February 29, 2012

What's so clean about diesel?

Say goodbye to the image of Mack trucks belching a large black cloud of exhaust wherever they go. With the arrival of ultra-low-sulphur ("clean") diesel at US pumps, and the development of power-boosting and exhaust-scrubbing technologies, diesel-powered passenger cars are cleaner than their gasoline counterparts on just about all emissions - and run at a higher fuel efficiency.

In the realm of the internal combustion engine, it's hard to beat a diesel engine for its simplicity: there is a piston (one of four, or six) that compresses air to 1/25th or so of its original volume. Compressing air like that raises the temperature (just think of how your bicycle pump heats up with vigorous use). If you inject diesel fuel at the top of the piston stroke, the high temperature is enough to cause it to ignite. No sparkplugs required.

That combustion forces the piston out to its extended position. After that the piston comes back to eject the resulting exhaust, extends again to take in air, and and the cycle resumes. The piston is connected to a crankshaft, which translates the back-and-forth motion to a rotational motion that your round wheels can understand.

Diesel engines are strong, and have long lifetimes. Until recently they have been used mostly for very large things, like Mack trucks that need to haul serious loads, or even heavier trains.

Diesel's problems: they are hard to start, and once they get going they are loud, and throbbing, and then there's that black smelly cloud that they tend to belch. While I have always wanted to drive a trailer truck across a continent (almost any continent will do, I'm not picky), I wouldn't want to have a brute of an engine like that on my driveway.

So why does this blog drool so persistently over diesel-powered cars?

Because what's under the hood of a diesel-powered passenger car in the 21st century is a far cry from the monsters that my dad used to wrestle. (Literally. He used to say, snuffing my trucking dreams, that I didn't have the upper body strength to make a truck go around the corner. He was right back then, but driving a diesel car now is no longer a wrestling match, thanks to power steering). Also, the fuel itself has become cleaner.

"Clean" diesel.
Wait: Isn't diesel what's left of petroleum after you take out the gasoline, the kerosene, and the stuff from which shampoo, fertilisers, and all manner of plastics are made? How can the rest possibly be "clean"?

It's still diesel. It still contains benzene, toluene and other organic compounds that aren't good for you. But when most of the sulphur has been taken out, to a level of 15ppm or lower, you can call it "Ultra-low-sulphur diesel" or ULSD for short. And because nobody can remember the acronym, or might confuse it with either a university or a psycho-active drug (and because it sounds so green), it's known as "clean" diesel.

It is actually cleaner than what came before, particularly if you consider that the previous diesel standard allowed for 500ppm of sulphur. At that concentration the sulphur tended to give much higher levels of particulate matter pollution. It also poisoned nitrogen oxide catalysts that were trying to keep smog formation down. Think about it: since the introduction of "clean" diesel in 2007 you don't often see trucks surrounded by a dark cloud of exhaust any more.

That diesel exhaust cloud was black because it was full of soot: mostly carbon that didn't get burnt in the engine. I bet if you could collect those soot particles and compress them into a long thin cylinder you could make a nice pencil.

This is because a piston by itself is not all that good at air intake: at the expansion stage the pressure inside the piston is lower than that of the outside air, and there is simply not enough air to completely burn the fuel injected into the piston.

A turbocharger installed in the air intake presents the piston with air that's pre-compressed to nearly twice atmospheric pressure. That means that you can burn just about all the fuel injected, eliminating nearly all soot in the exhaust. Moreover, the piston stroke is more powerful, boosting the fuel efficiency. A further benefit is the huge reduction of organic hydrocarbons, some better known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that have been implicated in several serious health issues.

Turbochargers, originally developed for airplane engines that had a hard time at high altitudes where air is thin, have come a long way. They are now much more robustly built than their forebears.

Not only that, they get their power from the engine's exhaust gas, so they really pack a large increase in total engine power for very little extra weight. Or rather, they give a significant boost to the fuel efficiency for a given engine power.

Soot filters.
Any soot particles that are still left in the exhaust stream are caught in a particulate trap, and burnt off periodically to regenerate the filter.

Between turbocharging at the front end of the engine, and soot filtering at the back end, the particulate matter emerging from a diesel car's exhaust is lower than that of a gasoline-driven car of similar power. This is particularly true in an aggressive driving style where gasoline engines burn much less efficiently and emit a high level of particulate matter.


As an example, let's look at the Audi A4 Quattro, available in the US with a 3.0L TFSI (turbo fuel stratified injection) engine running on super unleaded gasoline and putting out 269 hp power. The diesel version with comparable power would be the 3.0L TDI (turbocharged direct injection) with 243 hp power, 10% less than the TFSI engine.

