Here are the best bets for driving and saving green: a great American invention (the Chevrolet Volt); the Prius (shrunken and stretched into the Prius C and Prius V); the most successful electric car to date (the Nissan Leaf); a clean diesel sedan fit for the whole family (the Volkswagen Passat TDI); and the least expensive electric car yet (the Mitsubishi i). These landmark vehicles are raising the bar for greener, more affordable transportation and will spark more innovation from the auto industry. Whether you own one of these cars now, later or never, you’ll benefit from their influence.
GUIDE TO GREEN CARS, Summer 2012
By John Rockhold
Every year, it becomes more difficult to choose just six vehicles for the annual MOTHER EARTH NEWS Best Green Cars list. That’s great news for you — the harder my job is, the more options you have to choose from when you’re looking for an energy-efficient, practical, reliable, safe, eco-friendly, money-saving and fun-to-drive car.
Right now we’re in the early stages of radical change in the auto industry. Hybrid cars have become ordinary. Electric cars are really here. Diesel is back and far better than ever. Even the internal-combustion gasoline engine has new life thanks to efficiency improvements. The American automakers have emerged from the auto bailout and now offer significantly better products. Given demands from the public (motivated by rising gas prices and environmental concerns) and the federal government (increasing fuel economy standards), every automaker will have to significantly improve the efficiency of its fleet over the next several years. At the same time, energy-efficient transportation technologies — especially batteries — are improving rapidly.
Given all of these influences, the pace of change within automobiles could soon accelerate from 70 mph to warp speed. It’s possible that the numbers (such as miles per gallon, electric range) for today’s top green cars, as good as they are now, will be laughably low within two to three years. That will be good news for everybody who needs to drive and wants to spend as little money as possible in doing so — which is just about all of us, these days.
Speaking of change, you might notice something strange in our list: The Prius is listed twice — huh? Indeed, the Prius is now plural (Prii), with multiple models. The “conventional” Prius is still the king of mpg, but its C and V siblings have bumped their older brother from this year’s list.
Another oddity is the absence of Honda, a longtime leader in high-mpg cars. A list of green cars without a Honda model feels like a basketball team without a point guard, but this speaks to how high the bar has been raised. Honda still offers great options and is in the hunt to improve (an all-electric version of the Fit is coming soon), but so is every other automaker.
If you’ve heard negative stories about the Chevy Volt, you might be surprised to see it listed here. It’s unfortunate that such an innovative and important car would be caught up in partisan political warfare and pundit posturing. Make no mistake, the Volt is safe (see The Truth About Electric Car Safety) and can nearly eliminate your need for gasoline.
Even if you’re not looking for a new car right now, the following list will tell you what to expect in terms of the top options in practical, energy-efficient vehicles. None of them are cheap upfront, but they have the potential to save you a staggering amount of money over time.
Base Price: Manufacturer’s suggested retail price + the destination fee
Gas Mileage: Official fuel economy estimate from the EPA (your mileage may vary)
Annual Fuel Cost: Assumes $3.75/gallon regular gasoline; $4.00/gallon premium gasoline; $4.05/gallon diesel; $0.12 per kilowatt-hour of electricity; 15,000 miles driven annually at 55% city, 45% highway
Air Pollution Score: From the EPA; zero = most tailpipe emissions, 10 = least
Greenhouse Gas Score: From the EPA; zero = most greenhouse gas emissions, 10 = least
ACEEE Green Score: From the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy; the higher the score, the better; best 2012 score is 58; see ACEEE’s Green Book
Sebastian Blanco: writer and editor, AutoblogGreen, part of AOL Autos
David Friedman: deputy director, Clean Vehicles, Union of Concerned Scientists
Wayne Gerdes: owner and administrator, CleanMPG.com
Bill Moore: editor-in-chief, EV World
Shruti Vaidyanathan: senior transportation analyst, ACEEE
(extended-range electric; compact hatchback)
Base Price: $39,995; $32,495 after federal tax credit
Gas Mileage Equivalent: 95 city, 93 hwy, 94 combined (electric only); 35 city, 40 hwy, 37 combined (gas only)
Annual Fuel Cost: $650 (electric only); $1,600 (gas only)
Air Pollution Score: 10 (electric), 6 (gas)
Greenhouse Gas Score: 10 (electric), 8 (gas)
ACEEE Green Score: 53 (electric), 44 (gas)
Electric Range: 25 to 50 miles; 375 total via electric and gas
Recharge Time: 4 hours on 240 volts; 10 hours on 120 volts
Enough range for most daily needs, plus gas engine safety net.
Average cost for a full recharge: $1.55.
Incredibly comfortable and smooth to drive, on electric or gas. Feels like a spaceship when all-electric. Guilty pleasure: Sport Mode.
$7,500 federal tax credit. Details on state incentives are at the Chevrolet website. Examples: $6,000 tax credit in CO, $7,500 tax credit in WV.
Lowest total ownership costs over five years for any electric car, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Superb crash safety ratings from government and nonprofit organizations. Electrical system now even safer given recent upgrades.
Sticker price of $39,995 ($32,495 after federal tax credit).
Long recharge time on standard electrical outlet. Cost to install faster 240-volt setup in your garage can vary from $300 to $1,900.
Only seats four; back seat area uncomfortable for tall or large adults.
“The Volt is still woefully misunderstood by many, especially pundits. It’s a great piece of engineering and provides most drivers with the best of both worlds. Too bad it’s still expensive.” — Sebastian Blanco
“The American ‘Moonshot’ and fuel saver (what fuel?) is beyond reproach. Earned a five-star safety rating in arguably the toughest crash test regimen in the world.” — Wayne Gerdes
“Despite naysayer pessimism, first-year Volt sales beat first-year Prius sales from back in 2000.” — David Friedman
“With 10 million lines of computer code (more than in the Boeing 787), the Volt is an electric car when you want it to be and a hybrid when it needs to be.” — Bill Moore
The Chevy Volt is a phenomenal car. It’s a truly American invention of which we all should be proud, even those of us who will never own one. But some politicians and pundits have hijacked it for partisan objectives and smeared it with misinformation. Read The Truth About Electric Car Safety and 2012 Green Car Buyer's Guide, Chevrolet to get the facts. Then test drive a Volt to experience it for yourself.
(gas-electric hybrid; subcompact hatchback)
Base Price: $19,710
Gas Mileage: 53 city, 46 hwy, 50 combined
Annual Fuel Cost: $1,150
Air Pollution Score: 7
Greenhouse Gas Score: 10
ACEEE Green Score: 56
Has the highest-rated city mpg for any car without a plug.
Nimble and far more fun to drive than its older, bigger brother.
EV Mode with capability to drive up to 25 mph on electric alone.
Should have lower maintenance costs over time because AC and water pump are now electrically driven (drive belts eliminated).
Second most-affordable hybrid available: Costs $600 more than the Honda Insight, but the Prius C is rated with 12 better city mpg, 2 better highway mpg and 8 better combined mpg than the Insight.
Among many information options, the onboard computer tells you how much money you’re saving on gas versus your other/former car.
Comes standard with nine air bags.
Interior space is as good if not better than that of its competition.
Certainly capable of highway speeds, but the C isn’t the best choice for regular freeway driving.
Wouldn’t you think a Prius this small would get even better mpg?
No cruise control in the least expensive trim line. Upgrading to the next level adds about $1,000 to its cost.
No ninja sneaking: makes a soft, whirring noise when in EV Mode to alert pedestrians, including the blind and bicyclists. Jokes aside, while this is a bummer for some EV purists, it is a good change.
“Toyota is reaching out to a new demographic with the C model, and my first impression is that they could have another green hit on their hands. There are young people who value efficiency over sportiness, right?” — Sebastian Blanco
“The Prius C is the new fuel economy leader in the under-$20,000 hybrid market, but I expected it to beat, not just meet, its older, bigger and heavier Prius sibling in mpg.” — David Friedman
“The Prius C is the epitome of fuel efficiency and affordability. In a 59-mile highway test, I got 85.6 mpg (using hypermiling techniques).” — Wayne Gerdes
Small but solid — the Prius C has the agility and mpg of a small car, but feels remarkably well built. It puts the Smart car to shame. The C’s design inspires smiles, even for those who dislike the Prius look. But the “C” definitely stands for city: It’s not ideal for high-speed commuting.
(gasoline-electric hybrid; wagon)
Base Price: $27,160
Gas Mileage: 44 city, 40 hwy, 42 combined
Annual Fuel Cost: $1,350
Air Pollution Score: 7
Greenhouse Gas Score: 9
ACEEE Green Score: 51
Massive amounts of passenger and cargo room — 58 percent more cargo space than in the regular Prius.
Rear seats can slide forward or back, recline backward, or fold flat forward. With the rear seats flat, the V has 67.3 cubic feet of cargo space, which is more than many small SUVs have and is the equivalent of 98 paper grocery bags.
