THE STUDY

2017 AUTOMOTIVE PERFORMANCE INDEX FINDINGS

The striking similarities among today’s new automobiles within each competitive class – like features, near identical passenger and cargo space, comparable styling, even near matching MSRPs – has created a hyper-competitive marketplace with little variation among product offerings, at least at face value.

There are indeed underlying product-differentiating factors that have traditionally been exempt from automotive value-based assessments. Consumer product knowledge regarding environmental, socioeconomic and life-cycle costs are extremely limited, yet these costs have a measurable impact not only on the consumer’s best financial interest, but also on the best interest of the environment in which we live and the global community of which we are all an equal part. The Automotive Science Group (ASG) is tasked with the responsibility to bring comparative cost analysis in these important performance areas to new car buyers.

Using a unique combination of vehicle data inputs that include conventional specifications as well as environmental, social and economic performance indicators, ASG is redefining value in the automotive marketplace. ASG’s 2017 Automotive Performance Index (API) breaks each vehicle down into the sum of all its parts, and measures the natural capital, the social and human capital, and the economic efficiencies embodied within each vehicle to derive its real market value relative to other product offerings in 2017. The data-driven findings, based on scientific principles and methods, serves to enhance product and technology comparison capabilities to better serve the environment through informed consumer choice.

ASG’s 2017 API assessed 1,436 Cars and SUVs (with trim variants). The API findings highlight and contrast the performance merits that differentiate conventional and alternatively powered cars and SUVs in 2017. Below you will find a brief discussion of the key observations that emerged when assessing and comparing all 2017 model offerings in head to head comparisons, irrespective of class division. ASG’s top selections by class are reported in the ten Car and SUV class sections of the site, as well as in the five Awards sections that can be accessed from the top navigation bar. For our 2017 methodology, please visit the methodology section of the site, also accessible from the top navigation bar. [Note: ASG will continue to add findings and analysis to this page through 2017].

Innovation is live and well in the 2017 automotive marketplace. According to the API, advanced powertrains are not only available to the masses in 2017, with exceptional environmental performance, but the true innovators actually break from the pack this year to offer industry leading economic performance and best all-around value in the market. ASG’s data-driven assessment suggests that automakers already have the technical capabilities to meet the fleet fuel economy targets set for 2025, irrespective of the anticipated roll-back on fuel economy standards by the new Administration.

Case in point - the all-new 2017 Kia Niro crossover with 51 MPG combined (city/highway) and with a starting MSRP at $22,890, offers industry leading environmental performance and economic performance when assessed over the first 6.5 years of vehicle ownership. More on the Kia Niro below. And the all-new Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, with 84 MPGe, reveals new possibilities for fuel economy gains in the large vehicle segments. Innovative offerings are here in 2017, and they are not only here to stay, but they are the new industry benchmark

 

2017 ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE INDEX

A word of caution, striking the balance between environmental and economic performance across the North American fleet is still in transition. When comparing all 805 (trim variants) model year 2017 cars in North America in a head to head environmental assessment, ASG’s study found only one standout model with a conventional combustion engine earning a positon on ASG’s Environmental Performance Index – the 2017 Mitsubishi Mirage. The remaining positions on the list were held by hybrids, PHEV and EVs. The Prius Prime PHEV topped the Index with the smallest carbon footprint of any model year 2017 car, besting the all electric #2 Nissan Leaf, #3 Chevrolet Bolt and #4 Ford Focus Electric.

ASG found the 2017 Prius Prime to hold the smallest carbon footprint of any model year 2017 car available in the North American market, knocking the Nissan Leaf off the pedestal after holding this distinction for three consecutive years. ASG’s assessment found increased environmental impacts associated with production, manufacturing and assembly for the advanced lithium-ion battery electric technology, however these increased impacts were more than offset within the first 6.5 years of vehicle operation, or 87,594 vehicle miles traveled. ASG also reveals that advanced powertrains are largely responsible for leading significant fuel economy gains in 2017. ASG found the Prius Prime producing 29% less GHG emissions than the #20 car on the Index, over the first 6.5 years of operations. The 2017 Prius Prime offers a 25 mile all electric range, and with an EPA rated 133 MPG-e. With an EPA estimated 640 miles of total driving range, one need not have range anxiety when opting for the PHEV.