Both engines are turbocharged. But the diesel engine gets 50% higher fuel efficiency, 33mpg. This is thanks to the higher energy content of the fuel (15% higher in diesel than in gasoline), as well as the higher compression ratio of the pistons. The resulting lower carbon dioxide emissions earn it a European "B" label whereas the gasoline engine is only good for a "D".

The table shows the German pricing (in the US, the 3.0L TFSI starts at $ 47,300; the 3.0L TDI is not available here). In Germany, as in the US, the net price of the diesel is higher than that of the gasoline version of the A4, but the structure of the German car sales tax encourages the purchase of the version with lower CO2 emission, so the total price, shown in the table, ends up being lower for the diesel.


Audi A4 Quattro, gas vs. diesel.

3.0 TFSI quattro

3.0 TDI quattro
Trim "Attraction" "Attraction"
Year 2012 2012
Emissions rating EURO5 "D" EURO5 "B"
MSRP in Germany € 44,300
($ 59,400)
€ 42,900
($ 57,500)
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 22 / 36 mpg 33 / 48 mpg
Avg. quoted 29 mpg 41 mpg
Actual avg. 21 mpg 33 mpg
CO2 emission quoted 190 g/km 152 g/km

3.0L TFSI V6

3.0L TDI V6
Power 269 hp
@ 4780-6500 rpm
243 hp
@ 4000-4500 rpm
Gears 7-spd S tronic 6spd man
Fuel super unleaded "clean" diesel
Emissions for 2011 models:    
Engine 3.2L V6 quattro
262 hp
3.0L V6 quattro
237 hp TDI
Year 2011 2011
Noise 74 dB 74 dB
CO2 214 g/km 173 g/km
CO 0.314 g/km 0.239 g/km
Hydrocarbons 0.043 g/km n/a
NOx 0.036 g/km 0.159 g/km
Hydrocarbons+NOx n/a 0.194 g/km
Particulates n/a 0.5 g/km

I wasn't able to find emissions data for the 2012 models, so the lower half of the table shows data for 2011 models with comparable power, close to 250 hp. UK government data in the table is listed at car-emissions.com.

On most emissions standards, the diesel is actually cleaner than the gasoline version. The only exception is for NOx emissions, which contributes to smog, acid rain and respiratory problems, and which is more than four times higher for the diesel. The hopeful spin on this is that just a decade ago diesel engines, when compared to gasoline engines of similar power, had ten times as much NOx in their exhaust: so there is improvement.

But how does the drive feel?
Last summer in England we ended up driving a diesel rental, a BMW 118d M sport 5-door hatchback. We cursed just about every time we got in, and it wasn't because the steering wheel was on the other side. The seats felt wrong. The dashboard had the wrong curvature even for my short legs. There were large blind spots. CelloDad couldn't get in an out of that car without taking out a piece of skin or a button off the dashboard or something. The trunk looked okay but was full of useless nooks and crannies, so the storage was inefficient. There's no way a cello would fit there.

But the engine! Allright, so it's a BMW engine. To be precise, it was a 2.0L, 143 hp turbodiesel job. It might as well have been a regular gasoline engine. You couldn't hear the difference. You coudn't smell the difference. You couldn't feel the difference (it did throb, but it was a discreet kind of throb). In short, in no way did this car behave like a Mack truck. Especially once you take it on the motorway, where the hum was a pleasure. Anywhere really, it was hard to keep it from zipping around, even with the shift stick in my left hand.

Best of all? We stopped at the pump only once, at the end of a two-week trip. It had done 44 mpg.



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February 22, 2012

How to buy a gas sipper for less

Rising gas prices. Energy security. Global climate change. Each one a good reason to work on raising the fuel economy of our vehicles. The CAFE 2025 standard calls for the US fleet of passenger cars and light trucks to achieve an average mileage of 54.5 mpg by 2025, up from 27.5 mpg in 2011.

Just about every news article and blog covering CAFE 2025 states that the new standard will add, on average, $3000 to the purchase price of a car (but the savings at the pump amount to a lot more than that over the car's lifetime).

So far, I have been unable to unearth any documentation that shows where that extra $3000 comes from. But one can detect a certain amount of glee in the reaction of those who manufacture hybrid and electric vehicles - and certainly those are a lot more expensive than their counterparts with conventional internal combustion engines.

In the hype about hybrids and EVs, it is easy to overlook the fact that there are alternatives.

At this point, you might say to yourself that nobody will ever get you (and your children) in a plastic car the size of a Mini. Because going to smaller and lighter cars is another way to increased fuel efficiency.

