Cartoon by Kristy Dyer

Dyer: The road we didn’t take

Kristy Dyer is a columnist for Black Press Media who writes about the environment

In late April, desperate to get out of the house, we took the family on a drive into the mountains east of the Okanagan Valley to see a nearby lake. It was a beautiful day, the Balsam flowers were in bloom, and we could hear the rivers rushing in the valley. It was, however, a very short drive. We climbed out of the valley, and found that the dirt road was so washed out we couldn’t continue — we were in danger of high centering on boulders in the road. We could go slower and more carefully, but our all wheel drive Subaru Outback just doesn’t have much clearance. We pulled off the road, had our picnic, and returned better for the fresh air (and without violating any public park COVID rules) but without reaching the lake.

READ MORE: Best cars for achieving your New Year’s resolutions

When we moved to the Okanagan from the US southwest we prepped for snow, cold (moderate by Canadian standards) and slippery conditions on the road. Part of that prep was buying a four-wheel or all-wheel drive for winter conditions. We had two good-gas-mileage Honda sedans, so we replaced one with a Subaru all wheel drive. This wasn’t just for city driving with rain, ice and snow: my husband drives 24 km to work every day, half of that on a local road, often before the snowplow has been through.

We prepped for snow, cold, and slippery conditions: We bought a Subaru all wheel drive

Did we buy the wrong car? The Subaru Outback looks like a subcompact compared to many of the SUVs and trucks I see around me. Why didn’t we get something with more clearance? I can answer that question by plotting the clearance and gas mileage of the most popular trucks and SUVs in Canada answers that question. There isn’t a direct correlation between gas mileage and clearance but in order to increase our clearance significantly, say from 22 to 27 cm, we would have to live daily with significantly worse mileage: from 8 L/100km to 10 L/100km I marked a few outstanding trucks/SUVs: the Chevrolet Colorado gives you maximum clearance at the best gas mileage. The GMC Sierra is the worst of all worlds, less clearance than our Subaru Outback and much much worse gas mileage. If all you need is traction the Nissan Rogue gets even better gas mileage than what we chose. Want to see the whole dataset?

The problem with super sizing your transportation is that 99% of driving is on paved roads, in gentle weather conditions, to and from work, school and the grocery store. Unless you have a fleet of cars to choose from, your truck or SUV is going to spend most of its time, sucking up gas with without putting any of its special attributes to use.

READ MORE: When it comes to vehicles, Canada tops the charts for poor fuel economy

Lets ask one practical question: If we’d bought a different car would my husband make it to work more often in the winter? Surprisingly the answer to this is “no”. The road has two bad spots: a 90 degree turn on the edge of a cliff and a 45 degree turn where the road is slanted the wrong way, sliding cars off the road. Whenever it snows, an employee who lives on the road decides if it’s safe, and calls a “snow day” where everyone works from home. A four wheel drive with high clearance won’t help with these particularly bad turns. As my Dad says “Remember, everyone has 4W brakes”.

So I’m happy with the decision we made. We hit the sweet spot where we have a car suitable for winter weather, without getting truly lousy gas mileage. We appreciate the room for car trips, and we can afford to fill it up. How you choose your sweet spot has an impact on the planet.

The International Energy Agency published a study in March, 2019 on gasoline consumption. While gas mileage in each car class is gradually getting better that doesn’t help when people choose a truck or SUV over a sedan. Canada, normally blameless on the world stage, is the worst country in the world for vehicles: we buy the largest vehicles, we have the highest fuel consumption and emit the most carbon dioxide per kilometre.

What you use for daily transport is the second largest personal contribution towards global warming:

  1. square footage of your house
  2. daily transport,
  3. eating meat vs. vegetarian
  4. airline flights.

Missed last week’s column?

Dyer: I left my heart in the desert

About Kristy Dyer:

Kristy Dyer has a background in art and physics and consulted for Silicon Valley clean energy firms before moving (happily!) to sunny Penticton. Comments to Kristy.Dyer+BP@gmail.com

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