Cleaner, Greener SUVs

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Snow Driver 1201: Audi All-Road

Most skiers I know consider themselves to be good environmental citizens. They recycle, pack their trash out of the backcountry, and campaign for open spaces and responsible mountain development. They also drive a disproportionate number of four-wheel-drive SUVs, the most polluting, fuel-gobbling class of vehicle on the road.

The picture is fairly grim. If you own several SUVs, the combined pollution is often greater than that from your family's heating, electricity and waste disposal. If you own a large SUV such as a Ford Excursion, Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator, your greenhouse-gas emissions are nearly 60 percent greater than those of a Subaru Legacy Outback Wagon.

So can you drive an SUV and still consider yourself green? Yes, says James Kliesch, co-author of The Green Book, The Environmental Guide to Cars & Trucks ($8.95; greenercars.com). Published by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a Washington, D.C., think tank devoted to wiser energy consumption, the book uses a novel approach to provide comprehensive ratings of environmentally friendly-and hazardous-vehicles. Combining fuel-economy, tailpipe emissions and manufacturing impacts, the book assigns every vehicle a Green Score, which compares across classes, and a class ranking, which judges it alongside its peers.

"It really depends on what your definition of 'green' is," Kliesch says of SUV buyers who quest for environmental correctness. "Our mantra is to buy the greenest vehicle that fits your needs and your budget. If you need to haul lots of gear, then by all means buy a pickup. Just realize that regardless of what class of vehicle you need, there are greener choices available."

Say you routinely carry multiple passengers in your SUV or minivan or use your pickup to carry heavy loads. "That means the environmental impact of your vehicle is lower than if you drive alone or without a payload," Kliesch says. Still, he says, "realize that even the greenest of large SUVs is not going to save the planet by any means."

While today's SUVs are still a long way from matching the 50-plus mpg of the current U.S. fuel-economy champs (the new electric/gas hybrids from Honda and Toyota), improved engines and cleaner emissions make even the biggest SUVs more efficient than older vehicles. The 2001 U.S. automobile fleet is 50 percent more fuel-efficient and emits only 10 percent as much pollution as its 1970 counterparts. As a group, SUVs continue to make great strides, though perhaps that's because they have further to go.

Two of the most popular SUVs, the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee, have nudged their fuel efficiencies higher in the latest models, but it is Toyota (and its Lexus brand) that has led the way in incorporating efficiency improvements developed for passenger cars into SUVs. Meanwhile, compact SUVs built on car platforms-such as the Toyota RAV4 and the Subaru Forester-have proliferated. Now in its second generation, the RAV4 uses an all-aluminum engine that weighs 50 pounds less than the previous model, uses less gas, yet produces 21 more horsepower.

These car-based compact SUVs-which now include the Ford Escape/ Mazda Tribute tandem (same car, different brands), Acura's MDX and the surprisingly well-received Hyundai Santa Fe-provide alternatives to heavier, more polluting truck-based designs. They all meet or approach 20 mpg combined (city and highway) fuel-economy targets.

More with less is a theme constantly visited in the new small and mid-size SUVs. Most of these vehicles provide more passenger compartment space and cargo-carrying versatility than previous generations. For instance, new seat designs allow easier reconfiguration and fold deeply into recessed compartments, providing more interior volume without an increase in vehicle size or weight.

The Toyota Highlander, which came to market last year and is The Green Book's 2001 medium-size SUV champ, is the first mid-size, car-based SUV and, uniquely, cpetes size-wise with Toyota's own 4Runner SUV. Built on the platform of the wildly popular Camry sedan, Highlander retains reasonable ground-clearance and ride-height and even has a slight edge over the 4Runner in leg and head room. "The thinking is simple," says Don Esmond, Toyota group vice president and general manager. "Buyers with a bias toward multi-use need 4Runner. Buyers who prioritize car-like ride and handling need Highlander."

