Eco wheels

G Magazine

There’s no such thing as a green car. Currently though, there are a range of greener cars flooding the market. We take a look at what’s happening in the industry, and how to choose a greener car.


Credit: iStockphoto

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Around half of all car trips in Australian cities are for distances less than five kilometres; a third of car trips are for distances of less than three kilometres. It’s a telling reflection of just how far our reliance on cars extends. Once a symbol of freedom and mastery over distance, the automobile has since become an essential part of daily life for many, and, in turn, a major contributor to climate change. Emissions from passenger cars account for eight per cent of national greenhouse gas emissions.

But as petrol prices climb ever higher and sustainability becomes a selling point, car manufacturers are responding by marketing so-called green vehicles. The ‘green’ label is typically applied to petrol cars with lower fuel consumption and cars that run on alternative fuels, from biodiesel to electricity. We take a drive through the ever-changing market and cast a critical eye over the eco-credentials of today’s green fleet.

Fuel Consumption

Currently one of the most economical sources of power, and particularly ingrained into our lifestyles, oil (petroleum) accounts for 43.4 per cent of total world energy consumption. This non-renewable resource is also the predominant fuel used to power our cars.

If carbon dioxide emissions are used as the sole point of comparison to determine how green a car is, then it is certainly true that the lower the petrol consumption, the lower the carbon dioxide emissions, therefore, the ‘greener’ the vehicle. Simple yes, but not technically ‘green’ at the same time – if we were to use that sensibility then nuclear powered cars would be green too.

Choosing a car purely based on low fuel consumption is certainly a greener option however than the array of fuel-guzzlers that clog our country’s roads. If you’re looking to purchase a car based purely on low fuel consumption, take heed of the advice of Andrew Ellis from Suzuki Australia: “We believe a green car should have fuel consumption of no more than 6 L per 100 km and have high levels of recyclability.” As such, many small petrol-powered vehicles are often viewed and touted as green, purely for their low fuel consumption.

However, greenhouse gas emissions from the tailpipe don’t tell the whole story. The sourcing of materials, production of the vehicle body, distribution methods and recyclability also affect GHG emissions. And exhaust fumes from petrol vehicles contain many other pollutants: carbon monoxide, soot and hydrocarbons.

Alternative fuels

Whats all the fuss about hybrids?
The most common type of hybrid car uses a conventional in-line petrol combustion engine as its primary energy source and an electric motor, with lithium battery storage, as its secondary energy source. When the first-generation Toyota Prius became available in 2001, it was the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle and the eco car du jour. So has anything really changed? Due to the current downsides, and delay in introducing other alternatives or infrastructure to support other alternatives such as electric vehicles, hybrids presently tend to be the most economically-feasible and convenient eco-vehicle on the market.

Liquid petroleum gas (LPG)
It’s been around for decades and fuels our taxis and buses, but LPG may be a good idea for cars, too. Made from a mix of mostly propane and butane (it differs from BBQ fuel which is pure propane), LPG is stored as a compact liquid and converts to a dry gas vapour when burnt during use. Though it boasts lower CO2 emissions per litre than both petrol and diesel (1.6 kg per L) and burns a lot cleaner, emitting only CO2 and water without additional greenhouse gases, it also has a lower energy content, making LPG-powered vehicles less fuel-efficient than their petrol and diesel counterparts.

However, depending on the vehicle, total emissions can still work out to be less than that of petroleum fuels. It’s possible to convert any car engine to run on gas. The modification costs around $2,500-$4,500 but you can claim a $1,250 rebate (which will drop to $1,000 on 1 July 2012) from the federal government. A $2,000 grant is available for anyone purchasing a new LPG vehicle.

Is diesel really better than petrol?
With a long-held rep of dirty trucker fuel, diesel has seen a complete overhaul in recent years in perception and use, with more and more smaller passenger cars using it. Diesel is produced from the same process as petrol, however, its density is higher than petrol and so it provides about 12 per cent more energy per quantity. Although diesel releases more greenhouse gases per litre than petrol (2.7 kg vs 2.3 kg), a diesel car is typically 20-30 per cent more fuel-efficient than a comparative petrol car. For this reason, the CO2 emissions of diesel vehicles tend to be lower overall.

Diesel models usually carry a premium of about $2,000 for a new car, and though it used to be more expensive to fill up at the pump, the scales have tipped in recent years, with prices on a par with petrol.

