Want some help impressing the ladies?  Get yourself a microcar!  Rodney from the BBC show Only Fools and Horses shows you how it’s done with his Reliant Regal van.  Microcars just get more useful every day!

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My mom called me the other day (bless her).  She had heard about this guy in Madison who was foreign and drove a special car, so she thought I should know about it.  After much confusion and several Google searches, I figured out what she was talking about, and it was pretty exciting.

There’s a team in Madison that  is a contender for the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competition; they’re now in the final 31.  The apparent team leader is Chris Beebe of Foreign Car Specialists.  Reading about Chris and the X Prize, it sounds a lot like SMV.  Except maybe that there’s $10 million up for grabs.

Progressive X Prize

If $10 million doesn't motivate you, I don't know what will.

Basically, the X Prize is trying to get automotive engineers (or people who are really good with cars) to build a production-ready high-mileage vehicle that is reasonably priced.  They say their goal is “to inspire a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change.”

There are two main categories, similar to other competitions of this nature: the mainstream class and the alternative class.  While both categories specify that cars be “road ready,” there is more room for the imagination in the alternative class.  The mainstream class must fit at least four adults and drive like a reasonable car that could be on the roads today (drive at highway speeds, have cargo space, and so forth).  The best car in this class will win its team $5 million.  The alternative class has two options – tandem seating and side-by-side seating – and allows teams to be a little more creative in their design.  The two winning cars will each receive $2.5 million.

While the SMV competition is two days in length, the X Prize has several stages teams must go through, culminating with competition and testing of the eight to 15 vehicles late this summer, with the winners announced in September.  Almost all of the testing occurs in Michigan, although one phase occurs down in Illinois.  Considering the rigorous testing, this seems like a huge deal.

To Chris Beebe, I’m sure it is.  He’s given up working in his car shop to devote his time to the two cars he’s working on for the X Prize (sounds like some dedicated SMVers I know).  There’s no telling where he’ll go; the self-educated guy is up against a wide range of competitors, from students to other companies to manufacturers.  With that much money on the line, it’s hard not to want to get involved.

I have to say, these X Prize people seem to know what’s up.  As their website explains, there are huge barriers keeping the automotive industry from moving forward to create a green supercar.  Well, let me rephrase that: there are huge barriers keeping the automotive industry from building a consumer-ready green supercar.  Prototypes abound, and that’s spectacular.  But at the end of the day, to affect real change, we need to get different cars in the hands of the masses.

Maybe the best thing about this competition is that it’s admitting there is a real, urgent problem that needs action, not someday, not maybe, but now.  Admitting there’s a problem is the first step, and while there’s certainly reluctance even there, it’s so exciting that there are programs like SMV and X Prize out there.

A couple weeks ago, 59 judges from 25 countries at the New York Auto Show decided that the best car in the world isn’t the Prius or the Smart car.  No, they went with the good quality German engineering of the VW BlueMotion Polo Mk5.

VW Polo

Do you think Ralph Lauren drives one of these?

Wait, blue what?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  If you don’t know about VW’s BlueMotion series, which took home the Best Green Car award, don’t feel bad; none of the cars are available in the United States, the country with the second highest carbon emissions in the world.

Volkswagen introduced the BlueMotion line of cars in 2006 and has been consistently producing more cars with the technology.  The lineup now includes models of the Polo, the Golf, and the Passat.  The idea behind the name?  Combine VW’s corporate color with an action that cars tend to do.  The idea behind the technology?  Increase fuel efficiency.

Most of the BlueMotion cars use a 1.3-liter three-cylinder Turbocharged Direct Injection (TDI) diesel engine that gets 60 mpg and emits 102 grams of CO2 per kilometer.  The new engine (that was in the winning Polo) has a 1.6-liter engine that achieves 62 mpg.  There are other reports of higher gas mileages and lower emissions, but because the series is not in the United States, there are no official EPA numbers.

Of course, one does not win international competitions on engines alone (or even SMV competitions, for that matter).  In addition to revamping the engine with diesel particulate filters and oxidizing catalytic converters, VW lengthened the last two gear ratios on its transmission.  The bodies of the BlueMotion cars have also been updated with revamped spoilers, lowered suspensions, and more aerodynamic undercarriages.  The result?  A car that beat one of the most popular green cars in the world: the Toyota Prius, which gets about 50 mpg and emits 88g CO2/km according to the EPA.

