It’s in the air. You can detect it in the popular press and celebrity media. There’s a sense these days that in the sophisticated places-London, Hollywood, Ann Arbor-you’re not really making the scene if you aren’t green. In Europe, they’ve got the highly conspicuous Smart city car and a host of other micro-machines to prance around in to show that their hearts are in the right place. But here at home, there can be no better way to alert the world to the fact that you’re green like money than with the new Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid. Prius might almost rhyme with pious, but that’s OK, brother, because you’re religious in your zeal to conserve fuel and cut emissions, are you not? Or perhaps Your Righteous Dudeness would prefer to go green more subtly, facing down global warming with the sonorous turbo-diesel sounds of the extraordinarily abstemious Volkswagen Jetta TDI?
Fact is, home could be Graceland, and your other car might be a Hummer, but as far as the beautiful people are concerned, nothing says you’re a dear old friend of Mother Earth more conspicuously than a car that can get 40 to 50 mpg or more. Any additional benefit from its thrift accruing to your selfish cheapskate side is a bonus-as is the underlying quality of these automobiles, which is considerable but more or less on top of the major environmental-status points they will win you. (Contrast this with the embarrassing, golf-cart-like GEM electric cars that some prominent Californians have let themselves be photographed in.)
We know all this, you see, because we got quite green ourselves recently, driving the Prius and the Jetta thousands of miles over the course of four months, commuting into, out of, and all around New York City, as well as on a series of road trips spanning the Middle Atlantic region of the Eastern Seaboard. The vehicles’ mileage varied-and the hoped-for 50 mpg was attained only fleetingly-but social-impact-wise, we felt we stayed right on message, particularly with the Prius.
Let’s face it. The Jetta diesel will never be as clean as a hybrid, because it’s a diesel and because the hybrid spends a good part of its urban-running time in zero-emissions mode, driven by a mighty-mite electric motor fed by a hefty battery pack. That accounts for its stellar 60 mpg EPA city mileage figure, which many purchasers have mistaken for the mileage they might actually get around town, which, in our case, was far lower. Compared with the Prius, the Jetta is somewhat less stingy with a gallon of fuel and emits roughly twenty times more nitrous oxide, almost three times more hydrocarbons, and twice as much carbon monoxide, even though it’s wildly clean by historic diesel standards. It helps to remember that the Prius, optimized to remain electric and hence emissions-free for a good portion of the EPA city-driving cycle, tests as one of the cleanest fossil-fueled cars in history. (Priuses certified for California and four Northeast states are cleaner yet.)The jury is still out on whether the diesel will survive in the U.S. market, though we’re betting that the political muscle of diesel makers and other adherents will extend its life into a distant future. The question may be what form diesels take. There is nothing to suggest that they wouldn’t offer similar benefits were they to be hybridized; indeed, the stated goal of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, the federally underwritten program to build an 80-mpg family car that cost billions and turned up nothing, was to facilitate production of just such a vehicle. The reason? Diesels use less of a more energy-dense fuel and therefore tend to be naturally low in carbon dioxide emissions-the bugaboo of the global warming debate-which is good. Emissions, especially oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter, remain a major concern, however, even if you can’t see diesel soot with the naked eye as well as you used to.
A noose of sorts is already tightening around the diesel engine’s neck. None of them is clean enough to comply with 2004-model-year emissions standards applicable in California and four Northeast states (Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont). Come 2007, similar standards become the law of the land for the remaining forty-five states where you can currently purchase a VW or Mercedes-Benz diesel-powered automobile. The hope is that low-sulfur diesel fuel that’s mandatory beginning in 2006 and advanced emissions control technology-especially particulate traps and urea injection-might save the day. Beyond the added cost of these new emissions controls, there is some concern that cleaner diesels won’t be as fuel-efficient as today’s oil burners.
Still, today’s Jetta makes a fine package. Its engine, 1896 cc of iron- blocked, aluminum-headed modern diesel combustion, exhibits momentary start-up clatter but settles down with each degree of engine temperature until it reaches a pleasant simmer. Performance is blunted by a conventional, Tiptronic five-speed automatic, but its 0-to-60-mph time of 11.7 seconds wouldn’t have seemed slow for any car not too long ago, and, back when, it would have counted as rocket-ship-fast for a diesel.
Once under way, the TDI rolls the Jetta and its occupants down the road in comfort and reasonable silence, its 100 horsepower made infinitely more bearable by 177 pound-feet of torque available at an easily accessed 1800 rpm. Smoke, odor, and related diesel foulness are things of the past. Cruising at 90 mph, if one goes in for such things, is an option for the present. The Americanized Jetta’s handling is not the last word in crisp, but the car is planted, unlike the Prius, which gets blown around in the wind. When full panic braking is called for, the Jetta pulls up in 172 feet from 70 mph, 20 feet less than the Prius, which feels jerky and slightly odd when binders are applied, and narrow-tread tires have their work cut out for them stopping 2960-plus pounds of payload.
Although you wouldn’t want to make much of it, the Jetta is the more sporting drive of this pair. And compared with most, its environmental credentials are pretty good. With both green machines running together in city traffic, we measured 34 mpg in the Jetta and increased that mileage by 9 mpg on the highway, so you’re a much smaller part of the problem than you used to be, even if you’re not the solution. Like the Prius, the diesel Jetta makes you feel virtuous. Personally, I’m fine with its low-key public persona, but it may matter to you that hardly anyone knows you’re giving it up to save the baby seals when you drive by. A handsome but ordinary-looking and much-seen Volkswagen sedan, built in Mexico and now in its last year of production, it doesn’t stand out.
