What Environmentalists Never Told Me About Cars

It’s popular to hate cars right now. And, really, it’s not without reason. The are spectacular polluters, they decentralize infrastructure in a way that spreads fragility (as opposed to antifragilility), they guzzle fossil fuels, and each has a tremendous amount of embodied energy from the moment they roll off the assembly line. In short, cars are terrible.

But they’re also a godsend.

Growing up I hated cars and car culture. I hated speed demons and commuters who sat in stop-and-go traffic for 2 hours a day alike. I hated freeways, parking lots, gas pumps, and everything to do with them. Because I was fortunate enough growing up to be able to get rides to every place I wanted to go, and to be located in such a way that I could walk to some of them myself. When I lived in NYC, owning a car was a laughable idea – what, and own a racehorse too?

Growing up in Los Angeles, cars were both irritating and ubiquitous. I was alienated without one, so I puffed up with a superiority complex that I would later justify using green-speak. But there were things about cars that I’ve since learned on my own – things that no environmentalist worth their salt, or even the greatest automobile advocate, will ever tell you.

1. Driving is freedom.

Driving is a pain in the ass, it’s not cheap, and depending on where you live, it can really, really, not be worth it some days. But other days, when you need to go to the store and your local transit infrastructure is nonexistent, or at least so underdeveloped that not even the poor bother with it? You can just hop in your car and go. And that’s just destinations in the city. What if you want to go camping, or hiking, or someplace else off the beaten path? You think a bus or train is going to take you there? Fat chance. Hope you didn’t intend on ever “getting away from it all” again because you ditched your car for hippy points.

2. It can actually help you save money.

Because public spaces are increasingly under attack in this country, it’s almost impossible to go out daytripping around town without being bombarded by advertising, enticed by fancy eateries, and just plain surrounded by places designed to squeeze your extra dollars out of you without you barely even noticing until you you get that low balance notification from your bank. There’s not actually that much to do in many cities these days but shop and eat, and most metropolises’ downtown districts are pretty much carbon copies of each other, featuring the same chain eateries and the same stores. Couple that reality with the silent encroachment of NO LOITERING signs and uncomfortable park benches and you get a frustrating situation in which there is no place to go in the city where you don’t feel pressured to break out the credit card.

But as I said above, owning a car can get you away from all of that. It can get you to a campsite or a beach or the trail, where loitering is encouraged, the bathrooms aren’t for “paying customers only”, and where you are likely going to be packing in your own picnic – no need to be tempted by a $10 sandwich or $4 coffee to go about your day.

3. Every car is capable of getting more than its advertised MPG.

And without modifications, even. No, it’s not rocket science, but you will have to fight the urge to drive fast and hard. Basically, the trick is to drive like you’re in a big rig: slow and steady. Maintaining your car’s momentum is key, here. Keep your RPMs low, don’t accelerate quickly, and try to brake as little as possible. Keep a large distance between you and the vehicle ahead, so that you don’t have to brake every time they do, simply letting off the gas and coasting instead. If you have a small, aerodynamic car, you can afford to go a little faster, but if you’re heavier and blockier, your inertial sweet spot will be lower. For instance, on my Cherokee, it’s been said that that “sweet spot” in maximizing both speed and efficiency is about 58 MPH. Still being in Los Angeles, I go faster than this – no more than 65 – just for sheer sanity’s sake. A 1 or 2 MPG drop in fuel economy is a worthwhile trade-off if it means not being angrily tailgated and yelled at by jerks who absolutely insist on speeding in the truck lanes. But, YMMV. (Pun intended.) Finding that sweet spot is like striking gold, though. My car’s user manual lists a highway MPG of 18, while I regularly average about 20, and have gotten as much as 25 without making a single modification to my engine, ignition, or exhaust system. (In the near future, I plan on installing an upgraded ignition kit that will increase my average efficiency by about 2 MPG: a $200 upgrade that will pay for itself in less than a year.)

