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A green car showroom

Buying a less polluting car no longer means choosing between subcompacts or hybrids, but NEVs, microcars, PEVs and superminis as well. We check out a dealership to meet these options.

Seattle, Washington’s Green Car Company had Smart cars three years before their official 2008 release in the United States. They also have three-wheeled options, electric motorcycles and Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEV).

Or if you’re looking to convert your rig to biodiesel or to a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), they have a green car clinic. Green car saleman Bryce Lathrop took us for a spin in some of their coolest rides and explained the Green Car score, a “greener” SUV and why Americans are getting a supersized Smart.

farcompanies: This is a fairly unique concept, how did the Green Car Company get started?

Bryce Lathrop: We started out about 11 years ago as a Volvo repair facility and we started getting famous by doing these diesel conversions; importing the diesel engines, then running these 240 station wagons and doing bio-diesel rigs; and then that moved into doing Volkswagen Vanagons and converting them into diesels.

“Back in February of ’05 we started importing these Smart Cars made by Mercedes. They’re high mileage. We bring in the 4.2 [4.2 liters/100 km= 56 mpg]. They come in the convertible, the coupe, the coupe with the sunroof. And we get them pretty loaded up with the options Americans like with the power windows, door locks, air bags, AM FM stereo and CD. This is what made us famous and since then we have been trying to find and resell Volkswagen TDIs. That’s what we use to pay the bills and get things more green.”

“Americans don’t like to give up lifestyle choices so the bio-diesel Volkswagens allow them to do highway speeds, have air-conditioning, cruise control and still lower their environmental impact by burning the bio-fuel. There’re not many passenger cars in the U.S. with diesels in them that are capable of doing the bio-diesel. Volkswagen has done it in the TDIs and there’s the Beetle, Golf, Jetta and the Passat in this market. Fuel mileage is about the same. They’ll get up to about 50; some people claim 54-55 miles to the gallon running bio-fuel.”

Tell us about the Green Car Score.

One of our principles and joys is when a municipality, a port or a city wants to lower their emissions. We can do a fleet analysis and we can put in what they’re currently driving and the economic and environmental impact as a result of driving that rig and how they’re using it.

(He points to chart on wall). “And we take this data and translate it for consumers so we can show and rate a car based on its greenness and we start out with a hundred and then start taking points away depending on how it’s made, how it’s driven, and the impact of getting rid of it at the end of its life cycle.”

What gets the best score up here?

The electrics. (Points to the Zap Zebra Electric) This one here has a green car score of 80 out of 100 points. It’s a running around town car. It can be modified to get up to 50, 55 miles an hour, but right out of the gate it gets to 40 miles an hour with a 25 mile range. With upgraded batteries it can get up to 40 miles a trip so it covers 90% of the normal person’s commute here in Seattle, no oil changes and no gas.

What are some of the bigger cars you sell?

This is one of the only sport utilities in the United States running on diesel. This is the product of the marriage between Chrysler and Mercedes Benz and it comes with a diesel Mercedes motor in it that’s all ready to go with bio-diesel. They get about 30 miles to the gallon and someone that would buy this would need to tow a boat or have some other use than commuting.

“Thirty miles to the gallon in a cargo van is unheard of in the United States so we sell a lot of those with the bio-diesel. People like Nike just bought 8 of them from us, along with a couple of Smarts, to show their greenness or their efforts to become more green by replacing Ford Econoline gas-powered vans.” (As seen in our faircompanies video A greener SUV.)

Can you show me a few cars you’re particularly excited about?

There’s a new classification for a car called a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) and they’re cheap. For a street legal electric car they start out at 10 grand. The most expensive thing we sell like this is 15 thousand.

Bryce goes for a ride in the Kurrent from American Electric Vehicles. Range: 45-50 miles; Recharge time: 8 hours; Top speed: 35mph

Bryce points at a three-wheeled Personal Electric Vehicle (PEV).

“There’s a fun one. It’s a single seater car, but it does almost 80 mph down the freeway. And it’s classified as a motorcycle so it gets you in the HOV lane. Even if you’re not green you could get one of these three-wheeled electric rigs and it gets you out of the rain with a heater and a radio and to the front of the line on the ferry.”

Bryce goes for a ride in a Myers Motors NmG. Range: 30 miles; Recharge: 45 minutes for 80%, 4 hours for 100%.; Maximum speed: 75 mph.

“This is actually made in the United States. It’s a Myers NmG. It started it’s life as a Corbin Sparrow and these are about 25,500 dollars. Not cheap. It’s fun to drive.”

Bryce takes the Vectrix Maxi-Scooter for a spin. Range: 68 miles; Top speed: 62 mph; Acceleration: 0-50 in 6.8 seconds; Recharge: 80% in less than 2 hrs.