What’s the deal with ethanol and other biofuels?
Bioethanol (commonly known as ethanol) is made from the same fermentation process of starches and corn that is known all too well to the makers of moonshine. In other words, it is pure alcohol.

With one litre of petrol estimated to produce 2.33 kg of CO2, Australia emits around 44 million tonnes of CO2 per year through petrol-fuelled vehicles. One litre of pure ethanol is estimated to save 90 per cent of emissions, emitting just 0.22 kg.

E10, a petrol blend containing 10 per cent ethanol, is widely available at petrol stations around Australia. Some car makers are currently working to modify engines that are compatible with blends of 85 per cent ethanol, a move that would save around 30 million tonnes of CO2 each year were all cars to use it.

The potential problem with biofuels lie in their ingredients – that being they clash with food production, raising food prices. In the US, biofuels are commonly made from one of their most commonly used grains: corn. Recently, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) called for an end to subsidies for bioethanol production on the grounds that it was forcing up food prices and that the industry encouraged deforestation to make way for biofuel crops. According to the Biofuels Association of Australia, our ethanol is mainly made from sugar
cane waste, starch waste and red sorghum, so there is little conflict with food production.

Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, also invented an engine that runs on peanut and vegetable oil in the late 1800s. Biodiesel is an alternative fuel produced primarily from vegetable oils, animal fats and waste cooking oil. It can be blended with conventional diesel in a similar way that ethanol is with petrol. Biodiesel blends are available as B5 and B20 from an increasing number of service stations. The industry is currently looking into new high-yielding oil crops such as algae, which can produce 100,000 litres of oil per hectare, as future biofuel sources.

Hot for hydrogen?
Hydrogen has been put forward as a promising replacement for fossil fuels since the 1970s. Hydrogen is not an energy source, but an energy carrier because it takes a great deal of energy to extract it from water.
Hydrogen’s potential for vehicles has not been realised mostly due to storage and commercial production difficulties. Hydrogen fuel stations are necessary to refuel a fuel cell vehicle and, as it stands now, these stations are limited in numbers.

Mercedes-Benz are pushing hydrogen cell technology more than most, with their F-Cell technology prompting the building of an extra 20 hydrogen refuelling stations throughout Germany, adding to the 30 that are already in operation.

In 2008, Honda released the FCX Clarity, the first hydrogen-powered car for general consumers, which could be refilled via a petrol pump-style hydrogen station, and Toyota recently opened the first hydrogen fuelling station in the US with hydrogen supplied directly from a pipeline rather than tanks.

Toyota has announced plans to bring a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle to the US market by 2015, although there is no news yet of an Australian launch.

Electric vehicles

One oft-spoken of alternative to fossil fuels is electricity. Electric vehicles (EVs) have been around for nearly as long as their petrol-powered counterparts. In the 1890s, New York even had a fleet of electric-powered taxis and in 1911, the New York Times wrote that the electric car “has long been recognised as ideal because it was cleaner, quieter and much more economical than gasoline-powered cars.” As time drew on however, oil won out.

Today, the push for, and discussion of, electric vehicles as a green option is surging along, however little progress is being made. According to Jack Haley, senior policy adviser vehicles and environment, government relations and public policy, NRMA Motoring and Services, the whole concept of ‘green motoring’ is far more complex than most people imagine.

In terms of advantages, “EVs are cheap to run if electricity prices do not increase enormously; servicing should be simple and therefore cheap as there is only one major moving part in an electric motor; fast take-off as electric motors develop maximum torque at zero revs and are very quiet in operation”, says Haley.

But there are also disadvantages. “The range is limited with current battery technology (although if you count the Chevrolet Volt with a small IC engine as an EV that is irrelevant); high initial purchase price for a small car; very few fast charge stations currently available; you have to remember to plug in if charging at home and are very quiet in operation which sneaks up on pedestrians.”

In environmental terms, Haley points out that electric cars are only as green as the energy source that is charging them. “If they are recharged from solar panels or other renewable energy sources this would be justified, but we can expect that most will be charged from the grid, which in Australia is predominantly coal-fired”.

Gail Broadbent, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) Sustainable Transport Campaigner reasons, “Unless it’s an electric vehicle that’s charged by electricity from sustainable sources, it’s not a green car”.