I get your concern with safety: I'm a mom, and vehicle safety is very important to me. While the crash-readiness of small cars has improved markedly over the last few decades, in a collision the larger car still wins, especially since there is a huge variation in the height of the crumple zones where cars are supposed to absorb the impact. (Mandating that crumple zones of all cars fall in the same height range will go a long way to improving crash safety for smaller cars - but that's for another post).

But you don't have to cough up the premium on the purchase price for a hybrid or an EV. Nor do you have to compromise on car safety. (And no, this is not about using your legs: although walking and biking are the healthiest transportation option for yourself and the planet, the current reality is that most of us still need those four wheels with an engine, at least some of the time).

Time to look outside the box. Or rather, let us stay in the box we know and love, but let us get it equiped with engines that make more sense.


Volvo S60 T5
25mpg avg
from $31,300

Volvo S60 T3
36mpg avg
from $26,000 est.


Here is a concrete example: the Volvo S60, a sedan made by the company that built its reputation on vehicle safety. This holds for both its excellent crash test record over its entire line, as well as its recent voluntary moves toward minimising toxic chemicals in car interiors.

In the US, the S60 is available with a "choice" of two engines: the T5 (2.5L, 250hp) and the T6AWD (3.0L, 304hp). That's it.

Huh. Some choice.

Now try checking out Volvo's Swedish web pages for the S60. Go ahead: it's not English, but then, it's not so different that you can't figure things out. For instance, the Swedish T5 is described as a "fyrcylindrig direktinsprutad turboladdad bensinmotor". Say it out loud, and once you've stopped laughing you realise that you've just said "four-cylinder direct-injection turbo-charged gasoline engine" - in Swedish.

The information on the website is worth the trouble: this is how you find out that Volvo are tossing us the two very gas-hoggiest versions of the S60. In the European market, the lineup includes two other gas engines, T3 and T4, both more frugal, as well as four turbocharged diesel engines, and one flex-fuel one that can run on gasoline or bio-ethanol.


Volvo S60 models for sale in Europe, Russia, China, US

Engine, displacement volume, power, mpg quoted cty/hwy/avg (actual avg)

DRIVe 1.6L, 115 hp, 46/60/55 (44mpg)
D3 2.0L, 163 hp, 37/57/48 (35 mpg)
D5 2.4L, 215 hp, 41/57/50 (35 mpg)
D5 AWD 2.4L, 215 hp, auto, 28/46/37
T3 1.6L, 150 hp, 32/48/41 (36 mpg)
T4 1.6L, 180 hp, 27/44/36
T5 2.0L, 240hp, 21/36/28
    (in US 2.5L, 250hp, 20/30 mpg)
T6AWD, 3.0L, 304 hp, auto, 16/32/24 (18/26 mpg)
Flexifuel (gasoline / bioethanol)
T4F, 1.6L, 180 hp


The sippiest engine in this lineup is the diesel DRIVe option that gets a real-life fuel economy of 44mpg, or fully twice more than the average mileage of the T6AWD version. But then again, all of the diesel engines do better than the current US offerings.

Even among the gasoline engines, the most frugal one (T3, 36mpg) does 63% better than the T6AWD.

Just to rub it in, even the "T5" designation means a larger engine when sold in the US.

Wouldn't it be great if Americans had a real choice? How did we get stuck with the two biggest gas hogs of the whole lineup? Even the Russians and the Chinese get more choice.

Incidentally, the spread of choices suggests a real Swede isn't afraid of a bit of snow, and can negotiate the Scandinavian winter roads just fine without all-wheel drive, thank you very much. Besides, too much power is a disadvantage when driving in snow, anyway.

This is the key: 304hp is too much for a car this size, except for the gratification of a carefully cultivated love of the "vroom-vroom" effect. When I did the cold math, I found that even in a slightly larger car, fully loaded, you need just 76hp to negotiate the US Interstate highway system at 65mph. The 150hp delivered by the T3 engine will allow you to collect plenty of speeding tickets.

If you manage to ditch the compulsion for too much power under the hood (for the idea that you "need" that power has been sold to us by the relentless advertising machine), then you find yourself free to go with a smaller engine.

Small is beautiful: a smaller engine has a smaller carbon footprint, a win for the planet. It also has a smaller price tag: a win for your pocket book. Check out the pricing in the table below (Swedish Krona conversion as of February 2012).


