Ahhhh, it's like a breath of fresh air
Ford's low-emission 2005 Focus is among a growing class of gas-powered vehicles that are actually greener than electrics.

No one loves breathing more than I do. Some think breathing is overrated - the dead, for instance. Not me.

So props to the members of the California Air Resources Board for being such sticklers about, well, air. In the past 14 years, the board has put the screws to automakers, requiring them to sell more clean vehicles as part of the state's zero-emission vehicle mandate.

Much of this history is of the seeing-sausage-made variety. However, as it stands now, beginning in 2005 automakers can partially fulfill their rising quota of California-certified green vehicles with PZEV vehicles. PZEV stands for partial zero-emission vehicle and it is the highest standard for gasoline-engine vehicles.

To qualify as a PZEV, a vehicle must first meet the super-ultra-low-emission vehicle standard: 97% fewer hydrocarbon emissions, 76% less carbon dioxide and 97% less nitrogen oxide than the national Tier 1 emission standard.

A PZEV must also have no evaporative losses (gas fumes) from the fuel system. And the whole shebang - powertrain and fuel system - has to be warranted to meet standards for 15 years or 150,000 miles.

FOR THE RECORD: Car emissions -- A column in last week's Highway 1 section about the Ford Focus PZEV vehicle said that vehicles qualifying as partial zero-emission vehicles produce less emissions than electric vehicles. While PZEV vehicles can be as clean as hybrid gas-electric vehicles, pure electrics are cleaner.

PZEV vehicles actually pollute less than electric vehicles, if you account for the source-point pollution of the power plants recharging them. In some atmospheric conditions - a brown day in San Bernardino, for instance - PZEV vehicles actually clean the air, which is to say, their emissions are cleaner than the air sucked into the engine.

In terms of noxious emissions, your spouse pollutes more than a PZEV.

Despite automakers' long and litigious assertions to the contrary, they have been able to develop the compliant technologies. There are currently more than 30 PZEV vehicles on the market (visit http://www.driveclean.ca.gov ), including BMW's 3-Series cars and wagon, Honda's Accord, Subaru's suite of Legacy cars and wagons, and Volvo's big V70 wagon - not exactly hair shirts of eco-martyrdom.

So let's hear it for big government. Had California not used its enormous leverage in the marketplace - the state is the biggest vehicle market in the country - the automakers would not have been motivated to develop the engineering that will, now that it is available, become integrated into the larger vehicle market. California's zero-emissions mandate has been adopted, with some variation, in the "green states" of Maine, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. Why, clean air is spreading like a prairie fire.

Breathing may yet make a comeback.

I spent a week recently with a PZEV-certified Ford Focus. The Focus has been lightly redesigned outside and in for 2005. The new cars are powered by next-generation Duratec engines in displacements of 2.0 and 2.3 liters. The PZEV cars employ the 20E version of the 2.0-liter engine (130 horsepower).

The new Focus is a nice little urbanaut - I drove the workaday SES trim level - and Ford will be happy to PowerPoint you to the brink of insanity with charts showing improvements in Focus' initial quality and customer satisfaction. The suspension has been beefed up, the brakes enlarged, and the exterior and interior styling have a finer, more formal line.

All stipulated. What interested me, however, was the means by wich you turn a gas-powered automobile into a four-wheel room fr hener.

The first order of business is to improve combustion efficiency. The 20E uses a very trick set of butterfly valves situated in the four intake runners to increase turbulence ("swirl") in the cylinders at low rpm. These valves also allow the engine to run very lean mixtures without stumbling or stalling during cold starts. Special 12-hole fuel injectors - as compared to the usual four-hole design - better aerosolize the fuel.

Anyone who has ever rebuilt an engine can't help but admire the machining precision required to make this engine PZEV. The cylinder bores have to be micron precise so that no oil slips past the rings for 150,000 miles. To achieve those tolerances, Ford had to buy millions of dollars' worth of special honing machinery. And if such oil leakage does occur, Ford won't attempt to fix it in situ. The dealer will simply jerk the engine and install a new one. The faulty engine would likely go back to Dearborn for an R&D autopsy.

Peak tailpipe emissions are associated with cold starts, before the catalytic converters in the exhaust system have reached operating temperatures - the "light-off" point. To improve light-off speed, the 20E design situates the catalytic "bricks" practically inside the exhaust manifold. Ford calls it a "mani-cat" design. To further improve light-off response, the 20E uses a thermactor valve that forces hot gases toward the catalytic bricks until they are up to temperature. Another set of catalytic bricks is situated farther down the exhaust pipe to clean up any remaining pollutants.

PZEV's evaporative emission standard is just as daunting. Most cars release a faint vapor of evaporating gas leaching from fuel connectors, the engine intake and their plastic gas tanks, through which naughty molecules escape. The Focus PZEV uses a steel gas tank and leak-proof connectors and fuel lines.

Another source of hydrocarbon vapors: when a vehicle is shut off, some of the fuel-air mixture floats back through the intake system. The Focus has a hydrocarbon trap that acts like a sponge, soaking up loose hydrocarbons in the intake. When the engine is restarted, this trap releases the hydrocarbons to be burned in the engine.

Thus equipped, a Focus PZEV produces 1 pound of smog-forming pollution for every 15,000 miles driven, roughly one-tenth that produced by last year's Focus with a Zetec engine. Meanwhile, fuel economy and engine torque are both up fractionally.

And they said it couldn't be done. In fact, they always say it can't be done.

That's the message I take from the Focus PZEV. Carmakers routinely lobby and litigate against government-mandated improvements to the automobile - from shoulder belts to CAFE standards - using the same arguments: It will cost consumers more money; it will put people out of work; it can't be done. And yet time and again we see it can, when the genius of the auto industry is put to work.

We should always ask for more.

2005 Ford Focus ZX3 PZEV

Wheelbase: 102.9 inches

Length: 168.5 inches

Curb weight: 2,694 pounds

Powertrain: 2.0-liter Duratec I-4, dual-overhead cam engine, five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 130 horsepower at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 129 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm

Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 9.0 seconds (with M5 transmission)

EPA rating: 26 miles per gallon city, 35 mpg highway

Price, base: $13,550

Price, as tested: $16,150

Competitor: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla

Final thoughts: Air apparent

Source: Ford Motor Company


Models making the grade

Below is a list of 2004 model year cars certified as partial zero- emission vehicles. To qualify, a car must meet the California Air Resources Board super-ultra- low-emissio vehicle standard, have no evaporative emissions, and have a powr rain warranty of 15 years or 150,000 miles.

BMW: 325Ci coupe, 325i sedan, 325i sports wagon

DaimlerChrysler: Sebring sedan

Dodge: Stratus SXT sedan

Ford: Focus LX, SE and ZTS sedan; Focus ZX3 and ZX5 hatchback; Focus SE and ZTW wagon

Honda: Accord EX and LX sedan

Hyundai: Elantra GLS 2.0L

Mazda: Mazda3

Mitsubishi: Galant DE and ES 2.4L

Nissan: Altima 2.5, 2.5S and 2.5SL; Sentra 1.8

Subaru: Legacy 2.5 GT and L sedan; Legacy 2.5 GT, L wagon; Legacy Outback Limited wagon and sedan

Toyota: Camry LE, SE and XLE

Volkswagen: Jetta GL and GLS 2.0L sedan

Volvo: 2.4 S60 sedan; V70 wagon

Source: California Air Resources Board