13 July 2007

Wanted: Quality '76 Firebird (Must Run on Biodiesel)

(Repost from 21 May 2007)

The lease on our Vibe is coming due in August, and we've been looking to buy a car. It's been a good car mechanically, but cosmetically it hasn't held up very well. Nothing significant, but lots of dings and chips that show the poor quality of the paint Pontiac used. And on a road trip, we lost part of the luggage rack on the top of the car. It just flew off.

But we need a replacement that is a greener alternative to my SUV (We both use E10 bioethanol, but the SUV doesn't get very many mpg). The Vibe on the other hand has gotten very good gas mileage, but ethically, we feel like we have to do more than we are now (which consists only of the "easy" stuff so far: joining a CSA, switching over to a green power program for our electricity bill, using cloth bags for our grocery shopping, driving the Vibe whenever possible, and watching Living with Ed. So we started looking at hybrids, flex-fuel vehicles, biodiesels, and PZEVs--and I have to say that I am shocked and chagrined, horrified and stupefied. Well, maybe just confused.

What we looked at first were hybrids. Of course, everyone knows the Prius, and Toyota has started making a Camry hybrid, too. Saturn makes the Aura Greenline; Honda makes a Civic and Accord hybrid; GMC makes some sort of behemoth hybrid that defeats the purpose (leave it to a US car company to pervert green technology). But the one hybrid I was really interested in is for some reason not available here. The Nissan Altima is offered in a hybrid, but I think they only offer it in California, which is stupid. We test drove the Civic Hybrid and Prius, and the Civic is vastly inferior to the Prius--aesthetically, technology-wise, ride-wise, and comfort-wise.

But I wonder what happens to the batteries after they're finally depleted (which the Toyota and Honda salesmen said would be over ten years). Not only would I not want to buy new ones, but I also would be concerned about how recyclable those used batteries might be. The other (and relatively new) concept to think about is the cradle-to-grave sustainability of the car. From what I understand, the nickel used in the batteries for many Priuses is mined and smelted in Canada, then shipped to Japan to be put in the batteries. Once those batteries are installed and the cars assembled, they're shipped back to North America to be sold. That is a lot of diesel used in inefficient trains, trucks, or freighters to move this nickel around. It just doesn't feel quite right to me, but Mrs. Grendel thinks the gas hybrid is the best option. We're either uninterested in the alternatives (Saturn and GMC offerings), unimpressed with them (Civic), they are unavailable to us (Altima), or they are out of our reach, financially (Accord, Camry). The Prius remains the only real option here.

What we considered next is the flex-fuel vehicle (FFV). These cars can run on either gasoline or ethanol (or both, an E85 blend). The FFV is what the dirty bastards at GMC, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler were making in past years but not telling the people who bought them. (Imagine that. You buy a car that can run of gasoline, ethanol, or a mix of both, and the carmaker doesn't even bother to inform you of this tidbit. That tells me that US automakers thought it would be considered a liability not an asset by American buyers. Why flexibility in fuel sources would be considered a liability is beyond me--even if there were no ethanol outlets where you live.) Anyway, I think there are actually fewer FFV models in 2007 than there were before FFVs were common knowledge: it's almost as if they're embarrassed that they made them. Dodge's Avenger is a FFV, but go to the website and see if they advertise that anywhere on the page. (Here's a spoiler: they don't.) You have to find the 2.7-liter V6 engine to even know they make a FFV model. Genius marketing strategy.

Anyway these cars are an interesting option. There are few around, but I like the flexibility that they provide and the smaller carbon footprint they leave (in comparison to the regular Avenger). But efficiency-wise, the Avenger is not so good: 19 city/27 highway. My SUV is almost that. Almost. So the FFV is definitely an option, but the lack of selection makes it difficult to pursue.

Biodiesels are my personal favorites. They're a lot like FFVs, but there's not a lot of special adaptation between a regular diesel engine and a biodiesel one. As long as the hoses that come into contact with the fuel are synthetic rubber, I think you're good to go (the used vegetable oil eats through regular rubber hoses after awhile). We have a car lot here that sells biodiesel-converted cars only. They're mostly older model Mercedes-Benzes, since they were diesel-powered in the 70s and 80s. I'm not so keen on driving an '85 Mercedes 500SEL. I just don't think that the kind of performance and/or creature comforts we want is going to come out of an older Mercedes or Volvo. I think that VW is going to make some diesels in 2008 or 2009, but that won't help us now.

Which puts us in a quandary. What are we supposed to do for a new car? Our performance demands exclude a lot of the older biodiesel options, our ethical values exclude the newer gas-guzzlers or non-green options, and our financial concerns (stupid hospital bills) exclude most of the newer gas hybrids. What we are left with, as far as I can tell, are few options:

1) Buy a car with a high-efficiency gasoline engine (Subaru Impreza, Scion Xa, Mazda 3, Honda Civic) and use E10. Subaru has been advertising that their factories are zero-landfill enterprises, which is nice (and Imprezas are cool).

2) Lease one of the above cars for a few years (using E10) until the US decides to stop screwing around and provides us with some genuinely effective options.

3) Buy a cheaper, older car that I could work on myself (pre-1975 domestic models), and pay to have it converted to diesel engine, and then converted to biodiesel. If I had my pick and neither time nor money were issues, this is the way I would go. I would buy an older muscle car (Charger, Firebird, Camaro, etc.) or a late-70s Corvette, put a diesel engine in it, and then convert that engine into one that can burn biodiesel.

I just don't know what diesel engine might fit on those motor mounts, though. But, that would be my dream car: a 1976 Firebird with a Smokey and the Bandit paint job and biodiesel engine. I'd probably have enough left over to buy one of the cowboy hats with a feather on the front that Burt Reynolds wore. Keep your nose between the ditches and smokey out of your britches, I'm gone.

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