Can you save money and save the planet? Alistair Suttie reports on how the new breed of green cars are gaining ground with a bit of celebrity help.
So, who says that cars that care have to look like the automotive equivalent of sandals and socks? Meet the Tesla Roadster, a car with aesthetics oozing out of every highly-designed inch and which made Time magazine’s list of the best inventions of 2006.
The car runs entirely on electricity and on one fully-charged lithium ion battery can cover up to 250 miles. And, despite the phut-phut reputation of its species, it can race to a top speed of 130mph. No wonder Hollywood stars are queuing up to get their hands on one – green and gorgeous, what could be better? And at a starting price of £51,000, it is one just for the celebs, for the moment.
But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have necessarily to stick to our bikes, although two wheels are hard to beat in the environment stakes. But for those times when it just has to be a car, there is one out there to suit all needs and pockets.
At the luxurious executive end of the market, there was great excitement and brouhaha surrounding the launch of the Lexus GS450h. It’s that last little ‘h’ at the end of the GS’s badge that’s the cause of all the interest as it stands for ‘hybrid’, powered partly by a normal petrol engine, partly by an electric motor.
The GS450h is not the first hybrid car we’ve seen, not even from Lexus which now boasts hybrid cars in the executive and SUV sectors, with others to follow in the full-size luxury and compact saloon categories. Toyota owns Lexus and was one of the first to launch a hybrid with its Prius, which has gone on to become the darling of Hollywood A-listers such as George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Harrison Ford.
What makes the GS450h so important is that it’s taking hybrid technology right to the heart of the gas guzzling market as the world’s most powerful hybrid saloon car. The GS is a full-on executive machine and has the sort of performance to see off sporting rivals from Audi, BMW and Mercedes, yet it can still return 35.8mpg and only 186g/km of CO2 emissions. For this class of car, not even any of the GS’s high performance diesel rivals come close, and the Lexus avoids the 3% extra company car tax levied on diesel engined cars in the UK.
Is the Lexus the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for, the next step for the motor industry? Not exactly, though it is a stepping stone in the right direction as it stands a chance of convincing executive-class buyers that an environmentally friendlier car can still be as good as their traditional choices.
This is the key to hybrid technology gaining favour with car buyers.
Pret a drive
Until the two Lexus models, hybrid cars appeared a little gawky. You only have to look at the original Toyota Prius and Honda Insight to see that they were out of the ordinary, and most car buyers don’t like to stand out too far from the crowd. Now we have the latest models from Toyota and Lexus, and the Honda Civic IMA, all of which look, well, normal.
Other manufacturers are hedging their bets for the time being with bi-fuel cars that run on a mix of petrol and liquefied petroleum gas or fossil-free fuel taken from agriculturally grown crops. However, these cars have limited appeal as there are very few filling stations that stock bio-fuels.
The biggest compliment we can pay the GS450h is it looks and drives just as its all-petrol sister models. The only real difference the average driver will notice is that the hybrid GS450h is significantly quicker to accelerate on full throttle as both the petrol and electric motors come into play. The other thing you may notice is the eerie silence from the engine bay when cruising along.
The Lexus GS450h works in the same way as all current hybrid cars. An efficient petrol engine sits under the bonnet as you would expect, while the electric motor is fixed close to the gearbox to minimise losses through friction. The electric motor is powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery that, in the GS450h, is placed directly over the rear axle for ideal 50:50 weight distribution.
On start up, modern hybrid cars’ petrol engines do not necessarily fire up as they can be driven away purely on the electric motor and at speeds of up to 30mph. This is why hybrid cars are exempt from London’s congestion charge as they theoretically produce zero emissions in town.
However, the limitations of battery life mean that all current hybrid models will rely on their petrol engines sooner rather than later into a journey, or when a burst of acceleration is needed.