The Prius V is the closest option yet in the United States to a hybrid minivan, yet its looks belie its size. It’s barely distinguishable from the regular Prius and definitely doesn’t scream “family cruiser.”
Take your sweetie or even the whole family stargazing in style: Optional panoramic moonroof gives front and back passengers a great view of the sky.
Sluggish performance, even in Power Mode. If you don’t care for the amount of get-up in the regular Prius, you’ll be even less happy when driving the V onto highways.
It’s big, but why not a little bigger? Overseas versions of the V have third-row seating, but that’s not an option in the United States.
Display screen (which shows mph, real-time mpg, etc.) is in the center of the dashboard rather than in front of the driver. This is one of the more notorious gripes from Prius owners.
Still uses older and heavier nickel-metal hydride batteries rather than newer, lighter and more powerful lithium-ion batteries.
“The biggest surprise about the Prius V is that Toyota didn’t start making it years ago. It’s a more practical version of the regular Prius that still offers great fuel economy.” — Sebastian Blanco
“The most versatile family-oriented fuel miser in America. From the rear seats, whether crossing town or the country, I will take the Prius V over anything else currently available.” — Wayne Gerdes
“The Prius V is significantly cleaner than all other wagons, SUVs and crossovers on the market today.” — Shruti Vaidyanathan
The “V” stands for versatile, which this hybrid certainly is in terms of hauling people and/or cargo. Imagine how much lumber you could fit in the trunk with the rear seats down. But if you don’t regularly need this much space, opt for the less expensive and higher-mpg Prius.
(all-electric; compact hatchback)
Base Price: $36,050 for SV trim; $28,550 after federal tax credit
Gas Mileage Equivalent: 106 city, 92 hwy, 99 combined
Annual Fuel Cost: $600
Air Pollution Score: 10
Greenhouse Gas Score: 10
ACEEE Green Score: 55
Electric Range: 62 to 138 miles
Recharge Time: 7 hours on 240 volts; 20 hours on 120 volts
No more gas! Its electric range covers average daily driving needs.
Average cost for a full recharge: $2.88.
Maintenance costs versus a comparable gas car are $1,800 less over five years, according to Edmunds.com’s True Cost to Own.
Federal tax credit of $7,500. Several states offer additional tax credits, rebates and other incentives; some are worth thousands more in savings. Visit to Nissan’s website to look up offers in your state.
Now available in all 50 states; will be built in TN starting late 2012.
Warranty on the lithium-ion batteries: eight years/100,000 miles.
Nissan has a partnership with SunPower to help Leaf owners weigh options for recharging via solar panels.
Sticker price of $36,050; $28,550 after the federal tax credit.
Impractical full recharge time on standard household outlet. Cost for faster 240-volt home charging setup can be up to $2,000.
One of the range meters adjusts on the fly per driving style and use of climate controls, which can lead to big swings in the numbers and cause confusion. Some Leaf owners call it the “guess-o-meter.”
Cold weather and use of the heater can significantly reduce range (see Electric Car Range in Cold Weather). The 2013 Leaf will have a new heater that will improve range in cold weather by 20 to 25 miles.
“Nissan is winning the pure electric vehicle race for a reason: They were first and they’re going to be tough to beat.” — Sebastian Blanco
“Both sticker price and charging infrastructure have a ways to go before electric cars will become viable options for the average driver.” — Shruti Vaidyanathan
“While it lacks the sexy appeal of GM’s EV1 from a decade ago, the Leaf more than makes up for it in practicality.” — Bill Moore
“If this is Nissan’s first electric offering to the masses, imagine how good its second and third generations will be.” — Wayne Gerdes
The Leaf is the most successful all-electric car ever. But strong competition is coming — such as the Ford Focus Electric, Honda Fit EV and Tesla Model S — which might mean the Leaf will get even better.
Base Price: $27,895
Gas Mileage: 30 city, 40 hwy, 34 combined
Annual Fuel Cost: $1,800
Air Pollution Score: 5
Greenhouse Gas Score: 7
ACEEE Green Score: 48
The most fuel-efficient non-hybrid family sedan available. Excellent highway fuel economy. Cruise for nearly 800 miles before refueling.
Comfortable for family road trips. Roomy back seat. Large trunk.
Engineered in Germany with the American driver in mind. Built in Chattanooga, Tenn., at the world’s most eco-friendly auto facility.
Named 2012 Car of the Year by Motor Trend, which described the Passat TDI as “a green car without the compromises the mainstream green vehicles impose — a true technological achievement.”