Looking forward, energy forecasts identify a cleaner electricity mix across the U.S. grid, further increasing the environmental benefits of PHEV and EV technologies in future years. Significant electricity generating capacity was added to the U.S. power grid in 2016, the largest amount of added capacity since 2012. Of the 27 gigawatts of added capacity, utility-scale renewable energy accounted for 60% of all capacity additions, primarily wind (8.7 GW) and solar (7.7 GW). An additional 3.4 gigawatts of non utility-scale solar was added, making 2016 a banner year for improving the U.S. electric grid (EIA).

In fact, 2016 marked the first year that coal-fired electricity capacity held a smaller share than any other single source, falling behind natural gas (EIA).

All of this means that PHEVs and EVs not only improve environmental performance and reduce GHG emissions today, and with increasing benefits into the future, but this also means that with the continued increase in renewable energy production as a significant share of the national grid, comes new economies of scale that reduces the overall cost of clean power. Since 2009, the cost of photovoltaic modules has come down 70%, and according to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, utility scale solar installations costs have dropped 50% in the past 6 years, translating to a highly competitive renewable electricity rate. In many regions across the U.S., wind and solar are now cheaper per kWh than electricity from traditional fossil fuels. The electric car race is on.

When comparing all 631 Crossover/SUVs (trim variants) head to head, only six of the eleven vehicles with hybrid and PHEV configurations made ASG’s Environmental Performance Index (SUV), the remaining 14 places were held by vehicles with conventional powertrains. The all-new Kia Niro topped the Index with the smallest carbon footprint of any model year 2017 SUV, besting the Tesla Model X by 15%, a notable feat by the new hybrid whose MSRP is but a mere fraction of the Model X. The Niro produces 40% less GHG emissions than the #20 SUV listed in the Index over the first 6.5 years of operation (87,594 vehicle miles traveled).

* Scores are relative to the Index, not each vehicle’s competitive class set. The difference between a score of 100 and 94 is a 6% performance differential. The models listed are the best performing trim of that corresponding model. 

* Scores are relative to the Index, not each vehicle’s competitive class set. The difference between a score of 100 and 94 is a 6% performance differential. The models listed are the best performing trim of that corresponding model.

  

2017 ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE INDEX

When assessing economic performance over the first 6.5 years of ownership, conventional combustion vehicles outperformed most hybrid vehicles, PHEVs and EVs. This trend suggests the price premiums paid at purchase for many alternatively powered vehicles, are not recovered within the first 78 months of ownership through fuel cost savings. The significant drop in fuel prices at the pump, and the EIA forecasts for retail gasoline and diesel prices below $4/gallon through 2023, has increased the economic benefits of conventional powertrains in the near term. But, there is one considerable exception in 2017, the all-new Kia Niro hybrid.

The 2017 Kia Niro distanced itself further ahead of the competition by maintaining the lowest cost of ownership of all SUVs, the first hybrid to top ASG’s Economic Performance Index (SUV). The Niro’s economic assessment showed 18% lower costs over the first 78-months of ownership when compared to the #20 SUV on the Index. The Index was rounded out by all conventional powertrains, with no additional hybrids or PHEV’s.

Topping ASG’s Economic Performance Index (Car) was the 2017 Mitsubishi Mirage, holding claim to the lowest cost of ownership and best economic performance of any model year 2017 car in the North American market. The remaining 19 positions on the Index were also held by conventional combustion powered cars. The best performing advanced hybrid configuration was the Toyota Prius at #34, albeit with an economic performance deficit of 32%, as compared to the #1 Mirage.

ASG’s assessment did not factor in discount rates that result from Federal, State and local government rebates for PHEVs and EVs, due to the considerable variance in rebate values according to personal income, geographical location, and availability. The Federal rebates can be as high as $7,500 for some qualifying PHEVs and EVs, which serves as a significant economic incentive for buyers to transition toward advanced powertrains. But the future availability of these financial incentives is unlikely, given the new Administration’s policy approach.

While the initial cost premium for EVs and PHEVs will be recouped in fuel cost savings over time, the simple fact is that most will not be recovered in the first 6.5 years of ownership. A lease option for EVs and PHEVs is worth serious consideration and further analysis, as this is the growing trend in the market with 75% all EVs on lease. This lease penetration is significantly higher than the average 28% lease rate across all cars (Edmunds.com). Lease option details were not incorporated as economic performance indicators in the 2017 study, but lease options are a valuable consideration for buyers that can leverage promotional discounts offered by automakers, as well as Federal, State and regional economic incentives.