“These electric manufacturers are getting more and more worried about what they look like. This is Italian design. People will come up on it and think it’s a new Honda, a new BMW, not even realize it’s all electric.

This is the first mass produced all electric highway legal motorcycle in the United States. This is about 12 thousand bucks. This is freeway speeds. Just shy of 70 mph and can do so for up to 40 miles.”

Who are your customers?

I think our customers are the same person that shops at Whole Foods or buys their produce at The Farmer’s Market. They’re already actively trying to recycle, reduce and reuse- and the car’s the last most affordable thing they can change.

“There’s a very small segment of society that’s going to spend money for nothing more than to be green. They’re looking for some fun or they’re trying to save some money in fuel on top of being green. About a third of our customers come in and say, ‘Hey, I want to be green. I want to give up how I’m living now and I want to lessen my impact that I’m making.’ Those people are rare. There are more of them, I think, here in Seattle than any other place on the planet.”

“There’s no point in just thinking of green if it doesn’t fit what you’re using it for and that’s the big breakdown, I think, when people are out buying green. Part of the fun for me is making sure that they have other reasons for buying the car than being green. It actually fills a hole. So if they’re on the ferry and they’re spending an hour a day waiting in ferry line when they can get right to the front it’s more family time –less headache- and it saves them a couple hundred a month just in ferry fare and they’re saving the planet, but that’s secondary.”

We hop into a European Smart Car and go for a drive.

“You can see when we’re driving down the road you can almost fit two of them side by side in a single lane.”

“These Smarts. All the soft products in the car: the upholstery, the foam in the seats, the wrap on the steering wheel, are all recyclable. The plant where they’re made is the greenest automotive plant in the world. Even the tires on the car are eco-friendly. They lower your CO2 emissions. Continental makes them specifically for the smart car.”

So you look at more than fuel efficiency when you talk about green cars?

When you are looking at green cars you can’t just look at mileage. You’ve got to look at the environmental impact of making it, the environmental impact of keeping it maintained and the environmental impact of getting rid of it when it’s dead.

“Some cars, the driving it, the fuel mileage, is the least of the worries. Like these hybrids. A lot of the people are buying like Toyota Highlanders, the sport utility. There’s a carbon footprint in making it.

There’s a carbon footprint of bringing it over. There’s a carbon footprint in distributing that car. There’s very little mileage difference [22 mpg for Highlander Hybrid vs 19 mpg for conventional Highlander]. It’s all performance oriented.”

“When you go to buy a hybrid Highlander it’s more fun to drive it than it is to drive a non-hybrid Highlander. So they buy it for performance issues and then they get the tax benefit for being green. And they think they’re buying it green because it’s marketed that way, but they’ve got a limited life on the battery. There’s a conversion process. What do you do with those batteries when you’re done with them?”

“Why they don’t hurry up and get us a plug in hybrid where you can control how you’re charging that thing up. We make quite a bit of money taking Priuses and doing the plug in conversion on them. It’s not cheap and you have to have some other motivation in doing it besides being green. But it enables you to plug your car in and then drive it all electric for short distances; or if you drove it like a normal hybrid it would translate into 150, 200 miles to the gallon.”

“Around here we can spend 12 dollars more a month and make sure that our power that we’re using to charge our electric rigs or our plug in hybrids are coming from solar or wind. And then you can’t get much more green than that.”

We pull into the Green Car Clinic (in our video of A cleaner body shop).

What makes this auto shop green?

Everything from the clean-up, how we get rid of old grease and oil, to spending extra money on solvents that are non-toxic is what also makes this facility, which looks like any other facility, green. Also, this is where we do all of our bio-diesel conversions; taking out the gas motors and putting in a diesel.

“We can take a diesel and we can do these veggie oil conversions on them. We have our own system and then we also use one called Grease Car that’s back east. We can take any diesel and put in an adaptor kit so they can run straight vegetable oil.

Like there’s a Blazer customer here we put an additional fuel tank in the back and it starts and stops on regular diesel, but once it reaches temperature it runs straight on vegetable oil. People can go salvage off of the restaurants.”

“One of the things too we get a lot of grief on because we’re getting more and more popular — these people will come in with their gas powered car to replace. A lot of people think we should crush them. But there’s no way to make a business model like that so we have to wholesale all of our gas trades.

We actually don’t get rid of our cars, but we get a lot of grief for trying to get rid of them- reselling them- which is kind of fun in that we’re replacing cars, but then what do we do with the ones once they’re done.”

Where does the bio-diesel come from?

We get it from Standard Oil in Marysville who collects used vegetable oil and makes the conversion into bio-diesel. This is becoming more and more popular. In fact, up until last year there were only a couple places where one could buy bio-diesel; now there are, at least, a dozen.

