POWERFUL, SUPER CLEAN FOCUS HELPS FORD MEET ITS ENVIRONMENTAL COMMITMENTS
At first glance, the Ford Focus PZEV, which combines gasoline-engine practicality with ultraclean tailpipe emissions, seems to be the gift that no one asked for. Car owners who
care about their vehicles' evaporative emissions performance, or the rate at which catalytic converters heat up, seem few and far between.
But there is growing evidence that consumers will seek out environmentally responsible vehicles if they do not have to make a tradeoff in terms of lower performance or a higher price. Few people paid attention to fuel economy in 1987, when a survey by J.D. Power & Associates found that only 3 percent of consumers considered it the most important
factor in buying a new car. But a survey this year by the same company indicated that gas mileage is now the top consideration of 15 percent of car shoppers, and the fifth-highest priority. Thus, the Focus PZEV - the label stands for "partial zero-emission vehicle," one of many mind-numbing categories established by clean-air regulators - has arrived at an opportune time. Although its mileage is not appreciably different from that of a regular Focus, its emissions are remarkably lower.
The Focus PZEV, with a special 2.3-liter 4-cylinder Duratec engine, produces just one-tenth of the smog-causing emissions that come from a Focus with the conventional 2-liter Zetec engine; the PZEV puts out just 1 pound of these emissions over 15,000 miles, using the low-sulfur gasoline sold in California, compared with 10.7 pounds for the regular Focus. (The difference with the expiring federal pollution standard, known as Tier I, is more stark: That rule permitted 30.1 pounds over the same
One might expect such clean-air gains to be accompanied by fireworks and confetti, but the clean Focus, like about a dozen other PZEV models, has slipped into the market as quietly as a secret agent on a Cold War rendezvous. While Ford has made its Focus available for test drives, the publicity departments at some other companies seem barely aware that they offer such cars.
Even environmental groups, focused on hydrogen fuel-cell and hybrid gas-electric technologies,
seem only vaguely familiar with PZEVs. "What are they exactly?" asked the Washington-based press secretary for a group focused on clean energy.
This new Focus, like PZEVs from 11 other automakers, was designed to meet the strict new environmental rules in a handful of states, and they do so with mostly mundane, relatively low-cost modificiations to existing gas-engine technologies - like revised catalytic converters that heat up very quickly to cut the pollution produced by cold
California regulators, trying to clean up some of the nation's worst air, have changed their rules under a compromise with the industry.
Originally, the California Air Resources Board had ordered carmakers to produce zero-emission battery cars under a complex system of credits that is part of the state's low-emission program. Tough revisions to those rules were adopted in 1999 to cover the 2004-2010 model years. As a result both of automaker lawsuits and the failure in the marketplace of plug-in battery vehicles like GM's EV-1, the California board allowed automakers to gain credits from low-emission gasoline cars.
Because four Northeast states follow California's rules, PZEVs are also sold in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine (with some spillover to nearby states).
Starting with 2003 ½ models, the PZEV powertrain became standard on all Focus cars sold in California and the four Northeast states, except for the high-performance Focus SVT, and the package is available nationally on 2004 models as a $115 option. Jim Cain, a Ford spokesman, said: "In California, we do market the
environmental benefits very clearly. But Focus customers will get a PZEV no matter where the environment is on their concern list."
The potential benefits of PZEVs may be far more sweeping, at least in the short term, than the gains from hybrid cars. Tens of thousands of PZEVs are already on the road, at little or no cost premium beyond conventional gasoline versions of the same cars. New models are coming, and sales are expected to grow steadily. In contrast, only 100,000 hybrid cars
have been sold in the United States since 1999, when the Honda Insight became first on the market.
Ford has sold 36,000 PZEVs and projects 100,000 sales through the 2004 model year. By contrast, U.S. sales of the Toyota Prius hybrid have totaled only 56,255 over three years, through Oct. 31. And despite the publicity given to fuel-cell cars, practical versions remain a dream, given the challenges of creating a hydrogen infrastructure. Focus PZEVs start at a reasonable $13,915,
including delivery charge. I tested a five-door ZX5 Premium, with a base price of $16,785 and a sticker total of $19,445. With a five-speed manual transmission, it had an economy rating of 25 mpg in town and 33 on the highway, roughly the same as the standard ZX5. The Prius hybrid, with more high-tech features and a combined mileage rating of 55 mpg, lists for $19,995, making it tough competition, although there are long waiting lists for the 2004 model.
If you are looking for a car
that makes a public statement, the Focus PZEV is not for you. Unlike battery cars festooned with decals or the oddly futuristic-looking Insight, the compact Ford blends into the background. There is no clue, not even a discreet emblem, that car is far greener than the average Focus. Still, it is more fun to drive than the average econobox, especially with the five-speed manual transmission. The car requires no sacrifices. Its small but energetic engine produces 144 horsepower, compared with
130 in the basic Focus sold in 45 states. The PZEV is a tight, zippy car, the kind you'll enjoy throwing into curves a little faster than might seem prudent.
Weighing just 2,600 pounds and aerodynamically styled, the five-door hatchback is handsome in a modern way, but also practical: there is room for four, plus luggage, and great visibility all around.
Compared with the average 2003 automobile, the Focus PZEV produces 97 percent less hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emissions,
and 76 percent less carbon monoxide. But not all environmentalists are convinced. "PZEVs certainly help improve air quality," said Bill Moore, editor of EV World, an online magazine about electric cars. "But they do zip for fuel efficiency or reducing oil imports." Nor do PZEVs reduce another type of emissions, the carbon dioxide produced by burning gasoline that is the primary greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.
Even if environmentalists are skeptical, and even though many
consumers haven't a clue what PZEV stands for, the technology will soon be on cars across the nation, and it should have a profound and positive effect on air pollution. California rules say that 6 percent of carmakers' production should be PZEVs, and at the rate these cars are moving off dealer lots, that goal could be achieved.
"PZEVs are a fantastic outcome of the zero-emissions vehicle program," said David Friedman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists..