Green with little sacrifice

New cars don't have to be fancy or high-tech to be green. And surprisingly, they don't have to be extremely fuel efficient.

That's the lesson of the 2004 Ford Focus PZEV. The term PZEV (partial zero-emission vehicle) refers to California's emissions rating system for cars.

Such cars produce less than one-fifthof the pollution coming out of the average new car - and do so under warranty for 150,000 miles. Other low-emission vehicles (basically any car sold in California that isn't a truck) produce two to three times the pollution at best and deteriorate more rapidly. True, PZEVs aren't as clean as ZEVs (zero-emission vehicles, which run on batteries), but they don't require compromises in driving range and charging times. California requires automakers to earn a certain number of credits selling low-pollution vehicles. The lower the pollution, the more credits.

The PZEV Focus goes green with so few compromises, many drivers will have no idea they're driving an environmentally friendly car. And it does so at minimal cost. Its special engine is standard equipment in California and the four other states that use the same emissions ratings (New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine). It adds only $106 to the price of an ordinary Focus.

The PZEV engine, which reduces emissions through a host of small improvements from a repositioned catalytic converter, to more relaxed tuning, to a more leak-proof fuel system, is slightly bigger than in other Focuses. It has 15 more horsepower and gets one mile per gallon less in the city (25 versus 26). But the new engine feels more relaxed when accelerating and on the freeway, where it gets 33 m.p.g. It's also quieter.

The Focus comes in four body styles: sedan, wagon, three-door hatchback, and five-door hatchback. The car has lots of room for tall passengers. The sedan's trunk will hold two giant suitcases, a baby stroller, a backpack, and two computer bags. Its steering is precise.

The downside is its flat seats, which feel like cardboard. And early versions of the Focus fell victim to a record five serious recalls in a year. But the recall issues are sorted out, and reliability has been about average, according to Consumer Reports magazine.

New Focuses are rolling out of dealerships with $3,000 cash incentives or zero-percent financing. That means a little more than $13,000 can put a roomy, competent car in your driveway. And one that makes you feel good about the environment.

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