Financial Resource Center


Going Greener With Your Next Car

by Jerry Edgerton / April 7th, 2008

To the many options you have when you buy a car, add a new entry: a vehicle that does the least damage to the environment and minimizes the impact on global warming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—which regulates tailpipe pollutants as well as measures gas mileage—has combined data from both roles into a new Green Vehicle Guide. Consulting this and other Internet green car ratings will help you make a more informed decision. Of course, your choice of car alone will not reverse the trend toward global warming and climate change. But as the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, Mass., points out, motor vehicles account for nearly 25% of all U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide—the major greenhouse gas culprit in global warming. So choosing the greenest vehicle possible is a step toward reducing that impact on the planet. If you look at EPA ratings, you can see which of the cars, vans, pickups, or SUVs you're considering add least to your hometown air pollution as well as have the least impact on global warming. The agency gives scores of one to 10 (best) in two categories:
  • Tailpipe emissions of pollutants that contribute to smog and other regular air pollution, and
  • Emissions of carbon dioxide—as a measure of the impact on global warming.
Vehicles with a combined score of 13 or more (out of a possible 20) get a SmartWay designation. Very clean vehicles with a combined score of 18 or more are called SmartWay Elite. But even among cars that don't get the top ratings, you can see which are best of direct competitors. And there's a bonus: Cars with lower carbon dioxide emissions generally have higher gas mileage and so will cost you less to drive.
Unless you live in the Midwest, you'll likely have a hard time getting E85 fuel.
"This information has been out there, but the EPA now has combined it into an easy way for consumers to compare vehicles," says Dan Edmunds, test-drive editor and alternative fuels expert for the auto Web site Other Web sites such as Yahoo autos and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy also give you lists of the greenest cars based on scores of one to 100, where 100 is best. In trying to think green for your next car, here are some issues to consider:

Look hard at how you use your vehicle

If you bought a big sport utility vehicle to tow a boat or trailer you no longer own, consider a smaller vehicle. If hauling kids and their friends is a major consideration, look at a minivan, a less-thirsty, greener choice than most big SUVs. If you drive a big, full-size sedan because that's what you've always done, consider whether a smaller, more efficient sedan would work just as well. "To go greener, people have to consider their actual automotive needs instead of their wants," says Dan Edmunds of, Santa Monica, Calif.

Choose the greenest in your category

Once you've decided what kind of vehicle will haul the people or things you need to transport, look for the top-rated choices. For instance, if you're looking for a compact pickup, the EPA site gives the SmartWay designation to the Ford Ranger and GMC Canyon. But even if the vehicles you're interested in don't show up in the EPA or other top ratings, there's another simple way to make a green choice. John DeCicco, automotive expert for the group Environmental Defense, New York, notes that better gas mileage translates to lower emission of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. So, whether you're buying a new or used car, he advises: "Look for the highest gas mileage you can in a vehicle that meets your needs and your budget."
Look for the highest gas mileage you can in a vehicle that meets your needs and your budget.

Don't assume a hybrid is the only answer

Though gas-electric hybrids top the mileage and green rating lists in most categories, you can find other green choices as well. That can be an advantage because hybrids are in short supply in some areas, and because nonhybrids tend to cost less. For instance, among compact SUVs, instead of a Ford Escape Hybrid (list price $25,655 before options) you might get a standard-engine Subaru Forester 2.5X model with a list price of $21,955. Among midsize sedans, instead of a Toyota Camry hybrid ($25,200), you might get a Hyundai Elantra SE ($17,225).

Be alert for quirks in the EPA Rating

Some vehicles flagged by the EPA as green standouts come with a caution. Take the case of large SUVs such as the Chevrolet Tahoe equipped with so-called flex-fuel engines that can burn either gasoline or E85 ethanol. The EPA listings give the SmartWay designation to this model only when it's running on ethanol—which produces fewer greenhouse gases. But unless you live in the Midwest, you'll likely have a hard time getting E85 fuel. Check here for E85 availability where you live; you'll have to put in your zip code.
Cars with lower carbon dioxide emissions generally have higher mileage and will cost less to drive.
Greener choices—from small vehicles to large—are becoming available. For that same Chevrolet Tahoe SUV, General Motors is introducing a hybrid version that will improve mileage in both city and highway driving. Diesel fuel, which produces higher mileage than gasoline, soon will be back in the mix. Cleaner fuel and new engine technology that can meet pollution standards will be reflected in new models from Honda, Volkswagen, and Mercedes Benz. A little further ahead is the extended-range plug-in electric vehicle that would work for a daily commute. It is awaiting improvements in battery technology, and General Motors is pledging to get its Chevrolet Volt version to market by late in 2010. Note, though, that recent reports claim no net environmental gain for plug-ins, as the electricity generated to power them will produce its own pollutants. For the latest on hybrids and other green cars, visit and click on Tips and Advice. What may be changing most is how people view their cars. "Car buying always has been emotional—with car companies promoting ever more horsepower," says DeCicco of Environmental Defense. "Now buying a greener car is a new kind of personal statement." Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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