Cadi CTS & Toyota e-com: Worlds Apart
By Jim Motavalli
(Syndicated Wheels Column 5.14.02)

I spent the early part of last week on the bucolic campus of the University of California at Irvine, talking clean cars on a remote broadcast of Ben Wattenbergís PBS program Think Tank. The show is usually filmed in Washington, but it had made this rare field trip to Irvine because it is home to the National Fuel Cell Research Center, and also a fascinating program called Zero Emission Vehicle - Network Enabled Transport (ZEV-NET).

ZEV-NET is a way for work-bound warriors to enjoy almost guilt-free commuting. Traveler number one drives his zero-emission electric car to the train station, where it plugs into solar- and fuel-cell-powered rechargers. Soon after, traveler number two arrives on the train, picks up the recharged EV and drives to work. At the end of the day, he takes the car back to the station, where traveler number one intercepts it. Two people are freed from the tyranny of the tailpipe, and with no residual power plant emissions, either! The program uses tiny two-passenger Toyota e-coms, which are not otherwise available in the U.S.

The general feeling on the show was that fuel cells and hybrid cars are definitely a good thing, and that conservatives can embrace them along with liberals--just as long as people arenít forced into the vehicles by grim government mandates of the type just passed in California. Conservatives prefer to see the invisible hand of the marketplace making decisions. But not only does the Golden State have the toughest emissions laws in the country and a 2003 mandate forcing automakers to produce EVs, it also recently passed a law limiting tailpipe-based global warming gas. The auto industry worked hard to stop the climate change bill, but in the end it cleared the state House and Senate rather easily.

Californiaís activism is not the work of pie-in-the-sky greenies. Itís based on the stark reality that the state has really filthy air, the worst in the country, according to the American Lung Association. Personally, I think we need legislation to clear our skies, because the corporate cleanup isnít moving fast enough. In response to smog, the car industry offers individual air filters so you donít have to breathe in the fumes. In response to gridlock, it designs high-tech telematics applications (like global positioning, back-seat DVD and satellite radios) to make the wait in your car more enjoyable. I say, letís try ZEV-NET and systems like it, because they offer a real alternative.

Back home, I returned to the grind, if thatís the word when your commuter car is a 2003 Cadillac CTS. This futuristic vehicle takes styling cues from the latest angular SUVs, and it certainly stands out in a sea of sameness. Reviewer Ann Job calls it ďbrutish.Ē But short of wearing a backwards baseball cap, driving a rear-wheel-drive CTS is the best way I know to draw a crowd of teenagers. And itís been decades since any of them expressed an interest in a Cadillac. The car is all sharp angles and planes, and looks like a big cell phone.

The CTS offers a very comfortable leather and wood interior, with good accommodations for five. This is a $30,000 car (and the lowest-priced Cadillac) with a host of neat features, including a sharp Getrag five-speed manual transmission (whose shifter, unfortunately, causes collisions with the driverís cell phone plug), dual-zone climate control, a great stereo, and the inevitable telematics: the On-Star system, featuring wired roadside assistance and hands-free dialing for the telephone.

Under the hood is a very responsive 3.2-liter double-overhead-cam V-6 producing 220 horsepower. Fuel economy is a so-so 18 mpg in town and 25 on the highway. The car is relatively nimble, and feels smaller than it actually is. Some have complained that the ride is unduly harsh, but I thought it a good mix of stiffness and comfort. If I could, Iíd prefer to commute in an e-com, but Iím not planning a move to Irvine anytime soon. Until then, tailpipe-equipped cars like the Cadillac CTS will have to do.

(Jim Motavalli is editor of E magazine and the author of Forward Drive & Breaking Gridlock on Sierra Books)