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Better to buy new?

New fuel-efficient new cars might help save the planet, eco-group says

Angela Haulot checks out a new 2012 Ford Fusion for sale at Hansel Ford in Santa Rosa.

BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat
Published: Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 9:13 p.m.

Save money and help save the planet — buy a new car.

What sounds like an automobile industry marketing mantra actually comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a 1.3-million member environmental organization known for zealously guarding the air, land, water and wildlife.

In a new report, “Relieving Pain at the Pump,” the council recommends as a remedy for $4 a gallon gasoline that consumers check out a “bumper crop of fuel-efficient cars” now in dealer showrooms.

“Drivers can start saving money immediately by trading in their gas guzzlers for today's gas sippers,” the report says, noting there are 57 domestic and foreign models for 2012 that get better than 20 miles per gallon, including 15 at more than 30 mpg.

As federally mandated fuel efficiency standards keep rising, consumers will ultimately — in 2030 — save more than $68 billion on gas and cut carbon pollution by 297 million metric tons a year, the equivalent to emissions from 76 coal-fired power plants.

Californians would realize nearly $7.3 billion in net savings, subtracting the cost of fuel-efficient technology built into new cars from the savings on gasoline, the report says.

Henry Hansel, owner of six auto dealerships in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, said he's never heard of a green group boosting his business.

“That's a big deal,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

Angela Haulot of Cotati checked out a 2012 Ford Fusion that gets 33 highway mpg Sunday afternoon at Hansel Ford.

“I just sold my BMW so I'm looking for something that's more fuel efficient,” she said.

The 2003 Beemer was a delight, Haulot said, but mileage is her overwhelming concern, “especially with these gas prices.”

Consumers like Haulot no longer need pricey hybrids or electric cars for Earth-friendly transportation, said Luke Tonachel, a vehicles analyst who wrote the council's report.

Minivans, small SUVs and midsize cars featuring technologies like turbocharging, six-speed transmissions and lighter bodies have joined compacts and subcompacts on the council's list of fuel-efficient vehicles.

“They are a great value for consumers, and good for the air we breathe,” Tonachel said.

Just three years ago, only 27 models were rated at 20 mpg or more, the report said.

But that same year, 2009, marked the introduction of President Barack Obama's two-stage program to boost fleet fuel efficiency standards: first to 35.5 mpg by 2016, then to a proposed 54.5 mpg by 2025.

The second stage, announced last year, is “the largest mandatory fuel economy increase in history,” according to Popular Mechanics magazine.

The regulations will “save consumers boatloads of money they would've spent on gas, drastically reduce America's fuel consumption and carbon footprint and change the way cars are made,” the magazine said.

By 2030, five years after the 54.5 mpg standard takes effect, U.S. oil consumption will be cut by 1.7 million barrels per day, the equivalent to the nation's combined imports from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2011, the council's report said.

Federal standards for fuel economy have been in place since 1978, but remained nearly unchanged — at about 25 mpg — from 1990 to 2010.

Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. ran on crude oil for about $20 a barrel, adjusted for inflation, yielding a seemingly endless supply of cheap gasoline.

Detroit built big cars and trucks, and Americans enjoyed driving them. “We were living in almost a fantasy land,” said Hansel, whose family has been selling cars since 1899.

But since 2000, crude oil prices have catapulted into the $100 a barrel range, and American automakers initially sustained losses of market share, Tonachel said. “They didn't have a stable of attractive, efficient vehicles,” he said.

That has changed now, as Ford, Chrysler and General Motors offer cars that match up with Japanese, German and Korean models, according to the report.

Ford's efficiency leader, the Fiesta subcompact, gets better than 40 mpg at a base price of $13,200, Hansel said.

The Explorer, a seven-passenger SUV, jumped from 16 to 23 mpg in two years with a handful of new technologies.

Even the Mustang, a popular muscle car, now offers a 2012 model, powered by a 300-horsepower V-6 engine that gets 31 mpg on the highway, thanks to a six-speed automatic transmission, Hansel general sales manager Roger Wales said.

“I want that one,” customer Brian Lubiszewski said, eyeing a bright red Mustang at Hansel Ford. But he's happy with the 2012 Focus that he shares with Haulot and gets 30 to 35 mpg, he said.

Wyatt and Katherine DeGaine of Santa Rosa looked at the new Fusion because a baby is on the way and her two-door 2009 Focus is too small.

A four-door car is a must, she said. “Anything that saves money on gas,” he said.

Chevrolet's Cruze, a compact that gets 42 highway mpg, is the top-selling model at Platinum Chevrolet in Santa Rosa and nationwide, Platinum owner Todd Barnes said.

The 2013 Malibu, a midsized sedan, offers an eAssist version that pairs an electric motor with a four-cylinder gas engine to get 38 highway mpg, Barnes said.

Trading in a 17 mpg vehicle for a new model that's twice as fuel efficient is “huge in terms of a family's budget,” he said.

Exchanging a 20 mpg vehicle for a 30 mpg model will save the owner $1,000 a year, according to the council's report.

“People need to understand there are solutions for dealing with the pain at the pump,” Tonachel said.

The car salesmen couldn't say it better.

The report is available at nrdc.org/energy/relievingpainatthepump.asp.

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