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Last Updated: Friday, 1 June 2007, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
Brussels' quest for the green car
By Stephen Mulvey
EU reporter, BBC News

Howls of protest greeted reports earlier this year that the EU's environment commissioner was thinking of swapping his gas-guzzling Mercedes for a green Toyota.

Stavros Dimas
Stavros Dimas: No apology for buying Japanese
A few months on, Stavros Dimas is already using the Japanese-made hybrid car and the uproar has died down.

But there is little sign of other commissioners following his lead.

Two have been trying out a hydrogen-fuelled BMW 7, which has the advantage of being European, clean, and swanky with it.

And one commission insider says no-one else wants a Toyota Prius because it is just not big enough.

Schwarzenegger's footsteps

Mr Dimas, however, is very pleased with his choice, and unrepentant.

"He would have preferred a European-made car, but sees it as sending a signal to motivate European carmakers to come up with an equivalent type of efficient car," says his spokeswoman.

Schwarzenegger and BMW
Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the first to try a hydrogen car
She also points out that, while the Prius is made in Japan, Toyota employs 40,000 people in Europe.

The car runs partly on electricity, and partly on fuel, and is one of the most fuel-efficient cars available for urban driving.

Its C02 output of 104g per kilometre is well below the 130g target Mr Dimas wants the average European car to reach by 2012.

But if Mr Dimas sets one kind of example, Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen and Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs have opted to follow in the footsteps of another trailblazer - California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the first politicians to acquire a hydrogen-fuelled car.

They have been using the BMW Hydrogen 7 for a month now, on a trial basis.

Refuelling problems

The commission has not finished its evaluation of the car, but it is clear that there are some practical disadvantages.

Filling up with hydrogen
Gas station: You cannot fill up with hydrogen just anywhere
BMW has said it cannot be parked for sustained periods in the commission's underground garage, because there are no widely accepted standards for storing tanks of compressed hydrogen in enclosed spaces.

Another problem is that the car can only be refuelled at one location in Brussels. And, of course, it takes energy to make the hydrogen in the first place.

The commission has also been testing another car marketed as a green option, a Saab powered by bio-ethanol.

The verdict is out on this car too, with green campaigners pointing out that many biofuels are far from environmentally friendly. And there is the same problem with refuelling - in Belgium there is just one fuel station with the right form of bio-ethanol on tap.

A commission insider says that these problems mean that neither the Hydrogen BMW nor Saab biofuel car are suitable for the commission fleet in the short term.

But the Prius is also a lost cause, in his view.

"It's too small for a commissioner travelling through Europe, with his or her staff," he says.

"Imagine a five-hour journey from Brussels to Strasbourg, the car has to be big enough and comfortable enough for them to work in, and the Prius is not."

Green diesel

Mr Dimas would dispute this, having worked in his car with up to five people - including the deputy head of his cabinet, who at 2.08m tall (6ft 10ins) is the tallest person on the commission's payroll.

Mercedes E320
The Mercedes E320: Winner of the World Green Car award
But one definite black mark for the Toyota is that is that it is less efficient than some other cars once out on the open road.

The latest diesel cars often outperform petrol hybrids on longer journeys, says Sigrid de Vries, of the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA).

So which diesel car should a really green commissioner choose?

According to the New York motor show, it's a Mercedes, the very brand which Mr Dimas spurned.

The E320 Bluetec diesel, winner of the World Green Car award, could travel the 1,000km (610-mile) round trip from Brussels to Strasbourg on one tank, and still have fuel to burn.

But while it is on sale in the US now, it will not be available in Europe until 2008.

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