Toyota Prius

Move over, Mr. Hybrid. Clean diesel cars are coming to town.

“It is not necessary to add an electric motor and a heavy battery pack to achieve class-leading efficiency,” one judge said.  “Based on Volkswagen’s common-rail diesel engines, the BlueMotion models are among the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the market. In fact, the Passat BlueMotion can travel just about 1,000 miles on one tank of fuel in the European cycle. As far as internal combustion engines go today, these models are the ultimate you can get.”

1,000 miles on a tank?  Sign me up.  Volkswagen has recently talked about bringing the BlueMotion cars to the United States, although I’ve yet to find an exact timeline or other info.  Their reluctance to bring these cars to the US market (which is certainly hungering for environmentally-friendly cars) is likely due to our preconceived notions of diesels.  Rather than super-efficient small vehicles, we tend to associate diesel engines with huge, powerful trucks spewing black exhaust.  Audi has been trying to combat this image by marketing their clean diesel technology (remember the green police?) and perhaps they can help clear the path for the BlueMotion lineup.

I have a friend, J, who lives in San Francisco, arguably one of the more environmentally-friendly cities in the nation.  Last spring, I jetted out West to visit her and was amazed by all the different forms of public transportation they have:  buses, ferries, streetcars, cable cars, trains, you name it, they have it.  While I was out there, we even hopped on a tandem bike and cruised across the Golden Gate bridge.  Well, it wasn’t quite as simple as that; we nearly crashed three times within the first five minutes, got passed by other tandem riders at least twice our age, and dragged our butts only halfway across the bridge.  The guys who rented us the bicycle were truly surprised to see us return relatively able-bodied.

While in SF, J and I also went on a GoCar tour.  It was basically a tour of the city that was led by a “GPS-guided storytelling car,” which is almost like a microcar (it even has three wheels!).  That was a ton of fun, even though our car’s GPS was broken and didn’t talk to us, let alone offer guidance, the entire trip.

Gocar

Yeah, they're smiling now, but wait until they try to make it up a giant hill and some creepers think about hopping in the back of that thing.

While these might not be practical everyday commuting solutions, San Francisco has this public transportation thing down.  And traveling with other people is a super way to reduce carbon emissions.  San Francisco does a great job encouraging alternative forms of transportation and is often ranked as one of the best cities to commute in.

It’s not practical for all cities to be like San Francisco, and certainly not all people can live like that.  But there are definitely things we can do to challenge ourselves to make our cities a little bit greener.  Maybe bike to work on those nice days.  (Worried about getting fit enough?  Check out this blog for tips.)  Hop on the bus (maybe even a hybrid if you’re in Madison) if you’re not in a big time crunch.  Even just carpooling with friends or co-workers can reduce carbon emissions in your city.

Tandem Bike

This could be you and your fave SMV friend!

Of course, there are lots of people who will argue that these small steps aren’t enough to do any good for the environment or anything else.  And they’re probably right; at this point in time, we may need drastic measures to stop or reverse climate change and damage to the earth.  But that doesn’t mean a single person’s actions don’t mean anything.  Everything adds up, good or bad.  So dust off that old two-seater bike and pedal away with your best bud.  It might be a little perilous, but at least it’s something!

After a long, successful spring break, the SMV team has completed the carbon fiber body.  Of course, there’s still plenty to do, but the team is right on track.

Top body

Sleek, sexy carbon fiber...mmm

A couple weeks ago, I talked a bit about how it can be better for the environment to continue to drive older, fuel efficient cars rather than buy new cars, which take resources and produce carbon emissions to make.  I plan on driving my car until it peters out on me, but I’m nothing compared to these car-loving auto owners who told their stories on CNN’s iReport.

Here are a few of my favorite stories.

This guy has a self-admitted obsession with his Acura Legend Coupe.  With over 400,000 miles on it, he’s visited 40 states (including Alaska) and is still running with the original transmission and engine.  The guy even keeps a spreadsheet of all the maintenance he’s done on the car; he’ll email it to you if you don’t believe him.  Here’s a video (with swanky music) of the car turning 400k.

Here’s a Dodge Neon that has over half a million miles on it.  Its owner bought it new with a grand total of 12 miles on it; I guess you could say they’ve had a lot of time to get to know each other in the 12 years he’s had the car.  Even now, with that super high mileage on the car, the guy’s biggest fear is getting into an accident and having insurance companies refuse to fix the car because of its lack of KBB value.  The car is claimed to routinely get at least 32 mpg, which is pretty great regardless of car model.