Other companies aren't being caught flatfooted. GM has introduced an all-new engine in its 2002 mid-size sport-utilities (Chevy TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Oldsmobile Bravada). The all-aluminum inline six-cylinder engine delivers the power of a V8 (270 hp) with six-cylinder efficiency. The reduced weight-as well as the integration of electronic throttle control, variable valve timing, combustion system improvements and low-friction components-reduce fuel consumption and emissions simultaneously.

According to the EPA, even modern internal-combustion engines convert only one-third of the energy in fuel into useful power; another 19 percent is lost through idling and to power on-board systems like climate controls. That leaves a lot of room for increased efficiencies, and more are on their way.

While the power necessary to muck through heavy snows and rutted roads dictates more powerful engines for SUVs, manufacturers are finding new ways to deliver that strength. Both Ford and DaimlerChrysler have hybrid-electric SUVs slated for market within two years. These vehicles combine a conventional internal-combustion engine with an on-board regenerative electric power plant that doesn't require plug-in recharging from an external power source. Ford's first entry, a four-cylinder version of its Escape, targets 40 mph in city driving with a 500-mile range, while maintaining today's six-cylinder performance standards. It's expected to be available late next year as a 2003 model.

Another area of promising fuel-efficiency is vehicle weight reduction that can be accomplished without compromising safety, strength or durability. A new Ford prototype uses magnesium, carbon fiber, titanium and metal matrix composites (metal-reinforced plastic) to shave 2,000 pounds of typical steel weight down to 500 pounds.

Of course, the big hurdle for all these technologies is building economies of scale that will make them competitive with conventional designs.

If SUV fuel consumption and emissions numbers still make you shudder, Kliesch suggests considering a cross-over design, such as General Motors' AWD Pontiac Aztek/Buick Rendezvous duo, which blend the snow-going utility of SUVs with the cargo and passenger capacity of minivans and the creature comforts of conventional sedans. The Aztek has quite a nice personality if you can get past its looks (it's thought by many to be the ugliest car on the road and is slated for a makeover). It plays off a rugged image cultivated through the Survivor TV show and includes such novel features as a pop-up tent and clever stowage. The Rendezvous is a snow-goer that has reconfigurable seating for up to seven adults (a feature that attracted ski families to minivans back in the Eighties) and a refined cabin. It also has features like a rear park-assist warning system (nice to have in areas where snowbanks are often below rearview-mirror vision).

Other snow-going alternatives with good hauling capacity include wagons, such as the Subaru Legacy/Outback, Volvo V70 Cross Country, Audi All Road and A6 Avant Quattro, and Mercedes-Benz E320 4Matic. These boast fuel-economy numbers and green scores that best all the large and medium SUVs and compare well with smaller SUVs. And both the Volvo V70 Cross Country and the Audi All Road have ground-clearances higher than many SUVs. Add an aerodynamically shaped cartop box like those from Thule and you can add up to 14 cubic feet of cargo space, beating the hauling capacity of all but the biggest SUVs.

Couples may find an AWD sedan (with a cartop box as an option) meets their mountain travel needs. Subaru's sub-compact Imprezza earns the top Green Score of any AWD vehicle at 31, but it may lack the brawn to bull its way through tough terrain. Audi's A4 Quattro, a compact equipped with a stick and a gutsy 1.8-liter turbo engine, gets a high green score of 30, and while it is classified as a compact, its cavernous trunk and integrated ski sack make it a worthy ski-country vehicle.

On the other hand, if you've got a big family and you need to haul lots of goods or tow on a regular basis, a vehicle like the Chevrolet Avalanche can actually be a good choice, despite its 13 city/17 highway fuel economy numbers. It meets the tough ULEV standards (see box, page 213) and offers a luxurious five-passenger compartment that ingeniously converts into a full-bed pickup truck in minutes with the flick of a couple of levers that drop a mid-gate and turn the rear seats into cargo space.

Sometimes buying greener can be as simple as reading a label. Kliesch notes that a number of otherwise-identical vehicles are sold with pollution controls that meet different certification levels. (The Mercedes-Benz ML320 SUV, for example, is sold in both ULEV and Tier 1 versions, with its Green Score dropping from average to below average on the latter.) In order to meet the stricter standards of states such as California, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine, additional pollution controls are added to vehicles sold in those states, a cost the manufacturer generally absorbs.

