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My Family’s Search for "Greener" Wheels

Published Dec 8th 2006, 12:55am by Jody DeVere in Featured Articles

Dontbefueled Reprinted from
In recent years, my family’s commitment to caring for the environment in everyday life has seemed increasingly at odds with its personal transportation needs. There are a lot of us — two adults, four kids, and, until recently, four dogs (now, sadly, only three). Our five-year-old daughter is handicapped and often travels with all kinds of equipment — wheelchairs, walkers, and such. And all the kids keep growing — and growing!

Many outings include an extra adult or an extra kid or two. So, we wondered, can we do this with a station wagon? A minivan? Or do we really need a Chevy Suburban? How about a Ford Excursion, which makes a Suburban look petite? Or maybe we should just find a nice bus!

By applying this kind of thinking, we ended up a few years back with a Suburban that seats eight plus plenty of cargo room and a Lincoln Town Car, a cushy sedan that comfortably seated six. Because different federal rules about gas mileage, safety, and emissions divide cars from trucks (including SUVs and minivans), a large car, generally speaking, puts out less pollution and gets better gas mileage than a small truck. The gas mileage on the sedan was comparable to a minivan (17/25) and the gas mileage on the Suburban . . . well, it stinks.

Chevysuburban The US Department of Energy rates the Suburban and its kin "worst" for greenhouse gas emissions. Our vehicles were straining our environmental values. I was thrilled when the first hybrid gasoline-electric cars appeared on the market two years ago. Honda brought out the Insight two-seater, and Toyota brought out the compact 5-passenger Prius. (This year, Honda added a hybrid Civic.) Hybrid cars use a computer-managed dual system in which a small, efficient gasoline engine feeds power to a large battery which helps power the car. It does not need to be plugged in like an all-electric car. The gasoline engine never burns fuel when the car is coasting downhill or is stopped — the battery kicks in to keep the system running.

Still stuck in the mindset that my family could only own huge vehicles capable of transporting all of us, I eagerly anticipated an announcement from any vehicle manufacturer that a large hybrid-electric family vehicle was on the way. I waited and waited, but no such announcement came. In the meantime, I started to look more closely at my family’s driving patterns. I came to realize that the vast majority of our car trips were either solo, Bill and I together, or transporting just one or two kids. The light dawned: maybe we didn’t really need a car that could transport all of us all the time! Tired of waiting, we took the plunge last year and bought a Prius. We sold our Town Car and never looked back.

Toyotaprius By using the Prius whenever we can, we leave the Suburban parked 95% of the time. Some weeks, the Suburban gets started up only on street cleaning days to move across the street. Since the Prius’s average fuel economy is in the low 40’s, we’ve cut our family’s fuel consumption by nearly half. And we’ve found the Prius surprisingly roomy and comfortable. The kids prefer it, and it drives just like a "normal car". The twelve bags of groceries I typically haul home from Trader Joe’s fit into the trunk easily, as do three sets of golf clubs or the equipment for an entire Little League Team.

As a "SULEV" — Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle — the Prius emits 90%less pollution than the average 2002 car, and since the gasoline engine shuts down when the car is stopped, it’s an especially nice car to use when picking up and dropping off kids at the MCDS carpool because it keeps the air clean.

On those rare occasions when we all go out together with dogs and/or luggage, the Suburban is indispensable, but we don’t plan to replace it until that super-efficient family vehicle I hoped for actually comes along. In the meantime, we’ve been pleased to discover that the sacrifice we thought we were making to help the environment doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice at all.

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