21 April 2016 [Santa Rosa, CA] – As global leaders convene in New York to sign the landmark UN Climate Accord on Friday, we pause to reflect on our own choices that will surely affect generations that follow. And with our transportation desires now accounting for 31% of total U.S. carbon emissions (source: U.S. EPA), our car of choice has a lasting effect. But with so many choices in the auto marketplace, and a Dieselgate shadow that weighs heavy on consumer minds, what does a “green” car really look like in 2016?

In 2016, advanced vehicle technologies are no longer futuristic auto show charades, these technologies are now being deployed in real cars that are available to real buyers. Hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and electric vehicles (EVs) are now more accessible than ever, and according to the Automotive Science Group’s (ASG) 2016 Study, these advanced powertrains outperform their conventional combustion counterparts in life-cycle environmental performance on nearly every occasion. While advanced powertrains inherently come with higher environmental burdens at production, these production impacts are offset by most models through greatly improved operational efficiencies during the use phase, according to ASG 2016 Study.

ASG found the production impacts for hybrid vehicles to represent 9-14% of a vehicle’s total life-cycle energy burden, PHEV’s ranged from 15-21% and EVs had a range of 29-38% across model year 2016 offerings. This is significantly higher than the 5-9% production impact burden assessed for conventional powered vehicles in 2016. But taking a closer look at all 815 model year 2016 cars (all trim variants in the North American market), not a single vehicle with a conventional combustion engine configuration scored in the top 20 when measuring life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, meaning the higher production impacts for advanced powertrains are indeed offset during the use phase.

The number one vehicle on ASG’s list – 2016 Nissan LEAF – produces 47% less life-cycle GHG emissions than the top ranking conventional combustion car – the Honda Fit – which falls off the list at #22. The top 5 green cars in ASG’s assessment include the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Two Eco and Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid. With 4 of the top 5 vehicles coming with an electric plug, its clear that car electrification is reducing life-cycle carbon emissions, and the environmental benefits only increase as the electricity mix across the U.S. grid gets cleaner year over year. 

When assessing all 567 model year 2016 Crossover/SUVs (with trim variants), ASG found the 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid to hold the smallest life-cycle carbon footprint of any model year 2016 SUV available in the North American market. The RAV4 Hybrid produces 16% less life-cycle GHG emissions than the #20 SUV, according to ASG’s Study. Of the nine SUVs with hybrid and PHEV configurations, only five of these models held a top 20 spot with lowest measured life-cycle GHG emissions. The remaining 15 places were held by SUVs with conventional powertrains powered by unleaded gasoline. No diesel configurations made the list in 2016. The top 5 green Crossover/SUVs in ASG’s assessment include the RAV4 Hybrid, Mazda CX-3, Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid, Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-5.

In the Full-size truck category, the RAM (3.0L Ecodiesel) offers the highest combined MPG rating at 23 MPG, however, the Ford F-150 (2.7L EcoBoost) with only a 1 MPG deficit actually delivers a life-cycle carbon footprint that is 8% smaller than the RAM’s, a savings of nearly 20,000 pounds of CO2-e emissions, according to ASG. ASG found the 2016 F-150 to hold the smallest life-cycle carbon footprint of any full-size truck in the North American market.

The F-150 aluminum design is key to Ford’s elevated performance, which not only reduces environmental burdens associated with raw material mining and processing, but with reduced vehicle weight, less power is required to physically move the vehicle, encouraging the use of the smaller fuel efficient engine found in the 2.7L EcoBoost.

In the Mid-size Truck segment, the Chevrolet Colorado (2.5L) gasoline powered truck leads the vehicle segment in environmental performance, outperforming the new and highly anticipated diesel configuration for the Colorado and GMC Canyon, along with the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier. With the GM 2.8L diesel gaining only 2 MPG (combined city/highway) over the 2.5L gasoline engine, while adding 440 pounds to its curb weight, the diesel fuel economy gains are not sufficient to offset the higher emission factor for diesel fuel, with the diesel option producing 4% more CO2-e emissions over the truck’s life-cycle.

For the Best 20 Environmental Performance List, see The Study. For the Best Environmental Performance models by class, see Best Environmental Performance Awards.

Colby Self
Colby Self