If you purchase a vehicle in a neighboring state that is part of a major metropolitan area in a "clean" state-say northern New Jersey for New York City or southern New Hampshire for Boston-the cleaner version of the vehicle may or may not be offered. "Dealers won't usually offer the information or sometimes don't even know," Kliesch says, but you can check the manufacturer's statement (usually a window sticker or a label under the hood) to see what emissions level the vehicle meets and make sure you buy a less polluting model.

Many SUVs are available with engine options, and unless you plan to tow or frequently drive steep mountain passes where extra power is needed, most vehicles perform adequately with their base engine. If you need the additional horsepower, look for a larger engine that doesn't sacrifice much fuel-efficiency. For example, the Ford Explorer 5.0-liter V8 loses only 1 mpg in city driving and nothing on the highway compared to its 4.0 liter V6 counterpart.

Choosing a manual transmission instead of an automatic can also boost fuel economy, but the gap is narrowing-in some cases disappearing-as new transmission technologies make machines more efficient than humans. Check the EPA fuel-consumption estimates and other scores carefully. A select few models, such as the category-leading Toyota RAV4, actually have slightly better fuel-economy with their automatic-transmission model.

Click on the slideshow to the right to view all the cleaner, greener SUVs.dan (with a cartop box as an option) meets their mountain travel needs. Subaru's sub-compact Imprezza earns the top Green Score of any AWD vehicle at 31, but it may lack the brawn to bull its way through tough terrain. Audi's A4 Quattro, a compact equipped with a stick and a gutsy 1.8-liter turbo engine, gets a high green score of 30, and while it is classified as a compact, its cavernous trunk and integrated ski sack make it a worthy ski-country vehicle.

On the other hand, if you've got a big family and you need to haul lots of goods or tow on a regular basis, a vehicle like the Chevrolet Avalanche can actually be a good choice, despite its 13 city/17 highway fuel economy numbers. It meets the tough ULEV standards (see box, page 213) and offers a luxurious five-passenger compartment that ingeniously converts into a full-bed pickup truck in minutes with the flick of a couple of levers that drop a mid-gate and turn the rear seats into cargo space.

Sometimes buying greener can be as simple as reading a label. Kliesch notes that a number of otherwise-identical vehicles are sold with pollution controls that meet different certification levels. (The Mercedes-Benz ML320 SUV, for example, is sold in both ULEV and Tier 1 versions, with its Green Score dropping from average to below average on the latter.) In order to meet the stricter standards of states such as California, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine, additional pollution controls are added to vehicles sold in those states, a cost the manufacturer generally absorbs.

If you purchase a vehicle in a neighboring state that is part of a major metropolitan area in a "clean" state-say northern New Jersey for New York City or southern New Hampshire for Boston-the cleaner version of the vehicle may or may not be offered. "Dealers won't usually offer the information or sometimes don't even know," Kliesch says, but you can check the manufacturer's statement (usually a window sticker or a label under the hood) to see what emissions level the vehicle meets and make sure you buy a less polluting model.

Many SUVs are available with engine options, and unless you plan to tow or frequently drive steep mountain passes where extra power is needed, most vehicles perform adequately with their base engine. If you need the additional horsepower, look for a larger engine that doesn't sacrifice much fuel-efficiency. For example, the Ford Explorer 5.0-liter V8 loses only 1 mpg in city driving and nothing on the highway compared to its 4.0 liter V6 counterpart.

Choosing a manual transmission instead of an automatic can also boost fuel economy, but the gap is narrowing-in some cases disappearing-as new transmission technologies make machines more efficient than humans. Check the EPA fuel-consumption estimates and other scores carefully. A select few models, such as the category-leading Toyota RAV4, actually have slightly better fuel-economy with their automatic-transmission model.

Click on the slideshow to the right to view all the cleaner, greener SUVs.