vehicle must first meet the super-ultra-low-emission vehicle standard: 97% fewer hydrocarbon emissions, 76% less carbon dioxide and 97% less nitrogen oxide than the national Tier 1 emission standard.

A PZEV must also have no evaporative losses (gas fumes) from the fuel system. And the whole shebang -- powertrain and fuel system -- has to be warranted to meet standards for 15 years or 150,000 miles.

PZEV vehicles actually pollute less than electric vehicles, if you account for the source-point pollution of the power plants recharging them. In some atmospheric conditions -- a brown day in San Bernardino, for instance -- PZEV vehicles actually clean the air, which is to say, their emissions are cleaner than the air sucked into the engine.

In terms of noxious emissions, your spouse pollutes more than a PZEV.

Despite automakers' long and litigious assertions to the contrary, they have been able to develop the compliant technologies. There are currently more than 30 PZEV vehicles on the market (visit www.driveclean.ca.gov), including BMW's 3-Series cars and wagon, Honda's Accord, Subaru's suite of Legacy cars and wagons, and Volvo's big V70 wagon -- not exactly hair shirts of eco-martyrdom.

So let's hear it for big government. Had California not used its enormous leverage in the marketplace -- the state is the biggest vehicle market in the country -- the automakers would not have been motivated to develop the engineering that will, now that it is available, become integrated into the larger vehicle market. California's zero-emissions mandate has been adopted, with some variation, in the "green states" of Maine, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. Why, clean air is spreading like a prairie fire.

Breathing may yet make a comeback.

I spent a week recently with a PZEV-certified Ford Focus. The Focus has been lightly redesigned outside and in for 2005. The new cars are powered by next-generation Duratec engines in displacements of 2.0 and 2.3 liters. The PZEV cars employ the 20E version of the 2.0-liter engine (130 horsepower).

The new Focus is a nice little urbanaut -- I drove the workaday SES trim level -- and Ford will be happy to PowerPoint you to the brink of insanity with charts showing improvements in Focus' initial quality and customer satisfaction. The suspension has been beefed up, the brakes enlarged, and the exterior and interior styling have a finer, more formal line.

All stipulated. What interested me, however, was the means by which you turn a gas-powered automobile into a four-wheel room freshener.

The first order of business is to improve combustion efficiency. The 20E uses a very trick set of butterfly valves situated in the four intake runners to increase turbulence ("swirl") in the cylinders at low rpm. These valves also allow the engine to run very lean mixtures without stumbling or stalling during cold starts. Special 12-hole fuel injectors -- as compared to the usual four-hole design -- better aerosolize the fuel.

Anyone who has ever rebuilt an engine can't help but admire the machining precision required to make this engine PZEV. The cylinder bores have to be micron precise so that no oil slips past the rings for 150,000 miles. To achieve those tolerances, Ford had to buy millions of dollars' worth of special honing machinery. And if such oil leakage does occur, Ford won't attempt to fix it in situ. The dealer will simply jerk the engine and install a new one. The faulty engine would likely go back to Dearborn for an R&D autopsy.

Peak tailpipe emissions are associated with cold starts, before the catalytic converters in the exhaust system have reached operating temperatures -- the "light-off" point. To improve light-off speed, the 20E design situates the catalytic "bricks" practically inside the exhaust manifold. Ford calls it a "mani-cat" design. To further improve light-off response, the 20E uses a thermactor valve that forces hot gases toward the catalytic bricks until they are up to temperature. Another set of catalytic bricks is situated farther down the exhaust pipe to clean up any remaining pollutants.

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