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June 30, 2003

Less is More, None Is Best

No longer will I have the luxury of bitching and whining about the sheer excess that driving a 4000-pound SUV burdens me with. Although it has served my family well over the past two years and we are grateful for having had it, we have finally arranged to replace our chug-a-lug 4x4 with a much more appropriate automobile, a Hyundai Elantra GT. Our new set of wheels weighs approximately two-thirds of what we drive now, has 1/3rd less cylinders and displacement, seats just as many, gets close to twice the fuel economy as our brute, and looks much sexier to boot. Saints be praised! While I'm sure we'll miss the sure-footedness of a 4x4 during the occasional blizzard, the Hyundai will be a highly worthy replacement the other 98% of the time.

Am I happy? You bet I am. There are even a few bonuses in the deal. First, we don't have to give up the well-appointed luxury that we've been treated to in our SUV. Despite an entirely reasonable and affordable sticker price, our GT is decked out with air, CD, sunroof, traction control, ABS, and even leather! You may believe me, or call me a bald-faced liar, but we opted for leather due to the fact that it will be easier to clean off than fabric. No, really! When you have a toddler, and plans for more offspring, one must simply concede that food of all sorts will be consumed in the vehicle, and I would rather wipe off sticky leather than try to mop up or wring out sticky fabric.

The other bonus is an unexpected concession from my wife. It was her idea in the first place to get the leather option, one that I gladly went along with. As can be expected, leather (plus the packaged options that go along with it) is not inexpensive. We thought that we'd be able to swing it, but with final number crunching at the dealership it turns out that leather is slightly beyond our budget - when coupled with an automatic transmission. Although my wife has driven a manual transmission previously, she much prefers automatics simply for comfort's sake. I had simply assumed that we'd get an automatic.

Well, when it came time to decide between leather and automatic, much to my glee she opted for the 5-speed and the leather! I had long ago accepted that it would be years before we'd need a 2nd car for my personal use, which would thereby have my preferred mode of shifting. This was a real coup! Not only will driving me that much more fun again, but we'll get better fuel economy to boot! (Assuming, of course, that I can restrain myself.) Now I only have to allow her the time and tutelage to get her used to and comfortable with the only transmission worth driving. A worthy investment.

Lighter car. Equally well appointed. Nearly twice the fuel economy. Inexpensive, affordable, yet still excellent quality. One would think that I have found my little nirvana in our soon-to-be-delivered vehicle. Well, would you believe that this past week I found a vehicle that makes even this economical mid-size sedan look like a pig? Yup - I had to go and spoil it for myself.

In fact, the vehicle I discovered this week makes just about every liquid dinosaur-powered vehicle look like a wasteful pig. Those who know me might think I've happened upon yet another electric vehicle being mass-produced somewhere in the world. Normally, I'd say that they would probably be right. Until this week I saw Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs to those who love TLAs) as the ultimate in both automotive energy efficiency and good global citizenry. However, I have now seen the light, and that light is coming from a car that runs on compressed air.

I had never heard about MDI's Air Car until I happened upon an article posted at The condensed version of the story is that a Frenchman (not the Quebecker kind, but the European variety) invented an engine that runs on compressed air. Instead of simply shoehorning this technology into a standard automobile, he decided to showcase it and further enable it in an entirely new vehicle, developed from the ground-up as an air-powered car. With a full tank of air at 300 bar (that's 4500 psi for the Imperially-minded) the vehicle is capable of 130km/h, with a range of 2-300km. Weighing in at only 750kg (1650 lbs), this vehicle doubles the mileage and halves the weight of a comparable BEV. Did I mention it also seats six, and comes standard with air conditioning?

Those of you with a bit of technical insight, and those that pay attention when they're filling their tires, will know that 300 bar is an awful lot of pressure. You'd be right... the average automotive tire gets inflated to all of 2 bar, or around 29 psi. Consequently, one cannot simply roll up to the local gas station and fill your tanks with air. Not by a long shot. Even if you work in a facility that has compressed air lines to power air tools, you'd be lucky to get 120 psi - still far short of what you'll need. Well, you've got two options.

The best option is to go to a gas bar that has the compressor jets to fill your tanks in under four minutes, and cost only a couple of dollars for each fill-up. Unfortunately, such equipment isn't found at gas stations today, and gas companies will have to be persuaded to install these likely expensive units that won't provide much direct income. Don't worry, you're not screwed, you're simply delayed. Installed on every vehicle is an electrically powered compressor that will fill your air tanks in 3.5 hours. While this won't allow you to do any extended cross-country trips in record time, it's certainly enough to start with a full tank on your way to work every morning. As most of these cars will likely be used for commuting or puttering about the town, the one-tank range should prove more than sufficient for most likely purchasers.

Of course, like for all good things, one has to wait. The Air Car is not in full production yet, but will be this year - in France. Franchise agreements are being drawn up for those who wish to manufacture and market the vehicle in other parts of the world, and both Canada and the USA are on those lists. So, to wait for a factory to be built in Canada and for the federal government to certify the Air Car as roadworthy, I think I'm going to be waiting at least two years. That may be an optimistic timeline.

Am I going to really do it and purchase an Air Car? Well, I've seen prices projected at anywhere between $12-20000 CDN, depending on what currency you convert from (pounds, euros, US dollars), so they're going to be relatively inexpensive. Based on price, uniqueness, and the phenomenally positive impact these vehicles will have environmentally, you better bet that it's in my long-term plans. And as long as there is a breath of life in the Air Car, I'm going to be telling everyone I can about them, to ensure that when they do show up in Canada that they'll have an eager and willing market.

Meanwhile, I've actually found something equally good, perhaps better. Instead of taking up space on the road in a vehicle - air powered or otherwise - I've started carpooling. provided me with one match to my commuting profile, and now four days out of five I simply pay $5 a day and get chauffeured to and from work. I'm happy, as $20 a week is cheaper than any vehicle I could get, and my fellow carpooler is happy, as he's halved his commuting costs. We're both happy because we're doing our part to reduce our impact on the crappy air we're forced to breathe.

Perhaps I'll be able to convince him to purchase an Air Car in a couple years, and make this smoggy air do some good, for once.


PS. Happy Canada Day, everyone!  

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