There’s little argument that the latest gas/electric hybrid-powered vehicles are among the most environmentally benign models on the road, combining admirable fuel economy with ultra-low-emission powertrains. Hybrids like the 51/48 mpg Toyota Prius and the 43/40 mpg Honda Civic Hybrid are the cleanest running cars on the road this side of a pure electric vehicle.
Unfortunately, hybrids are pricey, on average costing $3,000 or $4,000 more than comparable gasoline-powered models, which can put them out of reach of many buyers’ budgets. One alternative is to choose a fuel-frugal subcompact model, but that’s not practical for all motorists. Fortunately, there are “greener” cars available in virtually all sizes and configurations that are specifically engineered to generate fewer emissions than comparable models. The secret lies in knowing how to identify them.
Catherine Milbourn, a press officer with the Environmental Protection Agency, recommends environmentally conscious consumers check the emissions ratings for all vehicles under their consideration, which are posted on either of the vehicle-related websites the agency maintains in conjunction with the Department of Energy: www.fueleconomy.gov, and (in a more detailed format) www.epa.gov/greenvehicles.
“These sites empower consumers to make educated choices about each make and model’s environmental impact when shopping for a new vehicle,” she says.
Along with information on fuel economy for each make and model, the EPA sites provide ratings for each model’s carbon footprint and Air Pollution Score.
A vehicle’s Air Pollution Score represents the relative amount of health-damaging and smog-forming airborne pollutants the vehicle emits. Among these are hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. Scoring is based on a 10-point system, with 10 representing a zero-emissions vehicle. The current highest recorded scores are 9.5.
Be aware, however, that some of the lowest-emissions versions of given models are not available in all 50 states. Some specially certified “super low-emissions” (SULEV) or “partial-zero emissions” (PZEV) vehicles — which are rated at 9 and 9.5, respectively — are offered only in the handful of states — Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington — that adhere to stricter air-pollution standards.
These cars come with additional exhaust-scrubbing hardware and carry longer warranties for emissions equipment (10-years/150,000-miles) than standard models sold elsewhere. These vehicles may be sold to those living in bordering states, but rules prohibit dealers from selling them to residents elsewhere.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that those living in other areas can’t drive an ultra-clean car, however. Some lower-emissions models may be given higher Air Pollution Scores in California and similar states for certification purposes, but are otherwise identical to the versions sold elsewhere in the
U.S., where they receive a slightly lower score.
According to the EPA, the key to knowing which is which lies in a vehicle’s engine ID code, which is posted under the hood of each make and model sold in the U.S. Both of the aforementioned websites list the engine codes for the various Air Pollution Scores for all versions of all vehicles; if the number is the same for models listed as otherwise having different pollution ratings for California and the rest of the country, shoppers can assume the car or truck meets the higher posted standard in all 50 states.
A vehicle’s carbon footprint rating is generally in direct correlation with its fuel economy, with higher-mileage cars generating correspondingly lower amounts of greenhouse gases. According to the EPA, each gallon of petroleum consumed by a car or truck is responsible for an estimated 20 pounds of greenhouse gases, which include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and other compounds, which are believed to be major contributors to global warming.
Vehicles that are enabled to run on E85 ethanol (a blend of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent corn-based ethanol) emit less CO2 per mile when driven on E85 — which inherently contains a lower carbon content — than they would when running on pure unleaded gasoline.
Driving a higher-mileage model automatically casts less of a carbon footprint, but motorists don’t necessarily have to choose the most frugal car on the lot to do their part for the environment. In fact, experts say that realizing even minor improvements in fuel economy among the worst polluters on the road is the most efficient way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
For example, choosing a GMC Yukon with a 5.3-liter V8 at 16 mpg instead of the Denali version and its 14-mpg, 6.2-liter V8 “would save over 130 gallons of gasoline per year for the typical driver and eliminate 1.7 tons of CO2 emissions,” according to Therese Langer, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “By comparison, achieving the same savings through improvements to a Civic Hybrid would require a 25 mpg boost, to 67 mpg.”
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