POSTSCRIPT / April 23, 2006 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Oil hits $75! What's an economical car to drive?

SOARING PRICES: Quick! Where is Daniel D. Dingel and his water-powered (actually hydrogen gas-fired) red Corolla? Where do we buy diesel mixed with cheap alcohol? Now where is that trusty bicycle again?

Like Paul Revere galloping in the night with dire news, a breathless CNN reported yesterday that “oil smashed through record highs Friday, cruising past $75 a barrel on continued fears of supply disruptions in Iran and Nigeria and reports of spot gas shortages on the US East Coast.”

CNN said that soaring prices could start eating into demand and certain predictions — like one attributed to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez that oil could spike to $100 a barrel if the US attacks Iran — are not helping.

Regular gasoline in the deregulated US market averaged $2.855 for a gallon Friday, up 35 cents, or about 14 percent, from last month. That price translates to P39.22 per liter, if my arithmetic still works.

For the curious, the world’s top three gas guzzlers are the US (runaway leader), Japan and China, in that descending order. China is No. 3 by its sheer size and the demands of its burgeoning industries, not because the bulk of its 1.3 billion population suddenly traded its bicycles for motor vehicles.

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CAUGHT UNPREPARED: What can we in the Philippines do? Nothing, except to watch helplessly as the pump price of premium gasoline soars past P40 per liter.

Nobody — not Malacanang, nor Congress, nor the oil companies nor consumer groups — has done anything significant to at least blunt the impact of fuel price increases. We improvise at the last minute, when it is usually too late.

But, mark this, we will soon be bombarded by tons of press releases — about the President ordering this and that, the oil companies pledging to keep prices low as long as possible, some opposition leaders denouncing the administration’s ineptness, and a businessman putting out ads peddling his unsolicited advice.

Looking for a positive angle, if any, let us just hope the resulting slump in fuel consumption may ease traffic in the metropolis on a scale that no idiotic traffic coding experiment has ever succeeded doing.

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FUEL ECONOMY: On a sidebar, CNNMoney and Edmunds.com compared notes and selected the top US cars in five categories that they said are smart buys and at the same time easy on fuel.

No car is tops in all departments, but the duo balanced fuel mileage and outstanding automotive values.

You will notice Toyota’s seeming omnipresence on the list, but CNN and Edmunds are not apologizing. They said Toyota “builds high-quality cars by every measure and cars that are very fuel-efficient.”

There are many factors affecting mileage. But I assume CNN and Edmunds leveled the field by testing the vehicles on the same track conditions, same fuel, same operator and therefore same driving habits.

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COMPACT: In the compact car category, their top choice is Toyota Corolla (costs about $15,000), which logs 32 miles/gallon in the city and 41 miles/gallon on the highway (converted, that is 13.5 km/liter and 17.3 km/liter, respectively).

The Corollas researched on have 1.8-liter displacement, 4-cylinder engines, manual and automatic transmission. In comparison, the more popular model in Manila has a 1.6-liter engine.

The five-passenger, front-wheel-drive Corolla in the US comes as a sedan. Trim levels include the base CE, the better-equipped LE, the somewhat sporty S and the truly sporty XRS.

Chosen as economical alternatives in the CNN-Edmunds research are Honda Civic and Volkswagen Jetta TDI.

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CROSSOVER/WAGON: Top pick here is Toyota RAV4, posting a mileage of 24 city/30 highway (or 10 km/liter and 12.7 km/liter, respectively).

In this class are the midsize SUVs or sports utility vehicles. To Manilans, these are between the bigger vans like the Expedition and the smaller AUVs or Asian utility vehicles like the Crosswind.

The RAV4 models in the US are the 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder, and the bigger 3.5-liter, 6-cylinder wagons, both with automatic transmission. The model evaluated for economy had the 4-cylinder engine, priced at about $22,000.