Given diesel durability (200,000 miles or much more; see The Longevity of Diesel Engines), you may want to bequeath this car in your will.
Diesel costs about 15 to 30 cents more per gallon than regular gas. The DOE projects that diesel will average $4.15 in 2012.
The Passat’s price is comparable to that of hybrid cars, yet its fuel economy rating is the same or worse.
Might be hard to find given its high demand and Volkswagen’s low number of dealerships (compared with other major automakers).
“If I were a highway warrior, this would be my vehicle. It’s a quiet, comfortable and fuel-efficient sedan, made in America at the world’s only LEED Platinum auto manufacturing facility.” — Wayne Gerdes
“While ‘clean’ diesel vehicles haven’t taken off in the United States like they have in Europe, their environmental benefits are clear: better fuel economy and reduced emissions.” — Shruti Vaidyanathan
“The Passat TDI is a solid, cleaner family car choice compared to its gasoline counterparts. But the current hybrid family cars remain superior choices when it comes to environmental benefits and relief at the pump.” — David Friedman
“The Passat is one reason why diesels are making a slow and steady comeback in the United States. If you do a lot of highway miles, you might be pleasantly surprised with an oil-burner. They don’t make them like they used to.” — Sebastian Blanco
Finally, clean diesel comes to the family sedan size class. The Passat TDI is impressive, especially for its comfort (driving and riding) and highway mpg. Whether it or a hybrid is best for you may be as simple as which drive style you prefer and how long you intend to own the car.
(electric; compact hatchback)
Base Price: $29,975 for ES trim; $22,475 after federal tax credit
Gas Mileage Equivalent: 126 city, 99 hwy, 112 combined
Annual Fuel Cost: $550
Air Pollution Score: 10
Greenhouse Gas Score: 10
ACEEE Green Score: 58
Electric Range: 62 miles
Recharge Time: 7 hours on 240 volts; 22.5 hours on 120 volts
Never needs gas! Average cost for a full “tank” of energy: $1.92.
Most affordable of the electric cars currently available.
The No. 1 greenest car for 2012, according to ACEEE.
Federal tax credit of $7,500. Several states also offer tax credits or rebates; some are worth thousands more in savings.
Zippy and nimble. Trips to the market have never been more fun.
Interior is simple yet comfortable. Tall passengers will be comfortable given high roofline.
Great option for urbanities who live and work in the same city, or as a second car devoted to errands and other short trips.
Futuristic design you’ll either love or loathe.
Real-world range is significantly less than that of the Leaf, depending on your driving style and conditions. Top speed of 81 mph.
Recharges on a standard household outlet barely faster (22.5 hours) than it takes the Earth to rotate around the sun.
Nationwide availability isn’t until summer 2012. Currently available on the West Coast and in several northeastern states.
“Even taking into account the emissions generated from the electricity used to power the Mitsubishi i, using an average U.S. grid mix, the i still handily outpaces today’s other vehicles in environmental terms.” — Shruti Vaidyanathan
“The Mitsubishi i leads the electric car pack in efficiency, cutting the cost of driving by about 75 percent compared with today’s average compact car.” — David Friedman
“Might be the most affordable electric urban car on the market. There are nearly as many units of the i on the roads of the world as there are units of the Nissan Leaf.” — Bill Moore
“I had more fun driving this car than I expected to. If you can handle the Spartan vibe, it’s a good EV for the money.” — Sebastian Blanco
It’s much more than a golf cart, but a little less than the Nissan Leaf. Nevertheless, the i is notable because its mixture of utility and affordability might entice more people to plug in to electric cars.
Coolest Colors for the 2012 Best Green Cars
Toyota Prius C: Habanero
Toyota Prius V: Blue Ribbon Metallic
Chevrolet Volt: Crystal Red Tintcoat
Volkswagen Passat TDI: Opera Red Metallic
Nissan Leaf: Super Black
Mitsubishi i: Raspberry
Best Green Cars Alumni
Best Green Cars, 5-Year Total Cost of Ownership
Study by Kelley Blue Book
Best Green Cars for Less Than $15K
(all with manual transmissions)
Early Candidates for 2013 Best Green Cars
Wish-You-Got-Better-MPG Best Green Cars
Best Green Cars With Manual Transmission Option
Best Green Cars If You Win the Lottery
Tesla Roadster: about $100,000 (try eBay)
Lexus LS 600h: $114,000
Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid: $93,000
John Rockhold is a green car enthusiast and Contributing Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Find him on Google+.