Shopping for a Green Car—the Smart Way

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Parade of electric vehicles.
Shopping for a green car the smart way.
EPA SmartWay
US EPA Certified SmartWay
Parade of electric vehicles.
EPA SmartWay

Shopping for your new green car doesn’t need to make you blue if you break down the process into three simple steps.

1) Green Car Certification

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), through its Office of Transportation and Air Quality, has made finding a green car easier. Since 2000, the EPA has rated every new model for its greenhouse gas and smog emissions, and fuel efficiency, allowing shoppers to compare cars for their environmental impact per mile driven. It then certifies the vehicles that it deems to be “green” as SmartWay vehicles (see epa.gov/greenvehicles/), with the very top performers earning the SmartWay Elite designation. This program is much like the EPA’s Energy Star program for household appliances. The ratings criteria are assessed annually to ensure that they keep up with the evolving technologies.

The SmartWay program evaluates vehicles against three parameters:

  • Fuel economy—Measures how efficient a vehicle uses fuel (either miles per gallon or miles per kilowatt-hour of charge).
  • Smog rating—This rates tailpipe emissions that contribute to local and regional air pollution, creating smog, haze, and health issues. A score of 10 means that the vehicle emits no tailpipe pollutants.
  • Greenhouse gas rating (GHG)—This measures a vehicle’s tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, ethane, and nitrous oxide). This score is based on the vehicle’s fuel economy and its fuel type, since each fuel contains a different amount of carbon. Vehicles with better fuel economy receive a higher score; a score of 10 represents the lowest emissions.

The SmartWay program has its deficiencies, such as setting an arbitrary target of certifying 20% of vehicles each model year as SmartWay, and a historical bias toward vehicles that can use high-ethanol gasoline blends. While the auto industry is still in the driver’s seat, determining what models hit the roads, and the program evaluates what the industry produces, the SmartWay certification program is still a helpful way for shoppers to navigate through the “green” car universe.

Since fuel efficiency is a critical component of the scoring, the SmartWay definition of green works for those shoppers primarily looking to use less fuel. SmartWay-certified cars have good fuel economy—the primary driver for choosing a green car. According to the J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) study, 47% of new vehicle owners said that gas mileage was one of the most important factors in choosing their vehicle, up from 40% in 2011. With the fuel prices projected to stay above $3.20 per gallon for gasoline and $3.76 per gallon for diesel through the end of 2014, according to the May 2013 U.S. Energy Administration Short-Term Energy Outlook, saving fuel will likely remain a top consideration for car shoppers, and thereby continue to incentivize manufacturers to roll out new fuel-efficient options.

Maybe the best part of the SmartWay certification program is that it allows for an apples-to-apples comparison across different propulsion technologies and vehicle classes and provides a broad-based definition of green. SmartWay-certified vehicles include electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), hybrids (HEVs), compressed natural gas vehicles (CNGs), and hydrogen vehicles (H2), as well as traditional gasoline and diesel vehicles. This is important since a gasoline or diesel vehicle may be the best fit for your particular situation. Limiting the green discussion to just alternative fuel technologies would ignore both the significant advancements that have taken place with respect to the traditional fuel vehicles, and the fact that alternative fuel vehicles may not be a practical choice for a large segment of the U.S. population.

2) Discover Your Green Options

There are ways to use the SmartWay certification program as your green guide. Five SmartWay vehicle categories present the options that are realistic choices for most people: gasoline, diesel, electric, plug-in hybrid, and traditional hybrid. Choosing the category or categories that may work best for you is about looking at your lifestyle and determining what is important to you and your family.

3) Select the Green Option That Works Best For You

While most of the discussion around green cars is about EVs, PHEVs, and HEVs, the bottom line is that it is really a personal decision that involves matching a technology to your lifestyle. When analyzing your options, consider the:

  • Number of available models
  • Range limitations (maximum distance that may be traveled between refueling/recharging) and the current state of the fueling/charging infrastructure
  • Refueling/recharging time 
  • Fueling/charging cost
  • Purchase price

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Curt Lindeman is the cofounder of eGreenCars.com, which provides car shoppers with resources to learn about and find their new fuel-efficient, green car.

Comments (1)

Marc Fontana's picture

I've been driving my 2011 Nissan LEAF Electric Vehicle for a couple of years now and it is truly a remarkable car. So far, I have spent absolutely nothing on maintenance and have saved a lot on fuel cost. It is worth mentioning that with an EV, the owner often has more choices of where and how to 'refuel'. You can charge at home and some charging stations are free. I have a solar PV system installed on my home which makes my electricity clean and very inexpensive. However, for anyone considering buying an EV, you need to realize that the car's battery pack is not just another 'fuel' tank which just needs refilling. It is a sensitive, expensive and critical component of the EV which needs to be treated with care in order to get the most out of it. Some LEAF drivers I know are finding out that one of the consequences of not following Nissan's recommendations for long battery life is reduced battery capacity sooner than expected.

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