There’s even a website called biodiesel.org and if you are taking a trip you may put in where you are going and it will list all the bio-diesel fueling stations.

“So some of these are customers’ cars and some are cars we’ve taken in on trade for a green car which we get ready to sell to a wholesaler. And the car John’s working on will be a diesel conversion. John does our electric conversions and our diesel conversions.”

“Some conversions don’t make economic sense. Once an assessment is done to figure out if there’s enough of the chassis left to warrant a conversion then we’ll do it.

We try to find wrecked diesel cars so we can get low mileage diesel engines that we can put in the Volkswagen line. These are normally found in a Volkswagen Golf or a Volkswagen Jetta. John will magically make it fit in a rear engine.”

What about cars with conventional diesel engines- we don’t see as many of those in the US as in Europe- why is that?

When Americans talk about a diesel they remember an Oldsmobile Toronado or a Dodge truck that was noisy, stinky, and rattled. They don’t think performance. 90% of Audi’s product comes with a diesel motor, but we don’t get them in the states as it’s a new concept to have a performance car that runs on diesel fuel.

“One of the coolest cars is the 7-seater Renault diesel, 0-60 in 6 seconds. That’s unheard of in The United States. We just don’t have any concept of that happening.”

What about hybrids. You mentioned earlier that you see it as a stopgap technology, why is that?

The hybrid from an efficiency point of view I think is a stopgap. Because if you’re driving a hybrid in all electric mode you’re still lugging around some fuel and an engine. When you’re using the petrol-based propulsion you’re still lugging around a ton of batteries and some electric motors.

And you’re made the car twice as complicated by having two different propulsion systems in it. They have to make it one propulsion system and make it the greenest way possible. And that’s coming.

What do you see in the future for green cars?

There’s a French car that is coming out that runs on compressed air. There has to be a technology, hopefully cheap- hopefully soon, that will be the ultimate green. It you could run a bio-diesel hybrid it would be more green than anything we have now. Mitsubishi just came out with one for buses that is being sold in Japan.

He walks into the auto shop parking lot.

“When you see things like this it gets me excited. (points at several parked cars) A couple of electric rigs, a Mercedes Smart in a parking lot. Next to it is a beat up old Dodge Sprinter with a diesel in it. It looks so normal.”

We get back into the Smart to drive back to the showroom.

This car is definitely smaller than what we’re used to in the US. Do people ask you about safety?

When you try to sell someone a Smart car and they bring up safety you can describe all the safety features like the unique crush zone or the unique safety cage, but you can’t alleviate all their fears about safety.

No matter how safe or small the car we have a concern about the size of the car that might hit us. No matter what you do in engineering and designing a safe car you can’t alleviate the size of the other person’s car or the fear of the other guy’s car hitting you. They might ask “What if a Hummer hits me?”

“In other countries it seems like there’s not the need to show off how much money you have by how big your car is. Most of the cars in other countries are pretty much the same size. Here the sizes and weights are all different. (We pass a large pickup truck on the freeway and Bryce points at it.) Having a crew cab dually Ford driving down the autobahn is less likely in Europe than in the States where people are not as concerned about downsizing their car.”

“A lot of it, too, is economic based when it comes to picking out a car. Here in America it’s a relatively new phenomenon to even be worried about miles per gallon because there’s never been a huge hit on their wallets. And now I’m reading news reports that Wal-Mart is blaming their small increase in sales- 6%- on the cost of gas.”

“The number of phone calls we receive each day can be correlated to the local gas prices. It’s a lot more fun to drive a car that gets 11 miles to the gallon when you’re only paying 2 bucks as opposed to paying 4 bucks when suddenly your priorities shift.”

“Whether the price of gas goes up and stays up or bounces around Americans hate having someone in control of their life. If the price bounces randomly there would be no way for a person to budget and there would be no way they’d let the gas companies interfere with their lives. It’s a lot easier for us to make concessions.”

So we’re driving in a European version of the Smart car, I’ve heard it’s different from the American version.

When we hear the Mercedes is going to mass produce Smart cars in the United States, you become excited and then you wait and wait and then they delay it and finally announce that’s it coming. But the car turns out to be 8 inches longer and nearly a thousand pounds heavier. Instead of a Mercedes high efficiency 3 cylinder turbo we get a Mitsubishi 4 cylinder and they say, ‘That’s because we can sell the car for less than 20 grand.’

“Are they trying to go after the people who are considering a Honda Fit or a Toyota Yaris where 30, 40 miles per gallon seems exciting as apposed to 50, 60 even 80 in their diesel Smart Car? American expectations are not very high so one doesn’t have to try very hard to meet them.”

We pull back into the showroom.

“Just so you know this was on empty when we left and we probably went 8 miles in town; stop, go and freeway. It had 4 liters so we used a half liter of gas. I think that’s less than a quart.”

He smiles.