Auto Focus

Hybrids: Eco or Ego?

A thorough emissions analysis will answer the question.

May 5, 2011

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So you've found religion. You're going green. With all the hybrid hype, your first instinct is to buy a bunch of them and say, "Look at me!"

Your research tells you that hybrids are good for the environment: A Toyota Camry hybrid emits 21 percent fewer greenhouse gases than its four-cylinder gasoline counterpart; a comparison of hybrid to gas Ford Escapes reveals about the same percentage savings.

But your company is still slowly digging out of the recession, so you look at the numbers from a capitalized cost standpoint. That's when you realize that it may be hard to justify the expense, and you're not alone.

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"We're not at the point where we can add extra funds to the budget if we know we're not going to get a return," says Bret Watson, the national fleet manager for Sprint Nextel Corp. "We elected not to pay to be green at this point."

Sprint has only six hybrids in a fleet of 1,500 vehicles, but that doesn't mean the company isn't environmentally conscious. Sprint Nextel managed to place sixth out of 500 publicly traded companies in Newsweek's 2010 Green Rankings. The list is made by analyzing the metrics that determine each company's overall environmental impacts - though greenhouse gases, of which fleets are a significant contributor, factor prominently in the scoring.

Watson is greening his fleet using a readily available tool: the Environmental Protection Agency's "SmartWay" vehicle certification.

Begun in 2004, SmartWay numerically grades each vehicle's air pollution and greenhouse gas performance from one to 10. To receive SmartWay certification, a vehicle must score a six or better on both factors, and have a total score of at least 13. SmartWay Elite - categorizing the absolute best environmental performers - is given to those vehicles that score nine or better on both. (The EPA implemented stricter guidelines for 2011, which resulted in many models falling short of certification.)

SmartWay vehicles can be compared to any other vehicle on the market using the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide at www.epa.gov/greenvehicles. Doing an emissions analysis is eye opening. Let's say you're weighing putting your top salespeople in a 2011 BMW 528i or a Mercedes E350. Both are midsize, six-cylinder luxury cars with similar horsepower, size and price. However, the E350's greenhouse gas emissions are about 20 percent, or 1.47 tons, higher than the 528i, the only six-cylinder, non-hybrid vehicle to be SmartWay certified.

Yet when looking at another engine size of the 5 Series compared to the E350 diesel, both offer about the same greenhouse gas output.

You can really make some hay by comparing cylinders. A four-cylinder Chevy Malibu, which is SmartWay certified, saves 23 percent in carbon emissions output compared to the six-cylinder model. An eight-cylinder Cadillac CTS emits a staggering 36 percent more greenhouses gases than its six-cylinder brother. Similar CO2 savings are achieved across the board when you opt for the smaller engine.

Adrenaline flow aside, opting for the six-cylinder CTS will save you a pretty penny, and the smaller engine Malibu costs a few thousand less. There it is, in black and white: By simply dropping cylinders, you will emit fewer greenhouse gases than if you had switched to hybrids. And you saved your company a boatload of bucks in the meantime.

For Watson, sticking with conventional gas power has allowed his company to continue to take advantage of volume discounts. He says the change has been, for the most part, transparent to Sprint Nextel's drivers. With technological advancements, the four-cylinder models achieve almost as much torque and quickness as the six-cylinder models from a few years ago.

To sweeten the deal, the company has added an OEM-installed entertainment/telematics option. The drivers love it, and it keeps them safer, Watson says. The upgrade is paying off on the back end. "We get great results on resale," Watson adds.

Gas-powered models will be with us for a long time to come. In fact, the list of choices is growing. If you simply choose your conventionally powered vehicles smartly, small changes add up to big savings, even if they don't produce the "Wow" factor that hybrids do.

Try getting on this new bandwagon. You can yell to the world you're SmartWay certified, loud and proud.

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Author Bio

Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris Brown is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. Through these publications, online newsletters, trade events and associations, Chris covers all aspects of the fleet world, including fleet management, manufacturer fleet activities, the fleet leasing industry, vehicle remarketing, rental industry news, car rental taxation and legislation.

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