This woman and her Ford F-150 prove that you don’t have to have a tiny car to drive it forever.  She’s got over 325,000 miles on her truck and all she’s had to do is replace the transmission at 150k and change the oil regularly.  So even if you drive a bigger car or truck, you can still suck every last drop of life out of it!

I have to put this one in here because it’s a bit unbelievable, but seems to have the proof to back it up.  Here’s a 2007 Toyota Yaris with an incredible 400,000 miles on it.  Apparently, its owner has to drive a ton for work (and trust me, to put on that many miles in four years is a huge amount of driving).  The car still has most of its original parts, although it did need a new alternator and new shoes and pads.  I don’t know how long the car will last with its owners accident-prone driving style, but that is a lot of miles!

Last but not least, let’s give some props to those fantastic Germans.  This guy (and his mom) have been driving their ’89 Mercedes Benz 300E for almost 300,000 miles.  Despite surviving a crash with a newbie driver, the car has had minimal problems and has stalled out only four times in its lifetime.

Moral of these stories: loving your car might keep it alive longer, just because it’s old/has lots of miles doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, and change your oil!  I know we’re American; we tend to like new, shiny, cool things.  We talk about that “new car smell.”  But sometimes the things we can get the most pleasure from are neither new nor especially pretty.  Take stock of what your actual needs are and decide accordingly.  And if you need help keeping your jalopy alive, talk to one of those guys from iReport!

After seeing this car, I couldn’t not write about it.  Before I say anything, take a look at this Top Gear video.  Absolutely priceless.

Really, what more do you need to know?  The Peel P50 was the smallest production car in the world and likely one of the cheapest.

The story of this minuscule auto began in the early 1950s when Cyril Cannell of the Isle of Man started the Peel Engineering Company.  Peel primarily made fiberglass boats, glass-reinforced plastic, go-karts, and motorcycle fairings.  In the 1960s, the Isle of Man produced both the Bee Gees and the Peel P50, changing the course of history as we know it.

Peel P50

It might not set any land speed records, but it's a heck of a machine.

The P50, which debuted in 1962, had a welded tubular steel chassis and measured in at 4’5″ tall, 3’3″ wide, and 3’5″ high.  It should be noted that records of these dimensions vary a bit, as all the cars were handmade by Peel, which employed about 40 people at maximum capacity.  Without a passenger, the car weighed just over 130 pounds (I never thought I would weigh almost as much as a car).  Today, the car could be driven not even as a motorcycle, but as a moped with its 49cc two stroke engine that put out less than 5hp.  The body was naturally made out of fiberglass and was available in three stunning colors: Dragon Red, Daytona White, and Capri Blue.

This tiny car’s fuel efficiency almost puts other microcars to shame.  The P50 is claimed to get about 100 mpg.  Its top speed (at best) was about 40 mph, although this certainly depended on who was driving the thing.  Like other microcars, the P50 lacked a reverse gear.  Most drivers dealt with this by hopping out, picking up the car, and placing it in the desired direction.

Peel P50

I'm lifting a car! I must be superhuman...

A few other quirks of the P50: it had only one headlight, one windshield wiper, and only one door.  It was advertised as seating “one adult and one shopping bag.”

The P50 retailed for about 199 GBP.  At the time, a motorcycle went for about 250 quid.  Only about 50 Peel P50s were produced, and today the diminutive car is quite a collectible.

Peel stopped production of the P50 in 1964 and produced a few more microcars before the company folded in 1974.

The Chevrolet Volt takes on the Nissan Leaf.  Who will come out on top?

Chevy Volt

Can this much-hyped (semi) EV take on the new Nissan?

Performance

If you’re looking for speed, the Volt is probably where it’s at.  The Chevy delivers 150 hp and boasts a top speed of 100 mph.  On the other hand, the Nissan has 110 hp and tops out at 87 mph.

Winner: Volt

Amenities

Both cars can charge to full battery capacity in about eight hours (assuming you have the Nissan charging station).  The Nissan offers a support network, LCD display, helpful charging functions, Bluetooth connectivity, XM radio capability, and roadside assistance.  Volt offers much of the same, including some advice on how to obtain the best fuel efficiency while driving.  The Leaf is a bit roomier, but I think the Volt has a nicer overall look.

Winner: Volt

Range

This really depends on what your driving goals are.  If you are content to use the car for commuting and short distance driving, then go for the Leaf, which has a range of 100 miles.