* Scores are relative to the Index, not each vehicle’s competitive class set. The difference between a score of 100 and 96 is a 4% performance differential. The models listed are the best performing trim of that corresponding model. 

* Scores are relative to the Index, not each vehicle’s competitive class set. The difference between a score of 100 and 94 is a 6% performance differential. The models listed are the best performing trim of that corresponding model.

 

2017 SOCIAL PERFORMANCE INDEX

From a social performance perspective – considering the rights of those charged with vehicle manufacture and assembly – Mercedes-Benz demonstrated the best corporate social responsibility initiatives, earning ASG’s BEST SOCIAL PERFORMANCE BRAND award for 2017.

Mercedes-Benz assembles the vast majority of its vehicles in Germany, with one of the highest labor costs and related labor and environmental protections. They also build the SUV line in their U.S. facility in Alabama, paying higher wages to their U.S. employees than any other automaker with an average factory hourly wage of $65. While consumers expect to pay a price premium for the luxury brand, they are paying for more than just a luxury vehicle, they are paying the real costs to build vehicles with care for the people tasked with vehicle assembly and with care for the environment. This is a model that has served Mercedes-Benz well, and is a true model of corporate social responsibility. In fact, Mercedes-Benz reported the highest annual volume of cars and SUVs sold in its U.S. history in 2016, retailing 340,237 vehicles.

On other fronts, many automakers are ramping up investments in manufacturing facilities in Mexico, with Mexico now producing 20% of new vehicles available in the North American market, up from 3% three decades ago (LMC Automotive). With new manufacturing facilities coming on-line in the coming years, Mexican production is expected to grow another 49% by 2023 (LMC Automotive). With the North American Free Trade Agreement in place, automakers have leveraged Mexico as a labor and environmental cost advantage. Auto labor hourly compensation costs in Mexico are at $7.80, compared to costs in the United States’ at $45.34 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). The U.S. consumer however has  not realized any tangible cost savings from this outsourcing practice, as the retail price for Mexican made cars remains virtually unchanged. What is changing are the profit margins for automakers.

 Volvo and Buick have also stepped up the outsourcing game, with imports of the Made in China Volvo S60, S90 Inscription and Buick Envision into the U.S. market. Interesting enough, the China made Volvo is priced above the Volvo S60 that is Made in Belgium. The cost of labor and compliance in China is significantly less than the cost of compliance in Belgium, meaning the U.S. consumer is paying a premium price for a product that does not embody the same overall value as the competitive product that was assembled in Belgium. Compare Belgium’s hourly compensation costs of $57.63 with that of China’s $4.10 (Center for Automotive Research), Mexico’s $7.80, the United States’ $45.34, and Germany’s $58.82 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), and one can see there is indeed a significant cost difference.

Volvo has found a cost advantage and is carefully planning to expand on this model, that is if the Whitehouse doesn’t intervene with import tariffs.

For the 2017 model year, ASG found vehicles destined for the North American marketplace being assembled in 18 different countries, with varying degrees of social performance. While ASG named Sweden as the 2017 BEST SOCIAL PERFORMANCE Country of Assembly, China was named the worst. Ironically, Volvo holds claim to both Made in Sweden and Made in China for the North American market.

 

2017 ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE INDEX

When looking for the best balance of environmental and economic considerations, ASG’s All-Around Performance Index found alternatively powered vehicles holding seven positions – #1 Toyota Prius Prime, #2 Nissan Leaf, #3 Ford Focus Electric, #4 Toyota Prius, #11 Chevrolet Bolt, #17 Ford C-Max Energi, and #19 Chevrolet Volt. All remaining 13 positions were held by vehicles with conventional powertrains. The highest ranking car with a conventional powertrain was once again the Mitsubishi Mirage coming in at #5, with an all-around performance score falling just 3% short of the #1 Prius Prime. The Mirage is the only vehicle to score a position on all three ASG Indexes in 2017. The All-Around Performance Index findings suggest that the advanced powertrains that hold the top four positions on the index, do in fact offer a best all-around value proposition.