Volvo S60, Prices for gasoline models in Sweden and US

T3 1.6L, 150 hp, 32/48/41 (36 mpg)

Skr 226,900
($ 34,150)

T4 1.6L, 180 hp, 27/44/36
Skr 249,000
($ 37,400)
T5 2.0L, 240hp, 21/36/28
    (in US 2.5L, 250hp, 20/30 mpg)
Skr 274,000
($ 41,150)
$ 31,300
T6 AWD, 3.0L, 304 hp, auto,
16/32/24 (18/26 mpg epa)
Skr 399,000
($ 59,900)
$ 38,450


This serves to remind you that cars are cheap in the US: the Volvo S60 T5 costs nearly $10,000 less in the US than in the Swedish home market (despite the slightly larger engine in the US version), because of much higher vehicle sale taxes charged in Sweden.

But let's compare apples to apples: in Sweden, the T3 is Skr 47,100 (or 17%) less expensive than the T5. I don't know nearly enough Swedish to grapple with the vehicle tax code, but probably some of that difference comes from a lower tax rate for the sippier T3. So if it were made available in the US, I guesstimate that the T3 would probably cost around $ 27,000. That's $4,300 less than the T5. I find this smaller price tag rather beautiful.

Further: the T5 gets an average 25 mpg, so assuming you keep it for its 150,000 mile lifetime (average in the US), you'll need to feed it 6000 gallons of gas. To cover that same distance the T3 would need only 4200 gallons. Difference: 1800 gallons. At the current price, $3.50 / gallon, you save $6300 for gas over the lifetime of the car. (At European gas prices, currently close to $9/gallon, you save a dizzying $16,200).

Bottom line: between the lower purchase price and the lower gas expense, you can save more than $10,000 by choosing the smaller-engined T3 over the T5. That's assuming gas stays at $3.50. Because $9 a gallon gas couldn't happen here - or could it?

An added bonus: a mechanical engineer working for a German truck manufacturer told me that smaller engines are comparatively more robust than larger ones, which means you can expect a lower repair rate.

One way you can do even better than this is by switching to a diesel engine: those are now actually cleaner than a comparable gasoline engine, and more frugal. Take the T5 engine (240hp, 25mpg avg.); the diesel-fuelled D5 engine puts out 10% less power, 215hp, but at 40% better fuel efficiency: 35mpg. Cutting the power further and installing Stop/Start technology like in the DRIVe model gets you to 44mpg. And it's not even a hybrid.

But if you want hybrid, Volvo can give you hybrid. The Volvo V60, the wagon version of the S60, will be available in a plug-in hybrid version with a fuel economy quoted at 124mpg. Another one that's coming soon to a dealer not near you.

(Why take it lying down? Ask your friendly dealer for the more gas-frugal versions of the car of your choice. As the consumer, don't we have the final word?)


Shared at Dude, Sustainable! Blog Hop



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February 17, 2012

Small Is Beautiful 2.0

You may have seen the wistful sighs, often as comments on articles on gas-frugal cars: "Why can't I buy a car like my 1980 Honda Accord that did 45mpg?" or "Why don't they sell cars like what the Europeans drive? Some of those get over 55mpg."

Well, here is good news for the wistful: After three decades of increasing car size, weight and accessories, all requiring more and more energy to operate, the pendulum has started to swing the other way.

The numbers are in: a study from the University of Michigan says that over the last four years, the US sales-weighted fuel efficiency (the sum of the fuel efficiency of a model multiplied by how many of that model are sold, divided by the total number of cars sold) has increased by 8% in three years, from 20.8 mpg in 2008 to 22.5 mpg in 2011. * (That's lower than the 27.5mpg required by the CAFE standard until 2010, because truck sales are included in the study).

8% in three years is huge. And the trend continues, with TrueCar reporting a sales-averaged fuel efficiency of 22.9 mpg for January 2012.

The optimist in me wants to believe that this signals the return to influence of "Small Is Beautiful". That is the title of the 1973 book by E.F. Schumacher of which the sub-title, "Economics as if People Mattered" would appeal to the Occupy movement and their sympathisers. I have in mind not merely bandying fine words like "sustainability" and "social justice" and other banners waved in the massive greenwashing efforts now undertaken by corporations trying to sell more stuff.

I mean a real change of heart. A standing back from the excesses of the 1990s and early 2000s. A return to simpler living, a re-assessment of what is really important in life. Hint: it's not the super-sized house, nor the "upscale" car.

Already, the preferred size of a house is decreasing. It has been rising inexorably since the 1950s when the average new house had about 1000 sqft, to 2500 sqft in 2007 - despite the fact that family size has decreased. The data from after 2007 bucks that 6-decade trend.

Cars have followed a similar trend: a recent study by Christopher Knittel, an MIT economist, has shown that the very real and impressive gains in engine efficiency achieved by automotive engineers since the 1970s have been negated - one might say usurped - by the increasing size of our cars and their many and varied gadgets like air conditioning, which all use energy. The data since 2008 buck that trend, too.