At first glance, it appears that the Volt can’t go as far; its electric motor will power it for merely 40 miles.  However, after the first 40, a 4-cylinder engine powers an on-board generator, which then powers the electric motor.  The car can then go for up to 300 miles.  GM says that 40 miles will cover the average American’s daily commute, which is about 33 miles.

Winner: Volt

Environmental Impact

Obviously, the Leaf does not burn any gasoline whatsoever, meaning it does not emit carbon dioxide from its tailpipe.  But that doesn’t mean that the Leaf is emissions-free.  It is still obtaining electricity from the grid, and the CO2 emissions from the electricity used depends on the source of the power.  In states where the electricity comes from renewable or low emissions sources, like solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear, CO2 emissions are slight or none.  But burning “dirty” coal puts more pollutants into the air, so the overall emissions varies depending on location.  Regardless, the Leaf wins this battle, as the Volt still burns gas to power the generator.

Winner: Leaf

Price

Here, it looks like the Leaf has the Volt around the neck.  Both vehicles are applicable for a federal tax credit of $7,500, and some states offer more rebates, too.  While Chevy hasn’t announced its price officially, estimates are coming in at around $40,000.  The Nissan is slated to come out significantly lower at $32,750.  In today’s economy, which isn’t expected to turn around dramatically anytime soon, that seven grand can make a big difference.  Also, some consumers might harbor some resentment towards GM for killing the electric car all those years ago.

However, it should be noted that the Leaf needs to be plugged into a special home charging station, which will run about $2,200.  The feds will pay for half of that, but still, that’s an extra $1,000 on top of the base price.

Winner: Leaf

Fuel Efficiency

The Volt: For the first 40 miles, the Volt uses stored electricity from its battery.  Beyond that, its electric motor is powered by a gas-fueled generator.  The EPA estimates that the Volt is expected to get 50 mpg from its gasoline motor while in the charge-sustaining mode.  Its difficult to estimate the overall fuel economy, since the car runs off both gasoline and grid electricity, and the EPA is working to create standards that would make more sense for consumers.  Their closest estimates for the Volt are 85 mpg.  GM came out with some interesting estimates using complicated math that puts the car at 230 mpg.  Upon hearing those estimates, Nissan stifled a laugh and claimed that using that math, the Leaf gets 367 mpg.

Winner: Leaf

Overall winner: Leaf.  It’s not perfect, but when it comes to being a great new green car, the Leaf is where it’s at.

Nissan Leaf

Oh yeah, you know you love me.

The team is (as ever) hard at work.  The Milwaukee School of Engineering is on spring break, but that means little to these dedicated engineers who are putting in hours every day.

This week, one big project is finishing the carbon fiber body.  They’ve finished the bottom of the body and the chassis (and if I may say so myself, both turned out beautifully, super smooth and glassy).  Now, they’ve moved on to the top of the body, which we last saw in the fiberglass form (much thanks to Midwest Composite Technologies for all their help with the car body!).  The team laid out the carbon fiber, bonded it together, and now it’s sealed away in its vacuum-induced sleep, ready to awake in four to five days, now prepared for the challenges the team will throw at it.

On a different note, can you tell I’m not an engineer?  Anyways, take a look at the top of the body.

Carbon top

And now the waiting game commences...

As you may remember, the team will compete with their car coming up June 10-11 in Marshall, Michigan.  While this is certainly the number one priority, the fun doesn’t stop there.  The car (we really need a name for this thing) will be displayed July 8-11 at Discovery World in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The whole exhibit will feature the SMV, several antique microcars, and example(s) of hybrid vehicles.  We are so grateful to have this opportunity and when the team gets the rare break from working on the car, they’re working on the museum exhibit.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area, Discovery World sits right on Lake Michigan next to Summerfest grounds.  The location is absolutely gorgeous and the museum is a lot of fun; it says it tries to connect “innovation, science, technology and the environment with exploration and learning through interactive exhibits and experiential learning programs.”

Discovery World

What a gorgeous location!

Really, what better venue could we have?  The SMV team definitely covers the bases in Discovery World’s mission.  In addition to the cars, we will have interactive, hands-on exhibits for kids to enjoy.  At the end of the day, we’re hoping to provide interesting, relevant information about the history and future of fuel-efficient vehicles.  However cliched it sounds, the children are our future, and this is stuff they should know.  We think so, at least!

