Greenwashing the Beast

How car companies are marketing gas guzzlers as green.

Car makers, desperate to move lingering inventories, are immersed in frenzied marketing campaigns, bombarding us with TV ads that dangle attractive zero-down financing and $1,000 rebates. While the sticker deals appeal to all consumers, the language lauding eco-flavored 2011 models is shamelessly aimed at a specific audience: The responsible buyer who might break down and crossover to a road hog at last.

Consider the Ford Flex Ecoboost edition. Praised for its twin turbocharged 3.5 liter engine offering V8 power and unsurpassed,V6-like fuel efficiency (EPA estimated 16 city/21hwy/18 combined mpg), it hauls ass fast for what is essentially a reconfigured minivan for seven passengers and minimal cargo space. The term “ecoboost” is a grabber – one that implies the stretch cube is infused with the kind of green engineering that will end global warming and reduce landfill plastic. But in reality, it means if you need to commute daily in a flashy bus, the gas savings is better than most.

Edmunds notes, “despite the added power and performance, the EcoBoost V6 manages to achieve the same fuel economy as the standard V6.” While the auto review publication admits the Flex isn’t “sporty” it adds that “the EcoBoost variants should supply enough excitement for the majority of drivers.”

Male reviewers love the giddy up of the Flex, which takes a mere 6.6 seconds to reach 60 mph while enjoying a quiet, smooth, Coupe Deville kind of ride. This punch makes it much more fun to drive than the standard model – and for an additional $10,670, the boost should be quite a blast. As Chrysler emphasizes in its recent Town and Country ads, safety and technology should be standard – not costly options – and the same should apply to fuel efficiency and other green benefits – which now greatly jack up prices.

This is especially true with new breed of  SUV hybrids – like the Chevy Tahoe – packaged as a great gas saving sport vehicle and retailing for up to $53,000 and change. This is compared to the non hybrid which sells for a more affordable sticker price of $37,000 and upwards.

What do you get for the extra $15,000? Well, you get to flaunt the eco moniker, for one thing, plus pretty good mileage for a sporty soccer mom shuttle. The Tahoe boasts better fuel economy than any competitors in its class: an EPA estimated 20 MPG in the city, 23 on the highway. This with 332 horsepower, 367 lb-ft of torque and up to 6,2000 lbs. of towing capacity. Towing capacity is always important in considering a hybrid. Sure it is!

Essentially, this means the SUV holds up to some of the new mid-size hybrids, like the 2011 Ford  Fusion rated number two in its class, and demonstrating efficiency with 23 mpg in the city. Priced at around $28,000, it  also wows with eco-friendly cloth seats and an eco flow display system to track the power-train’s four modes of operation. But both the Fusion -with these sexy green features – and the Tahoe seem ridiculous when compared with the original gas savers, like the Toyota Prius,which gets 51/48 mpg city/highway.

Some complain about capacity, along with low visibility in the Prius – but avid composters and reusable bag toters seem to have adjusted just fine. The pernicious greenwashing of the hogs may assuage the guilt in choosing an SUV, but serves little other purpose.

Perhaps Lexus – the leader in the luxury SUV hybrid market – has performed the most egregious washing to date in its partnership with the Fairmont hotels to offer “the Lexus Hybrid Living Eco-chic  Suites” in San Francisco and Washington.

Auto Blog Green called the marketing ploy “taking hybrid hype to the next level” because it links the experience of driving the Lexus LS 600h (a $111,000, 21 mpg, 12 cylinder sedan) with green amenities that can make the affluent feel good about their footprints: bamboo furnishings, an organic mattress, a mini bar stocked with local biodynamic wines and coffee tables fabricated with recycled leather from Lexus cars. It only runs $869 a night – a pittance for potential buyers of an LS 600h – a hybrid which emits an annual 8.7 tons of CO2 with an air pollution score of 8 out of 10.

It all boils down to experience, really, and how much you care about the price of filling up and emitting. If you care a great deal, you might be a Smart Car or Nissan Leaf devotee. If you have those concerns, but care more about power and luxury, you just might buy into the green hype, getting the comfort and status you need along with an eco-boost from the letter “H” glued on the rear for all to see.

Images: Ford; GM; Toyota; Lexus

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.