I know what you're thinking: of course 2008 marks some turning point. That is when the Great Recession started to be felt broadly, and that is also when prices for regular unleaded gasoline spiked past $4 per gallon: even when adjusted for inflation, it hasn't been that high since 1980. It's February 2012 now, we're obviously not clear from the recession; regular unleaded has just reached a nationwide average of $3.50 a gallon, and some analysts are predicting $5 a gallon gas by the summer. When the wallet is running on empty, people turn to smaller cars, and smaller homes.

Graph by Phil Stuart, randomuseless.info

But the recession and the high gas prices aren't the whole story. Recently, not only are people turning away from mere size, they are starting to want a home, not just a place to plonk themselves down in front of a screen (TV, computer or other) after work. Home includes life, of the old-fashioned kind. Life means a neighbourhood, with neighbours that you know and talk to, and whose children play with yours; and work and shops within walking distance. Because it's when walking on your street that you meet your neighbours. Neighbours passing each other in their cars don't stop for a chat.

This rosy picture is not my own personal pipe dream: it comes from a study by Realtor.com, summarised by Good.is as "Most Americans want a walkable neighborhood, not a big house". Realtors are finding that, increasingly, home buyers opt for smaller, in-town residences rather than ex-urban starter castles.

Similarly, auto manufacturers are now touting the fuel efficiency of their latest offerings. They are responding to the opinions of the young, who prefer their cars few and frugal. They may still appreciate the "zippy" in cars, but Generation Y want their cars "sippy", and the real pioneers among them are moving straight to "zip": they're the ones who prefer life without car ownership altogether.

They may change their minds once they have children to move about in all weathers, plus sports equipment and musical instruments. But just as all parents tend to forego foods produced using growth hormones, this young generation just might continue shunning the kind of cars on steroids that have become the norm until recently.

The rest of us could do worse than following that shining example.

What I find most heartening is that the trend towards the gas sipper has started even before car manufacturers were required to offer cars with better fuel efficiency by the CAFE 2025 standard, made official in July 2011. That requires the nation's fleet of passenger cars to attain an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 mpg by 2025 (with some loopholes).

I've said this before: for most car manufacturers, all they need to do to comply with CAFE 2025 for the next few years, is to start selling in the US those gas sipper models in their fleets that they have been selling all over the rest of the planet for years. No painstaking (=expensive) development of new (=unproven) technologies required, at least not for a while. My car reviews are pretty boring: with very few exceptions they all say, Look, here is this car, it's cool in these ways, and the version sold in the US is, not always the largest, but usually the gas-hoggerest in the world.

The alternatives, out on roads right now, and owned by millions of satisfied users, sport fuel efficiencies up to twice that of the same models sold in the US. Those sippers are better for the planet and for the wallet: Most are cheaper to buy as well as cheaper to fill at the pump. Win & win! Let's ask our dealers for them, and start driving them - if, that is, we must drive at all.


Fiat 500 in Rome; photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont


*Always be careful with statistics: The model-average fuel efficiency has increased by 14%, but that number is meaningless. And if you bother to read the actual report, you realise that they for electric vehicles they have taken the "electric equivalent" MPG-e, which I have argued to be quite meaningless, at face value. EVs tend to have around 100MPG-e, enough to skew the straight fuel efficiency average by about 0.2mpg. Because so few EVs have been sold in these years, their contribution to the sales-weighted fuel efficiency is negligibly small, so the latter is the better number to watch, and the only one I use in the body of this post.

In truth, as pointed out in the U Michigan study, and convincingly argued by Tom Murphy, the natural unit for fuel efficiency is not MPG at all, but GPM, or gallons per mile (Europeans, true believers of the metric system, now measure their fuel efficiency in liters/100km). Certainly, we should use the additional measure of lbs. of CO2 per mile. After all, that's what really matters.

February 14, 2012

Review: Suzuki Wagon R

We'll get to the Wagon R in a bit, I promise. First a few words about the Suzuki Kizashi, the main character in what must have been the cutest man's-best-friend commercial from the 2012 Super Bowl: the Inuit who trades in his dog sled for a red (of course), all-wheel drive Kizashi. A lot of people find the Inuit very cute. He is cute. But his dogs! they are beautiful. And even more stunning is the snow-covered environment that is his home.

Watch entire ad on YouTube

Actually, I don't blame the Inuit for trading in his sled. Soon enough, climate change will cause all that snow to melt into a memory, the ice shelf on which he used to fish will disappear, and he will drive that Kizashi through the diminishing slush to the town where he'll have found a job working in a cubicle. His magnificent dogs will be just a pack of prize pets.

