It’s not what you think, and pandas are involved.
It’s easy to make a claim for fuel efficiency. A small engine, some battery packs, regenerative braking, low-rolling resistance tires and high-efficiency electric motors and your ads can say your Chevy Volt is EPA rated at 98eMPG.
There is a whole lot of controversy and disagreement about exactly how the eMPG standard should be calculated and I care so little about it that I dozed off briefly between typing “e” and “M.” Because there’s one very important factor usually overlooked when talking about hybrid cars: Every time someone buys one, a baby panda dies.
If you want to be green, then your job is to not just to minimize your carbon footprint, but your overall carbon debt. Carbon debt represents the complete energy expenditure involved in getting a car into your hands, and it’s not easy to figure out, but basically you want a car built not just efficiently, but as close to you as possible, to minimize the transportation costs.
Obviously, a Chattanooga-built VW sounds ideal, but as none of those are more than three years old, they’re eliminated from contention for reasons we’ll discuss later.
Since that doesn’t work, an American-built hybrid would seem like the logical alternative. High-MPG cars can make claims of greenness because as you drive around burning gas, you’re adding to your total carbon debt, thus making it harder to pay off.
Poor mileage is like a high interest rate on a credit card; and using less gas is a low rate, so you can make that payoff faster. That assumes, however, that each gallon of gas is equal in each car, which is where the electric car falls down hard, because a big chunk of the gas they use comes from China.
To build an electric battery capable of moving a 3,000 pound car for a couple hundred miles, you need rare earth elements, and China takes somewhere north of 90 percent of the world’s supply out of the ground.
Not to offend any readers with a stake in a Chinese mining concern, but they’re not exactly famous for doing it cleanly (Beijing Olympics, anyone?).
The “rare” part of “rare earth” makes it very, very hard to do this cleanly to begin with, as these metals occur in minute quantities, which requires moving vast quantities of dirt. To move all that dirt, there’s really no substitute for enslaving pandas and teaching them to sniff out scandium, yttrium and lanthanides.
Unfortunately, their little paws soon become raw, and the average mining panda dies of blood poisoning within the first eight months on the job, after which they’re harvested for their pelts.
All of this creates an carbon debt associated with making high-tech batteries and despite a worldwide forced panda breeding initiative, it’s unsustainable. On top of all that, those battery packs only last 10 years or so, so unless you hook your fancy hybrid to a horse and never actually turn it on, you’re trapped in carbon debt you can never repay.
But what if you could find a car that came with zero carbon debt? You’d be starting with a clean credit record and no outstanding balance, so what you did from there would be entirely your responsibility.
This car would have to meet all the criteria—low initial impact; low secondary impact (cargo freighters contribute like 20 percent of total worldwide airborne particulates); and low user impact—high mileage and low maintenance. This car is a 1991 Toyota Corolla.
Built at the old California NUMMI plant, any carbon debt the Corolla accrued was paid decades ago. A 110hp 1.6 liter gem of an engine runs for 250,000 miles before it even starts thinking about getting old, while giving 26MPG city on low octane gas.
They handle beautifully, age well and never break down. You could also buy a Marysville, Ohio-built Honda Civic or Accord from the same era and get more or less the same experience, but you get the idea. OK, or a Westmoreland-built Rabbit.
The point is, no new car can ever be as environmentally friendly as a really, really old one, especially if it’s remotely fuel-efficient and built in America. Heck, a ’60s Ford Falcon with the 200-cu.in. six is a fantastic car, and a low-mileage cherry of any one of these won’t cost you more than $7,500. You’re not going to be getting into a 2015 TDI Golf for that.
So the next time you see someone drive by in a Prius, just come right up behind them in your 19-year-old Ford Contour, put on your smuggest expression, and pass them in a big cloud of smoke. After all, you’ve earned it.
No pandas were harmed in the writing of this column.
We do have standards, you know.