Still, presuming we can start to look at charging them from renewable energy sources, why aren’t we all driving EVs? “The reason we are not yet all driving electric in Australia is that we don’t yet have a recharge network available to the public and the price of the cars is just a little bit too expensive as yet for ordinary people”, says Broadbent. “The price will come down in the next few years to be competitive with petrol cars. There is quite a selection of vehicles either in production or due for release in next couple of years”.

There are other issues stopping the spread of electric vehicles in Australia, not least of which is safety. For example, the Reva G Wiz, which is becoming a common sight on the streets of major European cities like London, fails to meet Australia’s stringent crash standards. Green or not, it is classified as unfit for Australian roads.

And according to Haley, the safety issue is one that resonates across the whole EV sector. “There are only two EVs available at present, the iMiEV and Tesla, and the Tesla [at $206,188] is essentially too expensive for most people, so it is not possible to rank them yet [for safety and crash testing results]. The Nissan Leaf, due to be on sale here next year, has just scored a five-star crash test rating, whereas the i-MiEV is a four-star”, he says.

Car production and shipping

Many people forget that a car is made of many materials that in their manufacture generate huge volumes of greenhouse gases – processes such as steel, plastics and rubber manufacturing that emit large volumes of CO2 and other noxious gases. Recent findings by the Volkswagen Audi Group show that many “eco” cars are in fact worse for the environment in their production than the manufacture of regular cars due to their liberal use of precious metals like aluminium in production in order to keep the weight and fuel usage down. However, turning bauxite into aluminium is one of the most energy-intensive production processes in the world. The group said production typically accounted for a third of a vehicle’s CO2 output.

As such, advances are slowly being made in some areas. In constructing the front dash panels and door skins in the third-generation Prius, Toyota has used a new range of plant-derived ecological bioplastics, including cellulose derived from wood or grass instead of petroleum. Meanwhile Audi says it is also finding new, more environmentally-friendly ways to manufacture materials.

Where your car is manufactured and how far it is shipped will also affect its carbon footprint. This gives Australian-made cars, such as the Ford Focus and Toyota Camry Hybrid an edge. However, it’s important to look at the overall picture. Professor Julia King of Aston University in the UK calculated that 85 per cent of a car’s CO2 emissions are from fuel, 10 per cent from production and five per cent from end-of-life destruction, so savings made predominantly through usage of the car should be your main consideration when purchasing.

Location, location, location

When it comes to being green, your postcode matters almost as much as your choice of engine. In fact, depending on how you drive and where you live has a huge impact on how much CO2 you produce.

For example, if you live in an inner-city area and if you need a car at all, then an EV or hybrid would work the best, as they are useful in stop-and-start situations where you only need a small amount of energy to propel the vehicle the short distance you actually travel. However, if living rurally or travelling considerable distances fairly often, then it’s diesel-powered technology that should top your shopping list, as travelling a long, uninterrupted distance at a constant speed with a bigger engine means less work and less fuel the engine needs to do in comparison with a smaller engine.

Driving greener

Broadbent points out that until green vehicle technology is readily accessible, one thing you can do now is modify your driving behaviour as a way to keep your environmental impact to a minimum. She shares her tips for greener driving.

■ Reduce the amount you drive by shopping locally;
■ Enrol children at a local school and either walk or carpool with other parents;
■ Work as close as you can to home so you reduce travel time; catch public transport or walk instead of driving where possible;
■ Drive more smoothly, don’t have a heavy foot;
■ Keep tyres pumped up;
■ Only use the air-conditioner as a last resort;
■ Unload your car: keeping heavy items in the boot increases fuel use;
■ Drop the speed a little: 25 per cent more fuel is used when travelling at 110 km/h than at 95 km/h.
■ Pick the right gear, go to a higher gear when you can.

The greener fleet

Suzuki Alto GL
Powered by a light all-alloy three cylinder 1.0 litre petrol engine, this zippy little car produces a peak power output of 50 kilowatts at 6,000 rpm (revs per minute). This car is so efficient on fuel that one fuel tank lasts
725 km.
■ Fuel Consumption: 4.7 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 110 gm/kg
■ $12,490

Nissan ST Manual Micra
It’s small with a 1.2 litre three-cylinder engine, but there’s plenty of headroom in this five seater. The
road noise and vibrations at idle are kept to a minimum. Bluetooth is standard in this cute city get-about.
■ Fuel Consumption: 5.9 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 138 gm/kg
■ $12,990