They'll have to leave the igloo because it keeps caving in, in the rising temperatures, and now his wife, adjusting to town life, divides her time between minding the children and fixing up and furnishing the house they've bought in town.

She might like the Suzuki Wagon R

Even though the R stands for "recreation", the Wagon R could actually be a real work horse, as long as you don't ask it to pull anything large. The 53HP delivered by its 0.7L engine is just fine for going about your daily business on the valley floor. The Japanese JC08 spec says it will do 55mpg, probably an over-estimate by 20-30%, so expect to get 40-45mpg in real life.

Despite its modest length, there is plenty of space inside this car: certainly there is lots of headroom, nice for taller drivers/riders, and the seats are higher than in most passenger cars.

The convenient cargo space has no threshold, and the interior layout is very versatile: you can move, fold, and adjust the seats in more ways than than you can imagine. This means that when your children are in school you can use the Wagon R to haul furniture for the new house, items for DIY construction projects, even a surf board for that "recreation" part of the day. Stowing a cello is no problem. And in a pinch, you can fold down the front seats completely and make space enough for two people to sleep in that car. Although an igloo is probably more comfortable.

In European markets, starting in 2008 the Wagon R was rebadged as the Opel Agila: still tall but, in 2012, less boxy, following the rest of the Opel line. Pity: I always thought its boxiness is part of its wayward charm, besides making it easier to stow larger items.

In India it is sold as the Maruti Suzuki Wagon R since 1999. Slightly longer than the Japanese version, and running a 1.0L engine, it has been one of their best sellers. Starts at Rs. 354762 ($ 7,200).

For the Japanese market, Suzuki got Leonardo DiCaprio to learn (mangle, really) some Japanese for a series of TV spots for the Wagon R; you can check them out in sequence here (YouTube). They all have a slightly surreal feel to them, including the funny moment that shows DiCaprio rattling the shift stick - which is in his left hand.


Suzuki Wagon R

Type WFXE-C2
Year 2012
Emissions rating
MSRP ¥ 1,197,000
$ 15,250
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted NA
Avg. quoted 55mpg (JC08)
Avg. actual 40-45 mpg est.

0.7L 3-cyl DOCH

Power 53HP @ 6500rpm
Gears CVT Auto
Fuel Reg Gasoline
Length, mm(in) 3395mm (134in)
Width, mm(in) 1475mm (58in)
Height, mm(in) 1660mm (65in)
Weight, kg(lbs) 840 kg (1852 lbs)
Trunk volume, liters(cuft)  
Turning radius, m(ft)  
Top speed, kph(mph)  



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February 11, 2012

Mitsubishi Colt: Larger outside the US, for a change

It's getting to be a bit boring to keep writing about cars that, when sold in the US, are either physically larger than overseas versions of the same model, or come with larger engines requiring more gas per mile. For relief, here is one that bucks the trend: the Mitsubishi Colt.

When I was a student, I bought a used 1981 Plymouth Champ (also known as the Dodge Colt), which was a rebadged second-generation Mitsubishi Mirage. When you peeked under the hood, there were stickers with Japanese print everywhere. This was the one with a double shift stick, very much like the two gear shifters on a 21-speed bicycle: one covered four speeds, the other could be toggled between "power" and "economy" modes.

It was a lot of fun to drive. At 3.80m (150in) length, it was labeled a "subcompact" car, and I could easily look over its roof, which reached a height of 1.36m (53.5in). It had a 1.4L, 70HP engine that did a respectable (for 1981) 37mpg. Not that I worried about such things: back then gas was just under $1/gallon, and nobody had heard of global climate change.

Fast forward to the summer of 2011, when my dad bought himself a Mitsubishi Colt, in the Netherlands. This was a seventh-generation Colt, and completely re-designed. Since 2002 you could call the Mitsubishi Colt a mini-MPV on the small end of the range. It is a touch longer than my 1981 Champ: 3.885m (153in), but quite a bit taller at 1.55m (61in). The 1.3L ClearTec engine does a real-life 43mpg.

At age 84, my dad appreciates the higher seating in the new Colt, which means that he doesn't have to hoist himself out of the car after parking it. Nor does he have to climb to get in. He had to wait two months for this car, since he wanted automatic transmission (still non-standard in Europe; no pun intended). That also meant that he got the exact trim he wanted: the car was built to his specifications in the NedCar factory in the south of the Netherlands, a state-of-the-art facility that currently faces an uncertain future.

