Dirty Secret: Green Cars Automakers Won't Sell You
Buying these environmentally friendly cars often depends on where you live.
On a recent run from Boston to Cape Cod, I test drove the 2008 Honda Accord, the latest version of this family favorite. The new Accord boasts an environmental first: a six-cylinder gasoline engine that's cleaner than many hybrid systems. There's only one catch: You can't actually buy this ultra-green Accord, or the four-cylinder version that also produces near-zero pollution.
That is, unless you live in California, New York or six other northeast states that follow California's tougher pollution rules. Only there can you buy this Accord, or the roughly two dozen other models that meet so-called Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle standards, PZEV for short.
Not only can't you buy one, but the government says it's currently illegal for automakers to sell these green cars outside of the special states. Under terms of the Clean Air Act—in the kind of delicious irony only our government can pull off—anyone (dealer, consumer, automaker) involved in an out-of-bounds PZEV sale could be subject to civil fines of up to $27,500. Volvo sent its dealers a memo alerting them to this fact, noting that its greenest S40 and V50 models were only for the special states.
So, just how green is a PZEV machine? Well, if you just cut your lawn with a gas mower, congratulations, you just put out more pollution in one hour than these cars do in 2,000 miles of driving. Grill a single juicy burger, and you've cooked up the same hydrocarbon emissions as a three-hour drive in a Ford Focus PZEV. As the California Air Resources Board has noted, the tailpipe emissions of these cars can be cleaner than the outside air in smoggy cities.
That's amazing stuff. But what's more amazing is how few people have a clue that the gas-powered, internal combustion engine could ever be this clean.
Naturally, no company wants to bring too much attention to a car that most people can't buy, unless it's Ferrari. And there's the catch. PZEV models are already available from Toyota, Ford, Honda, GM, Subaru, Volvo and VW. They're scrubbed-up versions of familiar models, from the VW Jetta to the Subaru Outback. But chances are, you've never heard of them.
These cars aren't the only green leaf that's being dangled over our heads. The sweet-looking, sporty-handling Nissan Altima Hybrid borrows its hybrid system from the Toyota Camry, and sipped fuel at 32 mpg during my week-long test drive here in New York. But once again, if you'd love to buy the Nissan and burn less fuel, you're out of luck—unless you live in California or the Northeast.
It's not all the fault of the car companies. The crazy quilt of environmental regulations is forcing carmakers to design and build two versions of the same cars. And it costs real money to make a car this green. So in states where there are no regulations to force their hand, automakers don't want to have to boost their prices for the green versions—or to simply eat the extra cost and make less profit.
Honda appears to be doing just that. It currently charges Californians and other green-staters about $150 extra for these solid-citizen models. But experts suggest that it costs carmakers closer to $400 a pop to install the gear.
Another issue: The PZEV cars don't get any better mileage than conventional versions. Would most self-interested Americans even pay a lousy 100 bucks for cleaner air that doesn't put fuel savings back in their pocket? "With hybrids, the selling point is fuel economy, so there's a dollar amount on that," said William Walton, Honda's product planning chief for U.S. cars. "We want to give people the cleanest vehicles we can produce, but how much are people willing to pay for clean air?"
Then again, so what if Honda or others lose a few million at first? Toyota clearly went into the red on every Prius it sold in the early years, but shrewdly viewed that cash as an investment to create buzz and build a loyal following. Today, Toyota dealers can barely keep the Prius in stock—and the company has surrounded itself with a green halo that's priceless.
As often as automakers express envy and resentment over Toyota's image, you might think Honda would be filming TV ads, erecting billboards, shouting from rooftops that the Accord is the world's cleanest six-cylinder car. In the green game that Toyota has played like a chess master, it seems like this is a lost opportunity for Honda, Nissan and the rest to siphon off some of Toyota's goodwill.
So give Honda's talented engineers credit for this clean-burning Accord. But give its marketing department a big, smoggy raspberry for keeping it a virtual secret—and keeping it off-limits to buyers in 42 states.
A Michigan native raised and forged in Detroit and a former auto critic at the Detroit Free Press, Lawrence Ulrich now lives in Brooklyn, New York. His reviews and features appear regularly in The New York Times, Robb Report, Popular Science and Travel + Leisure Golf.
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