We will also hopefully have guest speakers, including an insurance representative to explain what car insurance is and why we need it.  While this perhaps doesn’t sound super exciting, how many of you really know how insurance works, or what to do if you’re in an accident, or how to change your insurance plan?  Yeah.  Didn’t think so.

To be honest, I’m really excited for the SMV team to have this great opportunity to meet with the public.  The SMV engineers are so enthusiastic and committed to what they do.  They were the kids who wanted to know how everything works, and by now, they’re well on their ways to figuring out all that stuff.  This gives them a chance to interact with the next generation of engineers who will be working to solve the world’s problems.  And no matter how hard I try, I don’t speak “engineer.”  But the team does, and this is a fantastic chance for them to inspire the up and coming students.

By now, I’ve talked about a few microcars.  Most of them were foreign, and all of them were made decades ago.  Historically, microcars just haven’t caught on very well in US markets.  After lean times in World War II, Americans tended to go for the big, buff cars.  That trend has more or less carried us through to 2000.   The age of the SUV came and (kind of) went, with GMC management so certain they would profit forever from the gas-guzzlers that their motto was “our future’s so bright we’ve gotta wear shades.”  Well, our future might be a little brighter because of the hole in the ozone, but fuel efficiency is getting to be more important for consumers.

That’s what Toyota is banking on, at least, with their unveiling of the 2011 Scion iQ at the New York Auto Show.  The car (which has been selling under a different name and slightly different specs in Japan for a few years now) stands at 120 inches long with a wheelbase just under 79 inches.  It boasts a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine that is expected to get about 100 horsepower.  The car fits “3+1” people, which apparently means a couple regular-sized adults, a child, and a pet goldfish.  If you get creative, I’m sure you can squeeze four (very friendly) people in it.

Scion iQ

The 2011 Scion iQ

One important feature has drawn people to bigger cars for years: safety.  We assume that we’re safe behind the wheels of humongous SUVs, and for the most part we’re right.  But the Scion iQ promises to deliver on that front, too.  The car boasts ten airbags, ABS panic control brakes, stability and traction control, and electronic steering.

Even with the iQ’s small size, don’t expect the legendary mpgs of the car’s predecessors; Toyota says it expects the car to get in the upper thirties.  With mileages increasing on cars across the board, we’ll have to see if that’s enough to be competitive.  You can expect the car to start below $15,000, with some estimates coming in around $12k.  The car will be available in the US in early 2011.

Does this signal a comeback of the microcar in the US?  If nothing else, this car sounds like it will offer some creature comforts and safety in a small package, which might help American consumers understand that bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Last week I saw some big (and possibly surprising) news from President Obama: plans to open the Atlantic coastline, the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, and Northern Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling.

“The answer is not drilling everywhere all the time,” Obama said.  “But the answer is not, also, for us to ignore the fact that we are going to need vital energy sources to maintain our economic growth and our security.”

The move appears to be an attempt to placate Republicans, who have historically pushed for an increase in American oil exploration and drilling (drill, baby, drill anyone?).  However, it is unclear whether this goodwill gesture will be enough to satisfy Conservatives.

Not surprisingly, the expansion plan has angered many who are concerned about the effects of drilling on the environment.  Obama tried to address this in his speech.

Bird

Let's hope offshore drilling doesn't result in more of these poor critters...

“There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision,” Obama said, “including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling. But what I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

The guy has a point.  Like I talked about a few weeks ago, Americans are less concerned about the environment than ever in the presence of high unemployment rates and an unstable economy.  And this theory behind the decision makes sense: the less money we use to import oil, the more money we have for other things, like investing in renewable energy or creating green jobs.  However, it doesn’t seem very likely that offshore drilling will affect oil prices anytime soon.

It’s been rough going against climate skeptics and legislators who seem determined to fight anything with Obama’s stamp on it.  This action might make the road ahead a little easier.

To soften the blow, President Obama also announced strict fuel economy regulations that will take effect in coming years.  By 2016, the average miles per gallon achieved by carmaker’s fleets must be 34.1, although some expect that to increase to 35.  This means that small trucks will likely average about 29 mpg while cars will get about 38 mpg.  The new regulations will cost new car buyers an average of $926 in six years, although they can expect to save over $3,000 in gas money during their vehicle’s lives.

President Obama appears to be trying to please everyone.  Maybe we can get some measure of his success during the upcoming climate talks in the Senate.

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