Hyundai i20 Active
With six airbags, bluetooth phone connectivity and a high-mounted LCD display, driver safety is kept to a maximum. With a 1.4 litre four-cylinder engine, there’s not a lot of power, but it’s a great zippy city car that will fit easy into small parking spaces.
■ Fuel Consumption: 6 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 142 gm/kg
■ $15,490

VW Comfortline Polo 66TDI
This new 1.6 litre turbo diesel with four cylinders is six per cent more efficient than it’s predecessor’s 1.9
litre engine. It comes with chrome-edged vents, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a rear centre armrest.
■ Fuel Consumption: 4.6 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 121 gm/kg
■ $22,350

smart fortwo cambrio
Originating from France, there’s been a few version of this quirky car in Australia already, but the newest model from smart was released in Australia in February this year. With a very tiny 1.0 litre engine, it’s extremely economical on fuel.
■ Fuel Consumption: 4.4 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 100 gm/kg
■ $22,990

Ford Fiesta ECOnetic
The greenest of Ford’s fleet, but it doesn’t run off an electric motor or batteries – it’s a super-efficient diesel engine. It actually beats the Prius in terms of fuel economy, and it performs very well. To cut aerodynamic drag, the ECOnetic is also a little lower to the ground.
■ Fuel Consumption: 3.9 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 98 gm/kg
■ $24,990

Honda Insight VTi
This automatic hatchback is a petrol-electric system but with only a small 1.3 litre engine. To get the most out of this hybrid-style, the speedometer turns from blue to blue-green as you use less fuel. Green driving is rewarded with ‘leaves’ added to your dashboard.
■ Fuel Consumption: 4.6 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 109 gm/kg
■ $29,990

Toyota Prius
The world’s most popular hybrid car, with more than 2.1 million Prii being sold worldwide since its introduction to the world market in 2001 – so it’s tried and tested and into the third generation now. Being hybrid electric, there’s no risk of running out of charge.
■ Fuel Consumption: 3.9 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 89 gm/kg
■ $34,990

Toyota Camry Hybrid
With the fuel efficiency of a small car, the Camry Hybrid performs like a V6 and is perfect for highway driving
and long holidays with lots of room for luggage. Seamlessly switches between the petrol engine and electric motor.
■ Fuel Consumption: 6 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 142 gm/kg
■ $36,990

Lexus CT 200h Hybrid
Powered by a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine teamed with an electric motor. Featuring four drive modes, geared to the eco-conscious and the spirited driver alike. The boot is lined with bio-plastic, and Lexus also says that 85 per cent of the vehicle is recyclable.
■ Fuel Consumption: 4.1 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 95 gm/kg
■ $39,990

Mitsubishi i-Miev
‘Miev’ stands for ‘Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle’, and it is indeed innovative. A five-door electric hatchback with an Australian-approved range of 155km, retail sales to the Australian public start in August from all capital cities.
■ Fuel Consumption: 0 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 0 gm/kg
■ $48,000

Tesla Roadster Electric
A quiet and electrifying ride in this all-electric sportscar will take less than four seconds to get from 0 to 100 km/h. The single-speed gearbox has a 375 volt alternating current (AC) electric motor, with a range of up to 394 km from a single charge.
■ Fuel Consumption: 0 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 0 gm/kg
■ $206,188

Kia Rio
The new sleekly-styled Rio will be available in Australia from September. A 5-door hatch with a choice of 1.4 litre multi-point injection or 1.6 litre gasoline direct injection engine, it comes standard with electronic stability control, ABS, six airbags and Bluetooth.
■ Fuel Consumption: 5.7 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 133 gm/kg
■ RRP will be announced closer to launch.

Nissan Leaf
Purpose-built from the ground up, this 100 per cent electric five-door hatchback has a range of 117 kilometres, there’s loads of room for the kids and all their sports gear. It has won the prestigious award of World Car of the Year 2011.
■ Fuel Consumption: 0 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 0 gm/kg
■ Available in Australia mid-2012.

Volvo V60 Plug-in hybrid
The first car of its kind – a hybrid that doesn’t just charge off the motor, it also charges from a powerpoint. It uses regular diesel, so has very low fuel consumption; a 1,000 km drive, such as that from Sydney to Melbourne, would cost under $30 at the current Australian fuel prices.
■ Fuel Consumption: 1.9 L/100 km
■ CO2 Emissions: 50 gm/kg
■ Production will start in 2012.