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Driving green saves money, environment not so much

Yours truly cautious, not cultish, in winning the green jersey during eco challenge in B.C.

Published May 16, 2014

VANCOUVER B.C.—You can take eco driving two ways: ecology or economy.

I’m here to debunk the first of those.

According to Environment Canada, the contribution to greenhouse gases attributable to passenger cars and light trucks is 12 per cent.

So if our cars were all powered by nothing but the sheer force of human will, 88 per cent of the problem would still be here.

The rest is industrial processes, agriculture, home heating, heavy transportation, aircraft, a many other things.

So, if whatever we accomplish at Eco Run reduces fossil fuel by, say 20 per cent, that’s 20 per cent of 12 percent. Or 2.4 per cent.

Has any industry taken more blame for a problem, when it has been less responsible for that problem?

However, if you look at it from the perspective of economy, well, 20 per cent off your fuel bill is worth thinking about.

Each vehicle in our Eco Run fleet was equipped with a data-gathering device deigned and installed by Cross Chasm of Waterloo. It not only measured fuel consumption, but also driver behaviour — how hard you hit the accelerator and brake, average speed, etc.

Using an algorithm they kept secret, it would calculate how efficiently each driver drove.

Actual fuel used was not part of this calculation, because that would depend on whether you were in the Nissan Leaf using no fuel or the Ram pickup, which, despite a very efficient diesel engine is still a 5,000-pound truck.

The leader after each leg wore a metaphorical Green Jersey; the overall winner at the end of the event got a real one. That overall winner was me.

Apparently I got off to a good start in my first mount (see below) and managed a perfect 100-per-cent score on four of the six stages.

At the start of each leg, names were drawn at random and assigned to various cars. You couldn’t drive the same vehicle twice. Here are the vehicles I drove:

Mercedes-Benz E 250 4Matic BlueTEC sedan: Mercedes pretty much pioneered diesel power in passenger cars, and it shows. This thing is just lovely. Quieter than you would believe for a diesel. Big, roomy and comfortable.

Cadillac ELR: Who says electric cars have to look and drive like golf carts? This was, to my eyes, the best-looking car in the fleet by a light-year, and very nice to drive, too — even on the slalom course, where the torque of the electric motor caused all sorts of satisfying tire squealing.

One nice addition is a steering wheel paddle that increases electrical braking, so you can bring the car to a near-stop without using the wheel brakes at all.

In this 60-km leg, mostly downhill, the gasoline engine fired up only for a few seconds. The rest of the time, it ran on battery power, having started with about a 75-per-cent charge from the overnight plug-in.

Lincoln MKZ Hybrid: Any car with Ford’s SYNC system is going to have to accept that I’m going to scream and swear at it for most of the drive.

Otherwise, the car is pleasant enough to drive, although when the gasoline engine cuts in, the raucous noise is a sharp reminder of how quiet the car was just a few seconds ago.

MINI Cooper: Fun little car to drive.

The turbocharged three-cylinder engine sounds coarse and rough on a cold start, but most of that goes away once the car is warmed up.

This was the first time I had driven this engine with an automatic transmission. In the interests of discovery, I slipped it into Neutral on one downhill run. The instantaneous fuel economy reading was 99.9 mpg which is, in effect, zero fuel consumption.

While in Manual mode and in sixth (top) gear, I got the same reading, so from a fuel-saving perspective, there is no advantage to using Neutral. You do get some engine braking in M6, and it’s better driving practice to stay in a gear in case you need to accelerate in a hurry.

Ram 1500 EcoDiesel pickup: After lunch on Day Two in Pemberton, we had a few hours to kill.

I had been told the drive up to Lilloet was spectacular, and although a pickup wouldn’t be my choice for a drive like this, that’s the vehicle I drew.

The Ram rides and handles remarkably well for such a big, heavy vehicle; the coil-spring rear axle really seems to help.

The diesel engine provides lots of low-end torque, where it is valuable to anyone, but particularly truck owners.

Honda Accord Hybrid: Conceptually, the Accord Hybrid is more akin to the Cadillac ELR than to previous Honda hybrids like Insight or Civic.

It is an electric car, powered almost entirely by its motor. The gasoline engine is there only to drive a generator, which re-charges the battery. There is a mode where the gas engine drives the front wheels, but it only occurs under certain and rare circumstances.

This is all transparent to the driver. Shove it in Drive; right pedal to go, left pedal to stop.

If you want to maximize electric braking force in hilly conditions, just pull the shift lever back into B Mode; it’s sort of like the Cadillac ELR’s brake paddle.

Once you shut off all the annoying beeps and buzzes from the blind spot and lane-change warning systems, it’s a very pleasant car to drive — spacious and comfortable.

Transportation for freelance writer Jim Kenzie was provided by the manufacturer. Email: wheels@thestar.ca.

The Toronto Star for Wheels.ca

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