Wonder why this wonder car exists

This Lexus is a "green" muscle car costing more than $100, 000. Eh?

Published April 29, 2007

MIAMI - If, like me, you are on the look out for a new, fuel efficient car, it was hard not to notice last week's launch of the latest hybrid from Lexus.

In terms of clean energy engineering, the LS 600h L is perhaps the most interesting auto on the market today. It has been called the first "super ultra low" emissions muscle car. Weighing in at nearly 5, 000 pounds it combines a purring V-8 engine and smooth electric motors with emissions scrubbing technology. But its gas mileage is anemic. More on that in a bit.

With a Himalayan price tag of $104, 000, and its unique "self-parking" feature, you might think the 600h L is one of those outlandish so-called "concept" cars that never actually appear in dealerships. Not so. Lexus actually thinks they will sell, though only 2, 000 are being manufactured so far.

The fact that Lexus would build such a green juggernaut speaks volumes about the confused state of environmentalism in the car industry. It also highlights a dilemma across society today as we try and find a balance between ecological and economic well being.

Some might consider it rather self-defeating to design a clever emissions reduction system, but to then fit it to a high-performance engine in a car weighing more than 2.5 tons. But that's not how it looks to Lexus' parent Toyota Motor Corp., which last week announced itself as the world's top car seller.

To understand the conundrum, I need to explain a little more about the car. From an engineering view, the 600h L is really impressive. The first all-wheel drive hybrid sedan on the market, the combination of its 5.0 liter V-8 engine with the electric drive system makes it far more fuel efficient than a comparable non-hybrid. But that's relative, of course: The EPA gives it a rating of 22 miles-per-gallon on the highway, and 20 in the city.

It also has a "fume-scrubbing" technology that absorbs emissions, meaning it's about 70 percent cleaner than its rivals, the company says.

A pale green

Though next to a comparable vehicle it's "greener, " says Mike Millikin, editor of the Green Car Congress, an alternative vehicles Web site, he still ranks it only "a very pale green."

In other words, the 600h L may look good next to its peers, but that does not help reduce carbon emissions or decreased use of gasoline. "It's still a high-power, high-performance car that has a carbon and fuel profile that is not sustainable, " he says.

Millikin, and others, say we shouldn't be too surprised by this kind of modern dilemma. Many areas of the environmental debate encounter the same problem.

For example, some environmentalists don't like the idea of electric cars because they fear it will lead to increased construction of polluting coal-fired power plants to meet the extra demand - what they call the "smokestack factor."

Some environmentalists favor nuclear power, despite its waste disposal problems, over wind energy because they object on aesthetic grounds to green hills dotted with ugly turbines.

Green biodiesel, made from restaurant grease or harvested plant oils, is also considered to be perhaps the cleanest and most efficient biofuel. Yet, in the Amazon and Indonesia, cultivation of soy beans and oil-bearing palms are the most damaging causes of deforestation.

In other words, the drive - no pun intended - for alternative energy frequently encounters what may only be half solutions, at best, and often no solution at all.

Take another look at the 600h L in that context and the car does have one or two redeeming factors. Some of the technology in its design could trickle down into other models, helping improve their efficiency.

Incidentally, the 600h L also has an "advanced pre-collision system" that might have saved me $1, 200 last week when I scraped the side of my car not a hybrid on a road sign. Just imagine, some of that money could have gone on green things like more CFL light bulbs for my house, or even a solar water heater.

Also, to be fair to Toyota, the company recently announced a major increase in production of its successful Prius hybrid sedan, widely considered to be the most efficient alternative fuel vehicle on the road.

The problem in the end isn't so much Toyota, which is also the highest ranked carmaker for average fuel economy across its fleet.

The answer lies more with consumer expectation and federal regulations. While green may be in vogue today, it seems some of us still expect to be able to have it all: Call it green torque.

Take a look at California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Green Muscle himself.

The Guvernator is one of the greenest politicians on the planet. But he likes his Hummer. In fact he has four of them. But he recently converted two of them to biodiesel. (I wonder if he is using processed restaurant grease or imported soy/palm oil?)

I asked his climate change adviser, Terry Tamminen, how Schwarzenegger was able to reconcile his love of green with his taste in personal transport.

It's all about taking steps in the right direction, he told me. "Even if you are burning a biofuel it has emissions, " he said.

The reason car companies are still able to offer us green with all the extra trimmings is largely due to something called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, or CAFE.

Introduced way back in the mid-1970s, this federal regulation was an attempt to try and improve fuel efficiency in the wake of the Arab oil embargo. The CAFE standard refers the fleet-wide average fuel economy that car companies must meet.

Back in the 1970s, the near-term goal was to double new car fuel economy by 1985. That hasn't happened. Fuel efficiency did, in fact, rise significantly in the first few years, from 13 mpg in 1973 to 27.5 mpg by 1990. But then, thanks to cheap oil, we got lazy. In fact, 17 years later we're still stuck at the 1990 level - by we, I mean Congress. Furthermore, the CAFE system also has built into it a system of "credits" whereby car companies can offset their gas guzzlers.

President Bush recently recognized that the CAFE standard needed reform. But is Congress ready to tell consumers that we can't have it all?

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:


2008 Lexus LS 600h L

- 438-horsepower hybrid drivetrain

- All-wheel drive

- 5, 219-pound curb weight

- 0-to-60-mph: 6.0 seconds

- Quarter mile: 14.3 seconds at 101 mph.

- Sticker price: $104, 715

- Number to be built: 2, 000

- Predicted EPA mileage: 20 city, 22 highway

- Tailpipe emissions: Ultralow for its class

Source: Edmunds.com