Mr. Green Car: Bits and pieces: Safety, diesel, weight and winter driving

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

This week, I don’t have one big topic to expound on, or a car to review, but a few things that are worth noting that don’t really justify full articles.

Safety — Because of increased fuel economy standards, and generally market-driven as well, consumers are buying smaller automobiles. To keep them as safe as larger vehicles, most now feature numerous airbags throughout the cabin. Everything inside is soft and round — little to be injured by. But all of it is not much use unless you are wearing your seat belt — which, fortunately, most people do these days. Of the leading small cars, Honda Civics get the highest safety rating of “good” awarded by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for 2013 and 2014 models in their “small overlap” front-end collision test — a test the U.S. government does not perform or rate, but frequently is a common scenario in collisions where one corner of the car collides and is crushed. Next down was the “acceptable” rating earned by the Dodge Dart, Hyundai Elantra, 2014 Scion tC and Ford Focus. Coming in with “marginal” ratings were the Chevy Cruze and Sonic, and the VW Beetle. Rating “poor” were the Kia Soul, 2014 Kia Forte and Nissan Sentra.

Consumers doing online research for a new car often look for the IIHS “Top Safety Pick Plus” award. Many cars earn this coveted overall rating — and of the above small cars, the Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic (two models) and Scion tC have this honor. With these cars, you can get better fuel economy while still enjoying the safety of a larger and heavier vehicle.

Diesel — Volkswagen and other European manufacturers have long made diesel engines available in passenger cars. Noted for being thrifty with fuel, 40 to 50 mpg is not uncommon. Diesels in passenger cars in the United States have come and gone — usually with poor results and low production numbers. However, General Motors is stepping up to the plate with plans to market the popular Chevy Cruze with a 151-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel engine similar to the Volkswagen TDI. The torquey little four-cylinder will put out 264 foot-pounds of torque, with overboost available to 280 foot-pounds. That means a lot of go. This car is re-engineered to accommodate the diesels characteristics, not just a matter of plopping in a different engine. Like a lot of things, this is to help GM in the global market — but you, too, can benefit by driving a thrifty diesel — particularly if you have a lot of highway commuting miles. No diesel is cheap — the Chevy Cruze diesel has an MSRP of $25,695. That’s in the league with Volkswagen’s offerings while giving you Chevy fans the chance to switch over to diesel motoring.

Weight — While manufacturers are sharpening their pencils to find ever more ways to reduce vehicle weight to improve fuel economy and performance, we are not helping matters by hauling a lot of stuff around with us that is unnecessary. Clean out your trunk and back seat. Dragging an extra hundred pounds around all the time is only hurting your pocketbook and wasting fuel. While you’re at it, put some air in those tires. Properly inflated tires save considerably on fuel economy and improve the handling of your vehicle. Cheap gas mileage.

Winter driving — The snow flakes are upon us once again. Many new cars come with “low rolling resistance” tires for increased fuel economy. The problem is that these are often made with harder rubber compounds and less aggressive tread patterns. To get along better in the winter, you may want to consider buying “winter tires.” Unlike the “snow tires” of decades past, they do not feature aggressive lug patterns, but instead depend on much softer rubber compounds and extensive siping (little cuts) to grip less than perfect surfaces. These are much quieter riding tires as a result, but because of the soft compounds will wear faster if left on all year and driven on dry surfaces. If possible, you may want to buy a set of steel wheels, either new or used, and outfit them with your winter tires. Come November, they can be easily installed and, by April, they can come off and be switched back to your elegant aluminum wheels. This saves winter wear and tear on the expensive aluminum wheels as well — avoiding corrosive road salt exposure and damaging potholes. Bagging your tires to keep out air and light when not in use extends their life by reducing ultraviolet ray and ozone exposure that cause premature aging of rubber compounds. I’ve done this for years, and this system works well. By only driving the winter tires in winter, they last many seasons — saves miles on your fuel-efficient tires, too.

From the Nov. 13-19, 2013, issue

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