We went on a tour inside NedCar last summer: it was an impressive place. I had never been inside a car factory, and had no idea that "the assembly line" hasn't looked like Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times for decades. No two adjacent cars on that line were the same colour. Parts were transported in by an immense computer-controlled conveyor system, as required by each individual car's spec sheet. In fact, many of those cars were built to the customer's spec. Every fifth or sixth car got its steering wheel installed on the right-hand side: those were the ones destined for the UK market. It looked like a lot of fun to work there.

One of the features that won over my dad was the threshold-less cargo space in the back: this makes it easy for him to put in his rolling walking aid, and to retrieve it without having to lift it. Neither the Honda Jazz nor the VW Polo, which were on his short list (the same length but less height than the Colt) have that feature.

The other feature that appealed to my dad was, irrationally, the Colt's name. My dad knows the Mitsubishi Colt as the workhorse of Indonesia. Never mind that those run on a completely different Mitsubishi engine. Even the rebadged versions, made locally, still ran on that Colt engine, which has a reputation of never giving up. It is used for the microbuses used in semi-public transport all over Indonesia, and in pickup trucks cheerfully tooling along, with their loads of vegetables and chickens, or soil, or bales of textiles, or an impossible number of people, persisting under the most demanding circumstances: dusty roads, unpaved roads, overloads, unforgiving tropical climate. These vehicles are lovingly patched, repaired, re-painted, re-conditioned, whatever it takes to keep them going. And they are quite a bit larger than my dad's new car, although at 4.32m (170in) length (for the microbus) still small when compared to minivans or pickup trucks sold in the US.

In the consumer car category, the next-generation Mitsubishi Colt has been unveiled at this year's Tokyo Motor Show. It looks like a tiny version of a crossover SUV, measuring just 3.71m (146in) long,1.665m (66in) wide and 1.49m (59in) high. Its 3-cylinder, 1.0L engine with Auto-Stop&Go is said to get 3.3L/100km, or 71mpg. One should take that fuel economy number with a grain of salt, but probably 55-60mpg is a reasonable estimate of the real-life fuel efficiency, which means that the per-mile CO2 emissions of this car could be within 25% of that of the electric Mitsubishi i-MIEV when the latter is driven by the average US owner.

I can't wait to meet this new car. I could look over its roof, just like with that Plymouth Champ from my student days. And, like that car, apparently the new "global compact" is to be called the Mitsubishi Mirage.

What goes around comes around.

February 8, 2012

Review: Kia Optima / K5 — Sweet dreams are made of this

Travel the world and the seven seas to discover: a few versions of the Kia Optima with significantly higher fuel effiiency. The stuff really sweet dreams are made of!

The most sighed-over car commercial shown at the 2012 Superbowl must have been the Kia Optima ad, ninety seconds of pure male fantasy featuring the very lovely Adriana Lima. In case you haven't tired of it, here it is again:

"A dream car. For real life."

Now here's the thing: Kia has made the exterior of this car the same in their markets all over the world, but what's under the hood is a different story. In the US, the 2012 Kia Optima comes with either a 2.4L gasoline injection engine, or a 2.0L gasoline turbo putting out 274 HP, as over the top as the new ad. Fuel economy: 22 / 34 mpg (cty/hwy).

In the UK, you can't get anything that gas-guzzly: there, they have phased out the 2.0L engine for what used to be called the Magentis, and now your only option for the Optima is a 1.7L diesel injection engine. This still puts out a respectable 134 HP and gets an advertised 48 mpg, so in the real world I estimate you can do around 44 mpg (this car is too recent an introduction for much real-life data to be available).

The marketing is equally understated. Check out this commercial made for the UK, what the Brits would call a "TV advert": it is truly a study in understatement, hilarious (in a quiet kind of way) - and a tad different from the US TV ad.

"Park the clichés: drive the new Kia Optima"

In Asia, Kia calls this car the K5. In the South Korean home market, it is available with a 2.0L CVVL engine (35mpg) and a 2.0L LPI engine (26mpg) which I take to run on LPG (but I couldn't work myself through the Korean enough to be sure about that). There is also, since 2011, a hybrid version that sports an official 49 mpg (should be close to 45 mpg in real life).

Now that's something I call worth dreaming about. How much longer before that dream comes true in the US?

Here is the Asian commercial, reflecting the global aspirations of this Korean car manufacturer (despite the wonky English), and dreamy in a different way:

"To the world best: K5"

Actually, this car is not CelloMom's cup of tea. It's too large for me; besides, I just don't get the aesthetic that would marry the words "attractive" and "aggressive" into an oxymoronic "attractively aggressive".

But at a time when many cars are downgraded to a 3-year limited warranty, the Kia Optima is one of those cars that still comes with an old-fashioned 10-year, 100,000 mile warranty in the US, and (bafflingly) a 7-year, 100,000 mile warranty for the UK. You wonder if that means that they use better parts for Optimas sold in the US, where the highly variable climate is much harsher on cars and all their parts.


UPDATE 11DEC2012: The dream has come true! For 2013 Kia is offering the Optima Hybrid in the US, with EPA fuel efficiency 34 / 39 mpg (cty/hwy), lower than my estimate, above. Reviewed by Nicole at MamaNYC.


Kia Optima / K5 Hybrid


Optima (US) Optima (UK) K5 (S. Korea)
Type EX Turbo 1-Luxe Hybrid
Year 2012 2012 2012
Emissions rating EURO 5  
MSRP $ 25,100 £ 19.595
($ 31,150)
₩ 31,080,000
($ 27,800)
CelloMom Rating      
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 22 / 34 mpg 41 / 53 mpg  
Avg. quoted   48 mpg 21km/L (49mpg)
Avg. actual 27 mpg 44 mpg est. 45 mpg est.

2.0L GDI Turbo

1.7L CRDi 2.0L HEV
Power 274 hp @ 6000rpm 134 hp @ 4000rpm 149 hp &
30 kW
Gears 6-spd Auto 6-spd manual Auto
Fuel Regular unleaded Diesel Gasoline
Length, mm(in) 190.7in 4845 mm  
Width, mm(in) 72.05in 1830 mm  
Height, mm(in) 57.28in 1455 mm  
Weight, kg(lbs) 3385 lbs 1559 kg  
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) 15.42 cuft 505 L  
Turning radius, m(ft) 35.76 ft c-c 10.9m c-c  
Top speed, kph(mph)      



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February 3, 2012

An offering of good news

Are you ready for some good news? I sure am!
I'm still reeling from last week's post, and I'm the author. The idea that cars are toxin boxes is not good news. In fact, it's horrifying, and while I'm digesting that I need some rays of light.

Photo Stéphanie de Nadaï

Here's a quasi-random smattering of good news:

Personal care products
The Environmental Working Group offers the Skin Deep database of cosmetics and other personal care products from shampoos to toothpaste, each with a safety rating. It's a fantastic resource, and one that I am using a lot as I'm cleaning up my act around the bathroom.

I've had a few jolts ("Ack! that was in my lipstick?") but I keep saying it's better to know so you can do something about it.

For inspiration, watch the Story of Cosmetics by the irrepressible Annie Leonard. Great for sharing with the teenager in your life who so wants to slather her face with parabens.

Plastic bag bans
An increasing number of localities are banning plastic shopping bags, and you can track the progress on a map offered by the Plastic Pollution Coalition. It's a repurposed Google world map with pop-up information balloons telling you about the status of plastic bag bans, BPA bans and bottle recycling at that location.

The good news is that the map is filling steadily. My favourite pop-up reports a bag ban in Oman, and states simply: "In 2009, the Sultan of Oman banned thin plastic shopping bags." Wow. I wish my state had a benign dictator, who made it her first priority to clean up the place.

Creative solutions
Back in 1997, the UK-based Waitrose grocery stores started to offer "bags for life". These are still made of plastic, but of the very sturdy kind. You buy one and use it for years to haul your food (and a host of other things). If it wears out, Waitrose will give you a replacement. This puts the onus on Waitrose to provide you with a durable bag that will last a long, long time. Returned bags are recycled.

Grocery stores in the Netherlands haven't given out plastic shopping bags since the 1970s. Most grocery stores put a stack of empty boxes in a large bin just past the cash registers, handy for those times that you buy more than will fit into your own canvas bags. The Dutch retailers (nobody more frugal!) end up saving the cost of giving away all those plastic bags, and saving on the disposal of some cardboard packaging as well.

Cradle to Cradle solutions
MBDC, founded by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, PhD, offers a certification program that evaluates products for human health, environmental health, and recyclability. They also offer advice on how to build in a closed-loop life cycle for products, right at the design stage.

My personal piece of good news is that the Forbo linoleum flooring we installed in part of the house received the silver level Cradle to Cradle certification from MBDC. Great to find out, even after the fact. We had a ball installing that Marmoleum Click: it invites playing with colour and patterns, like building a wall-to-wall quilt.

Bikes rule!
Our local health food store will give you $1 off your groceries if you arrive by bike.

Finally, while this is not exactly news, I would like to spread the idea that this is possible: the photo to the right is the commuter lot at a Dutch train station. That's it: this is THE commuter lot; well, one of three, but all are for bikes only: there is no parking for cars, just a few kiss-and-ride spots. They are reconfiguring this particular station, and the new commuter lot sports two-level bicycle stands which can house an even larger number of bikes. Go leg power!