The four-door RAV4 crossover SUV is offered in three trim levels: base, Sport and Limited. The RAV4 Sport has 18-inch alloy wheels and wider tires, a sport-tuned suspension, color-keyed overfenders, and a roof rack. The top-line Limited includes 17-inch alloy wheels, a roof rack dual-zone automatic climate control, a power driver seat and upgraded audio with a six-disc CD changer.

In Manila, the new RAV4 is now 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder — bigger and roomier than the older 2-liter model.

Alternative picks of CNN-Edmunds for this category are: Honda CRV, Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent.

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SPORTS CAR: Not that there is a big market for this in Manila, but for the record, the choice is Chevrolet Corvette, with its 18 city/28 highway mileage (or 7.6 km/liter and 11.8 km/liter, respectively).

The smaller model (which was evaluated for mileage) has a 6-liter, 8-cyliner engine. The bigger V-8 engine is 7-liter. Price of the 6-liter is $45,000, still affordable for children of smugglers, illegal loggers and pork barrel addicts.

Being a sports car, the Corvette comes with manual transmission to give the driver the feeling that he makes all the shifting decisions.

I do not know about sports cars, but CNN-Edmunds says that in terms of performance, the Corvette is hard to beat, adding: “When cost is factored in, it just blows everything else away. Its impressive fuel mileage, particularly in highway driving, just adds to the ‘Vettes value equation. (Here’s a little secret. The manual says ‘premium,’ but it’ll run fine on regular.)”

The economical sports alternatives offered are: Mercedes-Benz CLK350 and Mazda MX-5 Miata.

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FAMILY SEDAN: Their choice here is Toyota Camry, whose 2.4-liter version has a mileage of 24 city/34 highway (or 10 km/liter and 14.3 km/liter, respectively).

The 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder model has a price tag of $20,000. The bigger engine is 3.5-liter, 6-cylinder. Both come with either manual or automatic transmission.

For the 2007 model year, CNN-Edmunds says that Toyota made the design a little less ordinary while improving just about every aspect of its comfort and performance. “Not that any of that was terribly poor to begin with.”

The economical alternatives for this class: Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.

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LUXURY VEHICLE: Anybody who can afford a luxury vehicle, so it is said, can pay for expensive gold-laced gasoline. Anyway, the economy choice here is Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI.

The E320 CDI is priced at about $50,000. Its mileage is 27 city/37 highway (or 11.4 km/liter and 15.6 km/liter, respectively). Considering its 3.2-liter engine, that is efficient use of fuel, especially on the highway.

The midsize sedan/wagon comes with a 3.2-liter or 3.5-liter, 6-cylinder engine. The 8-cyliner model has 5-liter displacement. All models — in three trim levels E350, E320 CDI (sedan only) and E500 — have automatic transmission.

CNN-Edmund says: “The E-class is a really good all-around luxury sedan. With an optional high-mileage diesel engine, it also gets genuinely impressive fuel mileage.”

The economical alternatives listed are: Audi A4 and BMW 3-series.

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MERCURY CASE: My last Postscript mentioned mercury poisoning in the Diwalwal waterways and the government’s inaction. I also mentioned the efforts of Lafayette Phils. Inc. to address small-scale spillage of process water and effluents — not tailings — in Albay.

Now here is a contrasting story about Shell Philippines Exploration B.V. (SPEX) helping in a mercury contamination that is not even its own doing.

When a story came out about mercury pollution in St. Andrew’s School in Parañaque, a mercury level assessment was conducted in the school by experts from Shell Malaysia Exploration and Production, SPEX and Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corp., together with a 10-man team from the Department of Health, Bureau of Fire Protection, and the University of the Philippines in Manila.

Shell Malaysia chemists Fabian Yeap and Johari Junaidi conducted evaluation using Jerome 431-X mercury vapor analyzers with patented gold film sensor for accurate detection and measurement of toxic mercury in the air. Shell offered its help for free.

Let us wait for the technical evaluation results. We need more Good Samaritans like SPEX. In an age and time when good souls and conscientious companies are rarities, the act is like a breath of fresh air. Refreshing.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 23, 2006)

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