To improve the emissions situation, hybrid cars switch off the petrol motor automatically when at a standstill, such as waiting at traffic lights. Measures such as this contribute to a hybrid’s lower running costs. The Lexus GS450h costs around 105p a mile compared with the petrol-only V8-engined GS430’s 128p a mile. One reason for the hybrids’ lower costs are that used values are predicted to be better for more environmentally friendly cars, protecting your bank balance as well as the planet.
Cost of technology
It’s not all rosy on the cost front for hybrids, however. They are considerably more expensive to buy than their petrol or diesel-only counterparts due to the extra development costs to get them into production and the added expense of the electric motor and battery pack.
Not all car manufacturers are prepared to go the hybrid route for this reason, seeing it as a short-term measure. BMW’s Helmut Panke summed up the situation at last year’s Frankfurt Motor Show with: “We’ll all have a hybrid within five years, but this is not the big be-all and end-all of technology.”
Some manufacturers have been looking to electric-only power. This has the advantage of creating cars with zero emissions, but many are quick to point out this solution merely moves the pollution from the car to the electricity power station. There are more basic logistical problems with electricallypowered cars that a hybrid overcomes.
In an all-electric car, the power is stored in batteries and released to the motor as the driver demands. But when the power runs out, it can leave the car stranded miles from a socket. The all-electric G-Wiz costs from £6,999 and can manage a top speed of 40mph with a range of 40 miles. This means it’s restricted to being an urban runabout, even if it is carbon neutral for the first 16,000 miles of its life.
A more pressing reason for many car manufacturers to shy away from producing hybrid cars are the huge development costs. Major players cannot afford to develop their own hybrid technology and are buying it in, with Nissan paying for Toyota’s expertise. Others, such as General Motors and DaimlerChrylser, are forging links that would previously have been unthinkable to help spread the burden of cost.
Even with these moves, hybrid cars are still some way from the mainstream car buyer’s mind.
In the USA in 2005, 16.9m new cars were sold, but only 88,000 of these were hybrid or low emission vehicles. That’s just a shade more than 0.5% of new car sales in the United States where there are financial incentives to buy greener cars.
In the UK, the government decided in June 2006 not to implement a grant scheme for low-carbon vehicles at a time when petrol has exceeded the £1 per gallon mark, while the Powershift grant scheme was shelved two years ago.
Toyota’s President Katsuaki Watanabe pinpointed the problem with the development of hybrid cars when he said: “The element of competition is needed to lead to the widespread use of hybrids.” However, he conceded it would be a slow process, adding: “My goal is to reduce the cost difference of hybrids to one-half the current levels. My personal desire is to use the hybrid in all models. But it cannot be done overnight.”
Other car manufacturers are concentrating on making the most of fossil fuels, in particular diesel for its greater economy. Last summer Ford made a £1bn commitment to make all its vehicles green over the next six years, by introducing more efficient engines which use a range of fuels across more than 100 models.
Ford Europe chairman and chief executive Lewis Booth said that making all its Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo cars more efficient will have much greater impact on the environment than producing a small range of hybrids. “We are not going to introduce just one or two high-profile green cars that sell in relatively low numbers and leave it at that,” he said at the British Motor Show.
“By deploying these technologies across our range, we can deliver far more significant reductions in the total amount of CO2 generated. We can also help reduce consumption of fossil fuels, which saves customers money.”
He said a small reduction in carbon emissions on the Ford Focus, its biggest selling model, would have a greater impact on CO2 emissions than the combined effect of all the hybrid models currently sold in the UK. The 9,500 UK engineers at Ford, Jaguar and Land Rover research centres will collaborate on projects, including alternative fuel sources. Ford already has a car which runs on 85% bioethanol fuel made of rape seed oil, sugar beet, or other sustainable crops – the Ford Focus Flexi Fuel.
Another make forging ahead is Mercedes which has launched its Bionic Car concept with a design inspired by tropical fish for its aerodynamic shape. The Bionic Car reduces aerodynamic drag to a level unseen in production cars, but it uses a 138bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine already seen in production models such as the A-Class and is capable of 100.3mpg.
