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Middle of the road 

Ron Cogan of San Luis Obispo, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal, debuted the first Green Car of the Year award at last weekend’s Los Angeles Auto Show. A jury of distinguished automotive and environmental icons weighed the merits of five finalists for the 2006 Green Car of the Year, all gasoline-electric hybrids: the Honda Accord Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid, Lexus RX 400h, Mercury Mariner Hybrid, and Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The Mercury Mariner won first place honors for making “the most significant advancements toward greater environmental performance.�

Cogan, who drives a Toyota Highlander Hybrid on long-term loan for testing, started the Green Car Newsletter in 1992 while working for Motor Trend magazine. In 2003 he published the well-received Green Car Journal Special Edition, which became the quarterly magazine Green Car Journal.

New Times How did you start the Green Car of the Year award and was it hard to build support?

Ron Cogan No, it wasn’t hard to build support for it. It’s been on our mind for three years and we finally felt it was time to launch it. It’s an acknowledgment of environmental leadership in the automotive industry.

Just developing the nuts and bolts of this, so it was a respected program, was a big deal to us because we’re working with major environmental groups from the Sierra Club to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and we’re working with icons like Carroll Shelby and Mario Andretti, hugely respected.

We spent a lot of time making sure this program was designed right, so that it would not only come out of the gate as being acknowledged as a real program that’s meaningful, but also that it would hold that distinction ten years from now.

New Times It sounds like you’re trying to reach the greater public with such a broad list of groups involved. Is that the goal?

Cogan The goal is we don’t want it to be a program that’s a reflection of just the magazine. We want that additional acknowledgment that comes from working with highly respected sources.

Working with icons in the auto industry is important, so a lot of auto enthusiasts take this seriously. Working with top environmental groups is important, so environmentally-inclined people who are looking for better answers in car purchases take it seriously.

Combining the two allows it to reach a broad audience and get wide acknowledgment because it’s not an environmental competition, it’s not an automotive competition, it’s both.

New Times And what was the response from people down at the car show? These hybrids don’t look different from other cars.

Cogan In the end that’s really important. The first two hybrids that were out, the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, were quirky cars. The Insight had fender skirts; it’s just an odd swoopy look. The Toyota Prius was a quirky design by American standards. It might have looked okay in Japan and other world markets but it was odd for the U.S. The idea was to gain attention when they first came out in 2000. Now the idea is to just blend them into offerings at the showroom.

New Times Did the Mariner win because it looks like a regular gasoline car?

Cogan I can’t speak for the individual jurors who represent the majority. I can say in a general way that SUVs are a class of vehicle that need more help than almost anything out there because they’re so popular, and there are so many of them on the road. I don’t believe that SUVs will go away. I believe the large ones will probably diminish in popularity but the mid-size ones, like the Mariner or the Ford Escape, I think those will continue to be popular. So applying a hybrid power train to a mid-size SUV seems like a very logical and smart thing to do.

New Times Is there going to be a day where every car out there is going to be a hybrid?

Cogan No. I think we’ll see a day when we have some pretty interesting choices at the showroom, where you can walk in and find the vehicle that appeals to you — whether it’s a cross-over vehicle, or an SUV or a sedan, or sports car — and you’re going to have choices of power train or of a near-zero emission gasoline model, an advanced diesel model that’s also near-zero emission and high-fuel economy, a hybrid, a gasoline-electric hybrid and at some point a hydrogen-fuel powered vehicle. So what we have is options, and until we get to the point where one power plant is so overwhelmingly the leader, we’re going to have choices.

New Times When you say power plant you mean certain power sources for cars?

Cogan Yeah, it could be that in twenty years from now that hydrogen fuel cell power plants have come so far that they’re affordable, that there’s an infrastructure for hydrogen refueling, that they simply make more sense than anything else. It could be that everything goes that way, but that’s a way off.

New Times What do you see happening in the next couple of years? I’m basically wondering what are the main hindrances to the advancement of hybrids, and do you see those being overcome?

Cogan Well, cost is the number one issue with hybrids, cost and the availability of the components. So automakers are constrained in the number they can make but also they’re going to be constrained to the number they’re willing to commit to because it still an unknown market. So offerings will still be limited in any model-build. For instance the Mercury Mariner hybrid is only slated for a 2000- to 4000-unit build because they’re still trying to feel the market.

We know they’re popular. We know that high gas prices have driven significant interest in hybrids. That’s not going to change.

What we’re going to see is a bigger commitment on the part of automakers, although they’re still hesitant, and we’re going to see a lot more interest in hybrids because suddenly there will be many more choices.

It’s no longer just a few quirky cars on hybrid power. And it’s no longer just small cars. Now we have the Honda Accord. We have four SUVs. We’re about to have the Camry. Lexus is coming out with a luxury sedan as a hybrid. Suddenly when you have choices, hybrid sales (will) start to accelerate rapidly. ?

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.

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