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That Little Old Lady From Pasadena? She’s Driving a Green Machine

Will older drivers support the shift to environment-friendly cars?

green machine

— Photo by Colin Anderson/Getty Images

Though hardly luxurious, they’re a huge step up from their econo-box predecessors in terms of amenities, style, performance and fit-and-finish. Ford hopes that including features from higher-end vehicles will entice older drivers into these smaller, highly efficient, gasoline-powered cars. Gone are the days, says Pipas, when retirees will be driving around in “old Lincoln Town Cars and Grand Marquis and Buick Park Avenues.”

Going electric

While hybrids and miniaturized fuel sippers are bridge technologies—a first step to ratcheting down emissions—they still burn gas. Electric vehicles, or EVs, represent the first revolutionary step toward reducing dependence on foreign oil, because they emit no pollutants from the tailpipe (pollution produced by the electricity is a separate, important issue).

But they’ll require a substantial shift in behavior from drivers, and because so few EVs are on the road, it’s unclear how older Americans will respond. Most run at low speeds and can’t go terribly far on a charge, limiting their marketability. That said, a study by CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., found that buyers age 56 and over accounted for 40 percent of electric car purchases last year. “Older Americans have been responsible for the growth in hybrid and electric vehicles,” says Art Spinella, the firm’s president.

Nissan is nudging people over the electric hurdle with its Leaf, due in December, which can go 100 miles before recharging. Nissan North America conducted its own nationwide survey and found that of people over 55, more than 40 percent would consider owning a battery electric vehicle, while more than 70 percent disagreed with the statement that they would never buy a vehicle that did not run on gasoline (compared with 66 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds).

“This indicates openness to new solutions and to learning more about what these products would offer and how it would fit into their lifestyles,” said Nissan market researcher Joetta Gobell. The survey also indicates that more than 80 percent of that age group have a garage or carport, meaning they can safely and simply recharge right at home.

One likely electric vehicle customer is Tom Dowling, a 72-year-old retiree living in Folsom, Calif. He’s eyeing either the Leaf or the Chevy Volt. A longtime electric vehicle enthusiast, he previously owned General Motors’ initial electric vehicle, the EV1, as well as a Chevy S10 electric pickup and a Ford Ranger EV, and currently owns two Toyota RAV4 EVs. He says EVs are great for the frequent trips he and his wife make within a 25- to 30-mile radius of their home. “We love never having to buy gasoline and the quiet and smooth driving,” he says.

EVs can also even out expenses for those living on a fixed income, because they reduce exposure to fluctuating fuel prices. In fact, driving an EV costs about one-third as much as driving a car on gas at $2.80 a gallon, according to Luke Tonachel of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Electric vehicles cut out the cost of maintenance such as oil changes, adds John O’Dell, editor of Edmunds “It could be part of a well-planned retirement to have one,” he says.

He also thinks boomers’ romantic notions of the automobile could work in manufacturers’ favor. “There’s a bigger cohort of the new senior citizen who still thinks of the car as something exciting and fun and an extension of their personality,” he says, so if they “lean green, they’ll be more willing to buy green.”

Hurdles to going green

Of course, the challenge will be to sway the vast majority of older Americans who have never driven a green vehicle. And although boomers are conscious of the environment perhaps more than previous generations of older adults, they don’t necessarily want to make trade-offs, at least according Donna Boland, a spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz USA. In particular, she says, customers don’t want to pay substantially more for a hybrid vehicle. With that in mind, the company tried to keep costs down when designing its S400 hybrid, for example using a V6 instead of a V8 engine. The luxury sedan still costs $87,950, which is in line with its conventional competitors.

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