Such cars are referred to in the motor industry as 3-litre cars as they can cover 100km on three litres of fuel and are widely seen as the next realistic goal.
Not all car makers are relying on fossil fuel for their futures and Saab is in the vanguard of championing sustainable alternatives such as bioethanol fuel. Sometimes called E100, bioethanol is produced from agricultural crops such as rape seed. It’s carbon neutral as the CO2 emitted when the car is being driven is cancelled out by the CO2 consumed by the plants during growth.
Saab already sells BioPower versions of it 9-5 saloon and estate cars able to run on bioethanol, and they cost from £21,857. These models can run on a mix of bioethanol and normal unleaded petrol, though there is an incentive to stick with bioethanol as the engine produces up to 20% more power due to its higher octane rating.
The Swedish firm is also looking at a hybrid model using bioethanol as one of its fuel sources. The British Motor Show, held at London’s Excel in July, saw the debut of the Saab 9-3 Convertible BioPower Hybrid Concept, which is the world’s first fossil fuel-free hybrid car.
With zero fossil carbon dioxide emissions, this Saab represents the most likely next step for hybrid cars. As with so many areas of development in the motor industry, it’s not a radical move, but a careful step in the right direction.
What is a ‘green car’?
Hybrid: A conventional combustion engine is used to charge an electric battery. The battery drives an electric motor at low speeds. The petrol/diesel kicks in as the car reaches higher speeds, allowing the combustion engine to work more efficiently. Toyota Prius; Lexus RX, right; Honda Civic.
Electric: A pre-Tesla battery charged via an external source, such as a household socket, can currently run a car between 30 and 60 miles. Quite low speeds, but particularly suitable for city driving. G-wiz, Sakura Maranello4; Nice Mega City; Smart ForTwo EV.
Fuel cell: Like a battery/electric car in that it does have a combustion engine. Fuel cells are electro-chemical devices that convert the energy stored in chemical form directly into electrical energy, water and heat. Mercedes-Benz ‘F-Cell’ Aclass; Reva, right; GM/Vauxhall HydroGen3; Ford Focus FCV.
Biofuels: Are made from renewable plant sources which absorb more C02 than the fuels emit. There are three main types: bio-diesel, a mix of plant oils and diesel; bio-ethanol, made solely from plants; and compressed natural gas (CNG), which burns cleaner than petrol. Saab 9-5 BioFuel, right; Volvo V70 CNG BioFuel; Ford Focus 1.8 FFV.
LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas): produces far less C02 than petrol and fewer particulates than diesel. Most engines can be converted to run on LPG.
Fuel efficient: Conventional cars can be green (or greener) if they are fuel-efficient and therefore use less petrol/diesel to get from A to B, creating less emissions. So check the miles per gallon before you buy.
Here’s George and his new fully-electric, zero-emissions, two-seater Tango, made by the Commuter Cars Corporation in the US. George told the magazine Vanity Fair, which featured him and his Tango: “If you’re doing a movie about oil consumption and corruption, you can’t just talk the talk. You gotta walk the walk.” However, George has also shelled out the $100,000 deposit for one of the first 100 super-sleek, electric Tesla Roadsters. This sporty little number can even outpace a Ferrari.
“I own a Toyota Prius,” says the Blood Diamond star. “It’s a step in the right direction. It’s a gasoline-electric midsize car that gets about 50mpg. We have the technology to make every car produced in America today just as clean, cheap and efficient.” Leonardo describes global warming as “one of the most important issues facing humanity”. Addressing an event at a Beverly Hills hotel in 2003, he urged everyone to “adopt an environmental lifestyle”.
As he spoke, a traffic warden was sticking a parking ticket on his Prius outside. The star has set up his own eco website (www.leonardodicaprio.com) with the help of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which he established in 1998 to actively foster awareness of environmental issues. He is also a board member of Global Green USA, a branch of the international environment organisation set up by former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev. He also takes his conscience home with him and has created an energy-efficient home.
• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in February 2007