March 24, 2014

Which 2014 full-size trucks warrant eco claims?

25 March 2014 [Santa Rosa, CA] – With a myriad of eco-branded trucks hitting the North American marketplace in 2014 – from Ford’s EcoBoost and GM’s EcoTec3 to Ram’s latest addition, the EcoDiesel – the Automotive Science Group (ASG) was prompted to offer an objective, scientifically-based assessment to determine exactly which 2014 trucks actually earn their “eco” badge.

According to ASG and the principles of ecological economics, a vehicle’s eco-rating must be multi-faceted to include both environmental and economic considerations, and so the Group’s proprietary rating platform – the Automotive Performance Index – does just that. Using a unique combination of vehicle data inputs that include conventional specifications as well as social, environmental and economic performance indicators, ASG’s vehicle assessments empower consumers to make choices based on one’s personal principles and financial requisites. Whether it’s a commitment to buy American-made, an environmental prerogative to reduce one’s carbon footprint, or purely an economic choice to save on fuel costs, ASG’s vehicle ratings are a comprehensive guide for today’s buyers.

ASG’s 2014 Study assessed 245 light-duty trucks to trim level detail, annotating the performance differences between trucks with varying cab size, bed length, drivetrain and engine combinations. While these significant differences in trim packages are on par with those distinguishing Crossover SUVs and Full-Size SUVs, truck buyers are offered little distinction in this regard when performance claims are advertised, as is often the case with the aforementioned eco badges. This is where ASG’s insights differ – and empower.

ASG’s Study revealed just how different vehicles with unique trim configurations performed, with consideration for environmental, economic and social performance measures. Regular Cab trucks performed vastly different than Crew Cab trucks with the same eco-branded engine, largely due to the difference in material weight between these two vehicles, exceeding 700 pounds in many instances. Purchase price also differed greatly between trim levels, further differentiating the eco-performance between different truck configurations.

“ASG’s 2014 Study again highlights the value of life-cycle thinking as critically important in determining overall truck value, both from an environmental and economic perspective,” says Colby Self, Managing Director of the Automotive Science Group.

ASG reduced Full-Size light-duty trucks into three sub-categories: Regular Cab, Extended Cab and Crew Cab. Mid-Size trucks were reduced to two sub-categories: Extended Cab and Crew Cab. Only one brand featured a 2014 Mid-size truck with a Regular Cab, and so this category was omitted for lack of market competition. By comparing trucks of relative size and capability against each other, rather than lumping all light-duty trucks into one pod, truck buyers can now look to the competitive set of trucks in the cab formation they desire.

So which truck came out on top? The 2014 Ford F-150 Regular Cab (XL 3.7L V6) and Crew Cab (XL 3.7L V6) won ASG’s most prestigious honor: “BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE” in the Full-Size Regular and Crew Cab Categories, demonstrating superiority in environmental, economic and social performance.

With an EPA estimated 23 MPG combined and a material composition weighing slightly more than 3,600 lbs, ASG’s 2014 study found the Toyota Tacoma (4dr Access Cab 2.7L 4cyl) to hold the smallest life-cycle environmental footprint of all model year 2014 trucks sold in the North American market, earning ASG’s top honor in both the Mid-Size Extended and Crew Cab categories.

The Chevrolet Silverado 1500 (WT 4.3L V6 EcoTec3) took the top award in the Full-Size Extended Cab Category, earning “BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE”. The Silverado and Sierra 1500 trucks (WT & Base 4.3L V6 EcoTec3) took top environmental accolades in all three Full-Size categories, earning ASG’s 2014 “BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE” Awards.

When it came to those trucks with eco-branding, GM’s EcoTec3 trucks were the only eco-branded models to earn top awards in ASG’s 2014 study.

One may have expected the Ram EcoDiesel (3.0L V6) with class-leading fuel economy to earn top awards in ASG’s assessment, but there’s more to ASG’s assessment than fuel economy alone. The life-cycle environmental cost of obtaining this diesel-fueled MPG rating must also be considered. In the diesel configuration, combustion emissions are higher with each gallon of fuel consumed. Diesel fuel has higher energy content per gallon than gasoline, but due to the higher density of diesel, it also releases more greenhouse gas emissions per gallon combusted. The diesel engine configuration also weighs significantly more than its unleaded gasoline counterparts, and so the manufacturing impacts – from material extraction and processing – adds yet another environmental knock on the diesel design.

These disadvantages are often overcome in diesel configurations by greatly improved fuel economy, inherent to lean burning engines, but sadly the fuel economy improvement in the 2014 Ram EcoDiesel (3.0L V6) design is not sufficient to offset other life-cycle impacts considered in ASG’s assessment. From an economic perspective, the price premium paid upfront for the EcoDiesel begins to offset the financial incentives one would expect to redeem with the 9% fuel economy advantage that the EcoDiesel has over the next best truck in its class. The final blow is the 12% cost premium diesel demands at the pump over gasoline (average U.S. price as of March 2014).

This is not to say that diesel designs do not have promise – they do – but the fuel economy advantage over gasoline engines must exceed the 2 MPG improvement (EPA estimated combined MPG) that the EcoDiesel currently promises.

While the EcoDiesel was not an ASG top selection for 2014, other Ram models did excel in ASG’s study: the Ram 1500 (Tradesman 3.6L Pentastar V6) Regular and Crew Cab trucks both won ASG’s 2014 “BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE” Award, distinguished as having the lowest cost of ownership among Regular and Crew Cab Full-Size trucks in North America. The Ford F-150 (XL 3.7L V6) won the 2014 “BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE” Award in the Extended Cab category.

From an economic standpoint, the Nissan Frontier (S King Cab 6 ft. box) was revealed to have the lowest cost of ownership over a five-year economic forecast, taking into account purchase and operating costs of all model year 2014 trucks sold in the North American market. The Nissan Frontier was considered a Mid-Size truck in ASG’s assessment.

And finally, from a social performance perspective – considering the rights of those charged with vehicle manufacture and assembly – the Ford F-150 (XL 3.7L V6) was the “BEST SOCIAL PERFORMANCE” Award-winning truck in all three Full-Size truck categories (Regular Cab, Extended Cab and Crew Cab) demonstrating Ford’s sound corporate social responsibility initiatives. The Nissan Frontier likewise was the “BEST SOCIAL PERFORMANCE” Award-winning truck in both Mid-Size truck categories.

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The Automotive Performance Index (API) applies statistical methods to demonstrate each vehicle rating in relative comparison. For example, the vehicle that performs highest in environment performance in a given class obtains a rating score of 100. Each vehicle in its class is then compared relative to the top-performing vehicle with a rating score reflecting the statistical difference in performance outcomes. A score of 91 translates to a 9% environmental performance deficit as compared to the top-performing vehicle.  

Due to the API’s relative vehicle rating method, vehicle class divisions were identified as a critical input - these class divisions are detailed here.

While the Automotive Performance Index is indeed an exhaustive list of vehicles to trim level detail, with each vehicle assessment reporting over 200 unique data outputs (the culmination of thousands of data inputs), ASG has taken additional measures to ease the burden of sorting through all data points and all vehicle assessments. We have developed key performance categories and sorted all vehicles in each class according to Environmental Performance, Social Performance, Economic Performance and All-Around Performance. The vehicle in each class with the best score in each unique category is named the performance award winner (i.e. Best Environmental Performance Award winner). The vehicle in each class that scores highest combined scores in Environmental Performance, Social Performance and Economic Performance is named the ASG Best All-Around Performance Award winner.

One step further, we also name the Best 5 All-Around Performance Award winners in each class to provide consumers with a concise product comparison guide.