Only one of our test cars looked as if it were sent last week from outer space (actually, it comes from Toyota City, near Nagoya in Japan), and only one can take epochal, brand-making advantage of the general public’s dim-to-nonexistent understanding of hybrid technology. “Where do you plug it in?” is a question you’ll learn to hate as a Prius driver. (Polite answer: “You don’t plug it in. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and regenerative braking system recharge the battery pack.”) Simple and straightforward it might be for you to understand, but for the tedious many, the technological talk is a bridge too far. After repeated explanatory misfires, you want to tell them, in no uncertain terms, where to go plug it in. They don’t understand. But we feel quite certain that the Prius defines the automotive new wave for Americans, nevertheless. “Is it a robot?” someone asked. “That’s the robot, right?’
“Why, yes, it is,” we told them. “Stand back.”
As we drove one of the first new Priuses in New York City, people treated us differently, as if we were the very sunshine supermen who’d invented recycling or solar energy or something worthwhile like that. Although this sensation diminished, the Jesus halo hadn’t worn off by the time we said good-bye to the car, the whole thing of its newfound emotional strength having been put in stark relief a few weeks earlier when we were also driving the equally iconic HUMMER H2 around the city. The Hummer attracted more discourtesy, rudeness, nasty looks, and obscene hand gestures from New York motorists and ped-estrians than we’d ever been witness to, and we hadn’t even told anybody we were getting only 9 mpg. But it was thumbs-up for the hybrid-which scored 52 mpg in our city-driving run-and big smiles in the Big Apple.
OK, you say, so that’s New York, a town of taxi-riding gaylords and pinko swells who wouldn’t know a spark-plug wrench if it hit them in the head. Now, we don’t suppose for a moment a single one of the displays of affection we witnessed came from someone who actually knew what he was talking about. Some of the euphoria surely reflected as well on this particular hybrid’s determinedly wacky demeanor. The Prius is hyper-modern chic viewed from some angles, clown-mobile gawky from others, but a full-time fashion statement above all else.
Like its scuttling-beetle look or not, when you’re driving the new Prius, the ability to generate endless good vibes outside the Starbucks is palpable. Optimal fuel efficiency is achieved with an attitude adjustment. Since the key mileage boosters-regenerative braking and engine shutdown-don’t occur on the highway, stick to urban environments to rack up the most impressive mpg numbers. Caress the throttle just so, and you can maximize the number of blocks covered with pure electric propulsion. Working together, the tag team 76-horsepower gasoline engine and 67-horsepower electric motor will pull the Prius from 0 to 60 mph in 10.7 seconds, not enough to take your breath away but a full second quicker than the Jetta.
Think the hybrid is a fad? Consider that the 2004 Prius, the first of Toyota’s second-generation gas-electric hybrids, is on pace to sell 47,000 units in this, its debut year, almost double what the first-generation Prius, introduced in 2000, managed in its final and bestselling year, 2003. For its part, Volkswagen hopes to sell a total of 34,000 diesels in America this year, across a diesel model range that includes the Golf, the Jetta, the New Beetle, the Passat, and the Touareg. Surely, VW could sell more, but then it would have to charge less (you pay a $1240 premium for the diesel Jetta), and that doesn’t seem to be part of the master plan for VW, which has a long-standing bond with long-suffering American dieselers, dating back to the diesel Rabbits and Dashers of the 1970s and 1980s. Who can forget what fog machines they were?
The modern Toyota hybrid is an amazing technological feat. Lexus and Toyota SUVs are up next and are all but ensured commercial success. There are, to be certain, several drawbacks to the hybrid, chief among them that it uses two separate powerplants, which is duplicative and inelegant to the engineer’s minimalist sensibility, not to mention expensive, complicated, and heavy. Batteries are costly to replace-though they’re warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles-and pose significant, if not insurmountable, environmental issues in their manufacture and end-of-life disposal. On the bright side, with two power contributors, gasoline engines can be smaller and optimized for fuel efficiency instead of power output. Zero emissions are generated in electric mode, and propulsion is near silent. To make it all possible, the Prius must be a wonder of modern electronics, with exotic computer microprocessors harnessed in the name of significant energy savings, such as allowing momentum to be recouped continually in the form of electrical power during coasting and braking, energy that would be lost in nonhybrid vehicles. The Prius’s planetary transmission and electronic controls keep its gasoline engine in the most efficient part of its operating range and permit smooth, stepless cruising and acceleration. Drivability is not an issue.
Which is why it’s time to take a step back. There’s a good reason for the Prius and this being its moment in time. Whether or not Toyota can build hybrids profitably, as Detroit sniffs it can’t (nervously, it seems to us), the Prius is unassailable as a consumer proposition. From a clean-air perspective, it’s the best thing ever, and, unlike hydrogen fuel cells, it’s here right now. Although diesel engines are not without environmental merit, they’re not in the same ballpark. So the scenesters of New York, London, Hollywood, and Ann Arbor have got something right. Hybrids aren’t going away. Something has changed.