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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

January 23, 1998

It used to be that green was a new car or truck's color, but the word now symbolizes a vehicle that has little or no pollution and makes maximum use of the energy it consumes. "Green" now equates to clean. All the major and minor members of the vehicle producing community are involved, from the Big Three's Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNVG) in which Ford, GM and Chrysler share high-mileage technology, down to the electric bicycle that former auto-icon Lee Iacocca is developing. Over the months, we've compiled a file on "green machines" and these are the ones that are most note-worthy:

FORD RANGER ELECTRIC PICKUP - As part of a complex deal with the State of California, Ford has gotten into the electric vehicle business with a modified Ranger pickup truck. The agreement is that if Ford will produce 300 electric vehicles, it will not be required to match two percent of its total vehicle sales with zero-emissions machines as the state wanted it to do by 2000. The standard-cab electric Ranger packs its 39 sealed batteries under the bed and is programed to go around 60 miles on a charge. If the truck is used hard or in hilly areas, the miles between charges drops dramatically but downhill runs recover a bit of the lost charge by turning the electric motor into a generator. It requires three to four hours to recharge its batteries if they are fully discharged, but it takes a 220-volt, 30-amp charger to do the job so don't try to use your breadbox-sized trickle charger. All 300 electric Rangers are finished in IP (Industrial Plain) trim (rubber mats, hand-crank windows, etc.) and retail for around $33,000, the price of two or three gas-powered jobs.

TOYOTA PRIUS - Although it won't be available in the U.S. in the near future, the Japan-only Toyota Prius sedan is scheduled for a production run of 1000 units in 1998. It's a hybrid, rather than a pure electric, and uses a four-cylinder, 1.5 liter internal combustion engine, a large generator, a power splitting transmission unit and an electric motor. The gasoline engine is specially designed for lightness (it only has to turn 4000 RPM) and is virtually pollution free. Under light load or stop-and-go traffic, only the electric motor is in operation. On the highway, part of the engine's power drives the wheels and part runs the generator, which charges the large battery pack as well as operating the electric motor. The two power units work together during this phase but during deceleration, the electric motor becomes a second generator that puts a little extra recharge into the special nickel-metal hydride batteries. This complex combination of high-tech devices is computer-controlled to shift the power requirements between the various parts of the system. In addition, the internal combustion engine can be altered to run on either of the common alcohols or a gaseous fuel. It's not cheap at $42,000, but Toyota is said to consider it an investment in the future. It's publicity value is pretty high, too.

GM DIESEL-ELECTRIC HYBRIDS - With its all-electric EV1 electric coupe stalled in the showroom (customers aren't lining up at the front door), General Motors is currently showing its latest hybrid "concept" Greenmobile. Visually, it resembles a stretched EV1 coupe but underneath it's a whole different vehicle. It uses an Isuzu-built 1.3 liter turbocharged direct-injection diesel engine that drives the rear wheels, while an electric motor drives the front wheels. On deceleration, the system can partially recharge the battery pack and the diesel engine or the electric motor can be used independently. The system overcomes the low-range curse of the EV1 and the diesel/electric goes over 500 miles on whatever it uses for fuel. GM is also experimenting with the EV1 coupe and hybridizing it with a fuel cell (converts methanol to hydrogen then directly into electricity) which pumps up the range to 80 MPG. Its performance isn't bad either, with a 0-to-60 time of nine seconds. Another EV1 has been converted with a three-cylinder 1.0 liter engine (maybe a Chevy Metro engine?) that runs on CNG (compressed natural gas) to get 60 MPH and 400 miles between refills.

HONDA J-VX - Honda is canny enough to realize that the best way to catch the attention of the press with a new engineering concept is to wrap it in an attract "sporty" body. It did just that at the recent Tokyo auto show when it introduced its J-VX two-seater sports coupe. Several buff magazines voted it "Star of the Show" in spite of the fact that it's environmentally and politically correct. The company states that the car is an ..."environmentally responsible sports car that doesn't abandon the idea of spirited driving." The nuts-and-bolts of the J-VX is its Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system; a 1.0 liter, front-mounted, three cylinder engine that uses Honda's famous VTEC variable cam-timing system and direct fuel injection. The system uses the gas engine to power a state-of-the-art slender electric motor-cum-generator which in turn drives the front wheels. On deceleration, the system converts forward motion into electricity and stores it in a half-dozen space age capacitors. Old-time auto shop students can equate to the concept of a capacitor when they remember carefully charging an ignition condenser (actually a capacitor) in the shop class and putting it on the chair of their English teacher before the next period. The Honda IMA uses this principal - but in spades.

As things are going, the new cars that our kids will be buying in the future will all be "green" - regardless of what color they're painted.