2014: The Year in Greenwashing

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 31, 2014

Let’s say upfront that automakers are sincere in their desire to green their fleets. Even if they don’t give a hoot, they need to comply with federal rules requiring their fleets reach 54.5 mpg by 2025. And many go beyond the bare minimum by installing solar at manufacturing plants (VW), hosting farmer’s markets and a low-emission painting process (Honda) or building cars with zero waste (General Motors, others).
But carmakers also greenwash, which is another way of say they stretch the truth in making environmental claims or at least emphasis convenient facts at the expense of inconvenient ones. Let’s look back at 2014, and six trends in greenwashing:

On some models, the Hyundai Accent goes from 40 to 37 mpg on the highway. (Hyundai photo)
On some models, the Hyundai Accent goes from 40 to 37 mpg on the highway. (Hyundai photo)

Overstating mileage. Kia and Hyundai were made to pay a civil penalty of $100 million after a two-year federal investigation found they’d overstated fuel economy on the window stickers of more than one million cars. Corrected figures show that the vehicles in question will actually emit 4.75 million more metric tons of carbon dioxide than had been originally claimed. Other automakers that had to correct window stickers include BMW (for its Mini Coopers), Ford and Mercedes-Benz.
More mileage hijinks. The Porsche 918 Spyder is a hybrid car that allows its owners to bask in the glow accorded to Tesla Model S owners, with a fuel economy equivalent of 67 MPGe. Yet considering it’s a rip-roaring sports car whose owners are likely to drive it at the limit, the figure that really matters is the 22 mpg combined it gets (on premium fuel) when the 874-horsepower V-8 gas engine is running. Expect that V-8 to be blasting when the 918 is on the highway; the 918 (sold out at $845,000 each) can only go 12 miles on electric power alone. A related bit of greenwashing is automakers’ tendency to use highway fuel economy figures in ads, rather than the more realistic combined numbers. An ad for the Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel model proclaims its ability to get "up to 30 mpg" (on the highway of course) but an asterik leads to "when properly equipped." It's actual highway rating is 28 mpg, and it gets 21 around town.

The Porsche 918 Spyder gets 63 mpg! If you drive it like an old Rambler. (Porsche photo)
The Porsche 918 Spyder gets 63 mpg! If you drive it like an old Rambler. (Porsche photo)

Range isn't an issue. Nissan will tell you, "The average American drives less than 34 miles per day." And the electric Leaf, with a range of 84 miles, "takes you 2.5 times that distance on a single charge." I hate to say it, but in the real world, most users aren't seeing 84 miles on a charge, and it's much worse in cold weather. It's very unlikely you're going to avoid "range anxiety" with most of today's EVs. This isn't strictly greenwashing but it's misleading. The argument against bigger batteries for EVs is shopworn.

The Nissan NV200 is the "Taxi of Tomorrow." Tomorrow, tomorrow, you're always a day away. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The Nissan NV200 is the "Taxi of Tomorrow." Tomorrow, tomorrow, you're always a day away. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Taxi of Tomorrow. After a series of legal machinations too numerous to go into here, New York City is finally set to adapt the NV200 as its “Taxi of Tomorrow,” despite Mayor Bill DiBlasio’s vocal objection to it during the campaign. Nissan touts the NV200 as “offering substantial improvements over current and recently-unveiled taxi models.” Maybe that's true if you're comparing the Nissan to one of the old Ford Crown Vics, but the plain fact is that tomorrow’s taxi is a conventional two-liter four-cylinder vehicle replacing high-mileage hybrids on the road now (Toyota Priuses and Camrys). “Breathable, antimicrobial environment-friendly, durable and easy-to-clean seat fabric” and “active carbon-lined headliner to help neutralize interior odors” don’t really change that. Electric and hybrid versions of the NV200 are coming, but they won’t be ready for New York’s mean streets as taxis anytime soon.

Hybrid hype. Hybrids took a while to catch on, but then they did with a vengeance, and now automakers are adding gas-electric options with abandon. But buying a hybrid does not automatically get you a “green car.” Fuel economy is the bottom line, and many of today’s ordinary gas cars trump hybrids in that department. General Motors has ditched its absurd line of gas-guzzling big truck and SUV hybrids, but plenty are still on the market. For instance, the 2014 Audi Q5 Hybrid gets you 26 mpg combined, compared to 21 for the standard six-cylinder model. The diesel version of the Q5, for instance, gets 27 mpg combined. And a conventional 2014 Toyota RAV4, with most of the utility of the Q5, matches the Q5 Hybrid’s 26 mpg. It’s a lot cheaper, too.
Offroading. Okay, so this last example of greenwashing doesn’t quite make the cut. Why? Simple. There’s no washing to be found at all. Still, I had to include it while we were talking about egregious eco-behavior on the part of the manufacturers. Here’s what’s going on. Low gas prices have one big consequence for the American auto fleet—big SUVs are once again surging in the marketplace, and people are driving more. That simple fact will wipe out the gains from the modest sales of zero emission electric cars. And, once again, consumers are buying huge vehicles with four-wheel-drive they don’t need. Consider Chrysler’s 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 Ram Power Wagon. Expect 13 mpg in real-world driving. The company proclaims in a rugged TV ad that the Ram is “the most capable off-road truck there is. It lets you pick a fight with the impossible.” A fight with the planet is more like it. Onscreen, we’re watching a truck making its way across huge boulders and tearing up some pristine wilderness. At least it’s not shown fording a stream. Here’s the video:


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