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GREEN MACHINES

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Hank Bennet owns a very new car. It's not just fresh off the lot, it's actually a completely new type of car. Hank is the proud owner of a new Honda Insight, a hybrid automobile that combines an electric motor with a gasoline engine to create a fuel-efficient and low-pollution car.

Averaging 60 miles per gallon (MPG), the Honda Insight offers fuel efficiency that far surpasses regular cars powered by an internal combustion engine alone. According www.fueleconomy.gov, a Web site provided the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, the next best 2001 model, with about 50 MPG, is the Toyota Prius, the only other hybrid car on the market today. For cars that just use gasoline, diesel models from Volkswagen are the second best, averaging 45 MPG. Others achieving an average above 35 MPG are the Toyota Echo and the Toyota Corrolla.

What does this mean for you? Savings. Based on an average of 15,000 miles driven per year, with a mix of city and highway miles, you can expect to pay around $350 and $470 in fuel per year for the Insight and the Prius, respectively. For comparison, diesel models may cost around $550 per year, fuel-efficient gasoline power will cost you between $650 and $750, while the luxury-powered gas guzzling cars and SUVs will run upwards of one to two thousand dollars per year.

There are trade-offs, though. You won't win the Paris-Dakar rally in a hybrid car, and you might find it difficult to carry all of the family and cargo you want to lug around. The Insight is a two-seater with a 365-pound capacity, which leaves little room after mom and dad are in the front seat. David Champion, of Consumer Reports, says that the Toyota Prius, with 5 seats and bit more cargo room, is a little more useful, but then again, it does not get the super-high mileage of the Insight.

If the environment is your main concern, then these green machines might be right for you. Aside from the low fuel costs, the use of the electric motor slashes pollution. The Insight, according to www.fueleconomy.gov, is estimated to produce 3.1 tons of greenhouse gas per year, while the Prius spits outs 4.1 tons. That's right, tons! Probably more than you thought any car would produce. Yet some comparable gasoline-powered compacts produce as little as 5 tons per year, while some SUVs and other luxury machines can exceed 14 tons per year. The Insight produces half of what most compact cars produce and about one-quarter of a larger vehicle's output. So, even you can't win any races, at least you can drive with a clear conscience.

If you can sacrifice power, luxury, and space for efficiency and the environment, the hybrid models are the way to go. However, there is still one more trade-off. The current sticker price for these cars is around $19,000. Consider that a Saturn SL 2 might run about $13,000 and costs about $700 a year for fuel, $350 more than the Insight. To make up for the $7,000 difference in price, you need to save on the gas for 20 years. That may not last long, though. Currently these cars are being produced in limited numbers. If they catch on, production is bound to go up and prices will come down. Consider also that these hybrid cars get their best mileage in the city, where, using mostly electric power, they really outclass any other car. The expenses given here are based on a near equal mix of city and highway driving. If you drive mostly in the city, you are bound to save a lot more. A don't forget the vast reduction in pollution.

Buying a new car is never an easy decision. It's a large investment and there are many factors to consider. Hybrid cars add a few more factors and make it a little more complicated, but options of better fuel efficiency and more environmental friendliness now exist. These new types of automobiles will not be a flash in the pan. Oil prices are climbing and governments are enacting stricter pollution laws. In fact, many manufacturers already offer cars that run on alternative fuels such as electricity, natural gas, and ethanol. The problem here is that there few places to refuel them and most purchases are made by municipal authorities who uses fleets of cars in small areas. But that could change as alternative fuels catch on. A recent innovation, the hydrogen fuel cell, combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity with water being the only by-product. That means no pollution. And since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the world, it shouldn't cost too much. Perhaps the internal combustion engine is becoming a thing of the past.


If you would like to do some comparisons of your own, check out http://www.fueleconomy.gov.




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