Similarly, ASG’s All-Around Performance Index (SUV) was dominated by conventional powertrains holding 18 positions, however the Kia Niro once again lead all others by topping the Index at #1. The RAV4 Hybrid was the only other hybrid to make the list, landing at #8.

 * Scores are relative to the Index, not each vehicle’s competitive class set. The difference between a score of 100 and 94 is a 6% performance differential. The models listed are the best performing trim of that corresponding model.

* Scores are relative to this Index, not each vehicle’s competitive class set. The difference between a score of 100 and 94 is a 6% performance differential. The models listed are the best performing trim of that corresponding model. 

 

2017 AUTOMOTIVE SCIENCE GROUP AWARDS

ASG’s top selections by class are reported in the ten Car and SUV class sections of the site, as well as in the five Awards sections that can be accessed from the top navigation bar. A consolidated list can also be viewed below.

The automobiles that were included in this Study are model year 2017 Cars and SUVs available to North American consumers in the first quarter of 2017, and with full production capabilities. All two-seaters, convertibles and vehicles exceeding $100,000 MSRP were omitted from the assessment. Several model year 2017 PHEVs and EVs are not available to consumers nationwide, and are in fact extremely limited in production numbers; these vehicles were therefore removed from the 2017 Study findings.

 

BEST BRANDS OF 2017

2017 BEST BRANDS (31 industry brands assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE BRAND OF 2017: Mitsubishi

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE BRAND OF 2017: Nissan

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE BRAND OF 2017: Mitsubishi

BEST SOCIAL PERFORMANCE BRAND OF 2017: Mercedes-Benz

MOST DISTINGUISHED BRAND OF 2017: Ford

 

BEST CARS OF 2017

2017 ALL CARS (irrespective of class, 805 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE CAR OF 2017: Toyota Prius Prime

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE CAR OF 2017: Toyota Prius Prime

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE CAR OF 2017: Mitsubishi Mirage

 

2017 MINI-COMPACT CARS (95 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Toyota Yaris

BEST 5 ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Chevrolet Spark, BMW i3, Toyota Yaris iA, Ford Fiesta

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE: BMW i3

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE: Chevrolet Spark

 

2017 COMPACT CARS (227 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Mitsubishi Mirage

BEST 5 ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Ford Focus Electric, Nissan Versa, Ford Focus, Hyundai Accent

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Ford Focus Electric

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE: Mitsubishi Mirage

 

2017 MID-SIZE CARS (325 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Toyota Prius Prime

BEST 5 ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius, Honda Fit, Toyota Corolla

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Toyota Prius Prime

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE: Honda Fit

 

2017 FULL-SIZE CARS (106 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

BEST 5 ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Hyundai Sonata PHEV, Sonata, Kia Optima PHEV, Kia Optima Hybrid

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Kia Optima PHEV

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE: Hyundai Sonata

 

2017 WAGONS (52 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Ford C-Max Energi

BEST 5 ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Ford C-Max Hybrid, Toyota Prius v, Subaru Impreza, Kia Soul

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Ford C-Max Energi

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE: Kia Soul

 

BEST SUVs OF 2017

2017 ALL CROSSOVER/SUVs (irrespective of class, 631 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE SUV OF 2017: Kia Niro

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE SUV OF 2017: Kia Niro

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE SUV OF 2017: Kia Niro

 

2017 COMPACT CROSSOVERS (120 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Kia Niro

BEST 5 ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Mazda CX-3, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Honda HR-V, Chevrolet Trax

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Kia Niro

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE: Kia Niro

 

2017 CROSSOVERS (198 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Mitsubishi Outlander

BEST 5 ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, Chevrolet Equinox, Hyundai Tucson, Toyota RAV4

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Tesla Model X

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE: Jeep Compass

 

2017 MID-SIZE SUVs (146 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Nissan Rogue

BEST 5 ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, Kia Sorento, Ford Edge

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Honda CR-V

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE: Nissan Rogue

 

2017 FULL-SIZE SUVs (127 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Nissan Pathfinder

BEST 5 ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Honda Pilot, Ford Flex, Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Honda Pilot

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE: Nissan Pathfinder

 

2017 MINIVANS (40 vehicles assessed)

BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

BEST ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE: Dodge Grand Caravan

 

* Total vehicles assessed include trim variants