For the slightly more maintenance-minded, adding a detergent to your fuel at fill-up will also help to increase your mileage. There are a lot of products out there that do this – Magic Mystery Oil, Seafoam, and so forth – so you’ll have to find which one your engine likes best. Keeping gas station receipts and entering them into a spreadsheet also helps in zeroing in on the factors contributing to good or poor fuel economy. Everything from the weather to what brand of gas you use can have a larger impact than you think. Whatever you do, though, don’t trust your memory when it comes to maxing out your MPG. You need to keep track of the numbers.

For more information on this sort of thing with your  vehicle, just do a web search for “econo-modding” for your year, make and model, and you’ll surely come across forum thread after forum thread of enthusiastic owners who have experimented with everything under the sun and reported their results for anyone to learn from.

4. There is a whole world of local manufacturing still out there for you to support.

In working on my Jeep as much as I have over the past year, I’ve met a lot of mechanics. But what I didn’t expect to find were the machinists, the engineers, and the blue-collar manufacturers that keep the aftermarket parts economy going. I recently replaced my sagging, 22-year-old rear suspension with OEM replacement leaf-spring packs and bushings, but the bushings needed to be pressed. When I called my mechanic to find out what was involved, I quickly found out that this was a bigger job than I was ever expecting: I spent weeks calling around to find out who might have a multi-ton press to push the metal-encased plugs of rubber into the steel eyes of the leaf pack, and wound up driving across town to a family-owned machine shop for the job. I was summarily treated like family myself, invited into the WW2-era warehouse complete with gorgeous machining equipment that had to be almost just as old as the building itself, offered coffee, and was promptly treated to a sparknotes’ version of the proprietor’s life history. Apparently I’d stumbled into one of LA’s best shops for building, customizing, and fixing drivetrains, and I was happy to see the two men so busy. They’d been in that building since the 70’s.

If I had never owned an older car that I enjoyed working on, I would have never known that these kinds of places still existed, staffed with experienced folks with genius minds and deft hands, sometimes using low-tech equipment older than they are.

In the end, they decided they didn’t want my money in exchange for the use of their press, asking me only to leave a good Yelp review for them, which I promptly did. In the end, not a single component of the leaf pack (aside from the smelted steel itself, maybe) was made overseas. Not many components for much of anything can say that anymore.

5. Not all engines are created equal.

Some engines are terrible, most are average, and some are legendary. (Like my famous straight six, which is no longer used in new vehicles to my knowledge.) Before buying a car, do your due diligence. Really do your due diligence. Part of this is to avoid the draw of new things – don’t be an early adopter for anything, because the joke will inevitably be on you. Wait at least a few years for the recalls to start coming in, the wear and tear reports from daily drivers, to find out what the manufacturer decided to drop and decided to keep for the next year’s model. Jeep engines, for instance, are generally regarded as pretty unreliable in the current day and age (that is, since they dropped the I6!), and unless you only want to keep your stock vehicle for a few years or you have the money and gumption to modify the hell out of your machine, then it’s best to stay within a certain year range and go with older models.

The I6 is widely regarded as a “bulletproof” engine for a number of reasons: mostly it’s just a really solid design, but other things, like how low maintenance and resilient it is, make it one of the best ever made. It requires no special treatment, though it does require a little kindness: drivers that change fluids regularly and never overheat stand a decent chance of making it past the half-million mile mark on their odometer. And if you’re good to the rest of the car, then what’s an engine swap when the beast finally kicks the bucket? It’s certainly a lighter footprint to put in a used engine with low miles than to go out and buy a whole new car to run into the ground.

That said, regular maintenance is critical to a long-lived vehicle. Regular fluid changes, including those who have much longer schedules than oil (like, say, transmission or differential fluid, which need to be changed around every 30k and 100k miles, respectively) go a long way to keeping your car happy and healthy. Also, take care of your tires: getting them balanced, rotated, aligned, and properly inflated will help them last a lot longer as the tread wears evenly.

Cars are not evil. At least, not any more evil than personal computers, smartphones, or light bulbs are. For many people, they’re the only way to get around, or to get away. A lot of people depend on them for the livelihoods, and love nothing more than to see old things taken care of and used long after their supposed pull-by date. And they can last a lot longer than most people give them credit for. All it takes is a little mindful stewardship, some preventative maintenance, and research.

Oh, and some love, too.

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