If you’ve turned on your TV, logged onto the Internet, or picked up a newspaper in the past week, chances are you’re at least generally aware of what’s currently happening with Volkswagen. But if you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a summary: Volkswagen made an amazingly efficient, clean diesel engine…that ended up not being so clean. By using a defeat device, VW’s 2.0-liter diesel engine was able to pass the EPA’s emissions tests while actually polluting at a rate of up to 40 times the tested numbers. The audacity of the transgression is shocking enough, but now that the investigation has begun to expand beyond VW’s 2.0-liter TDI 4-cylinder, the entire future of diesel-powered cars may be in question.
We got to thinking: Although Volkswagen’s clean diesel engines are wildly economical—the EPA rated the 2015 Golf TDI at 45 mpg highway, but it’s been known to do much better than that—unfortunately, we now know that they’re not actually clean. So what are the cleanest options out there? With help from www.fueleconomy.gov and its great power search tool, we researched the cleanest new cars you can buy for different needs. Hybrid cars are obviously going to smoke any non-hybrid competition, so we disqualified them—consider them suspended for performance-enhancing drugs…or engines…or something. Instead, we searched for gas- or diesel-powered compact cars, sedans, sports cars, SUVs, and 4WD trucks. Whether it’s bombing around the city in your little commuter, blipping the throttle in your weekend toy, or making trips to the hardware store in your pickup, we found that even before Dieselgate broke, the cleanest engines on the road were using regular gas.
Keep in mind that by “emissions,” we are referring to the greenhouse gases coming out of the tailpipes, namely CO2, which the EPA measures in grams per mile. The 2015 Mitsubishi Mirage, for instance, emits only 222 g/mi, making it the vehicle with the lowest emissions. The Mirage is known to offer a low MSRP and a surprisingly good set of features, including navigation and climate control. The powerplant is, naturally, small, but reviewers have had decent things to say about the overall driving experience and maneuverability. Fuel economy clocks in at 40 mpg combined, another good indicator of the Mirage’s eco-friendly demeanor.
Second among the subcompacts—and second overall—is the 2015 Scion iQ. The iQ emits 238 g/mi, putting it just one gram ahead of the third-place Mazda2. Combined mileage for the iQ (37 mpg) isn’t quite as good as the Mirage’s, but the engine is a little more powerful (94 hp as opposed to 74), and the iQ’s smaller size makes for some incredible maneuverability. Plus, the iQ is a good alternative to the smart fortwo, given that it’s a little cheaper than most smart trims, and more powerful.
After small cars, the cleanest vehicle segment is sedans. As we noted Wednesday, Mazda’s SkyActiv gas engines offer fantastic fuel efficiency, and the company expects to improve mileage by 30 percent in next-generation versions. Happily, research for this list determined that SkyActiv engines also have low emissions. The Mazda6 is the cleanest new sedan, emitting just 276 g/mi while offering a terrific driving experience and great mileage. Our reviewer loves its steering and calls its suspension tuning perfect. She narrowly missed achieving its 32-mpg combined rating, getting an impressive 29.3 mpg over a week of driving despite frequently using its Sport mode.
Trailing the Mazda6 by a narrow margin, Hyundai’s Sonata sedan also runs clean, with its appropriately named Eco trim’s 1.6-liter 177-hp 4-cylinder turbo producing only 282 g/mi. That direct-injected engine’s 28 mpg city/38 highway/32 combined rating is also impressive, as are the Sonata’s safety ratings. Our reviewer drove a Sonata Limited with the less-efficient and slightly dirtier 2.4-liter 4-cylinder that powers most of the Sonatas sold in the U.S., but that engine’s 308-g/mi rating is still relatively strong. She loved the quietness, look, and feel of the Limited’s interior and enjoyed driving it, and Hyundai’s warranty is the best in the business.
Of course, sometimes a midsize sedan doesn’t quite satisfy your desire for a little more punch under the accelerator. You’re the type that will be looking for a sports car or a hot hatch, and, though these vehicles may initially be associated with desperately low fuel economy and environmentally unfriendly levels of emissions, there are a couple good picks out there to satisfy both your craving for power and the EPA. First off, we have the 2015 Fiat 500 Abarth, the famed inexpensive and high-performance version of Fiat’s prototypical hatch. This hot hatch can make great use of its 160 hp while producing only 295 g/mi (and 30 mpg combined), which is tied for the best emissions from a sports car with…
…everyone’s favorite sports convertible. As if you needed another reason to want the legendary Mazda MX-5 Miata. But the Miata is truly the roadster for everyone (under 6’3”), while still keeping its emissions levels remarkably low for a sports car. Ratings of 30 mpg combined and 295 g/mi stack up nicely against all other gasoline-powered sports convertibles. Mazda has been able to squeeze impressive efficiency from the 2.0-liter SkyActiv 4-cylinder engine that powers its smaller cars, including the Miata, the Mazda2, the i trims of the Mazda3, and the debuting CX-3.
We understand that not everyone lives in a city, and that some of us have to drive through some harsh winters, and that maybe a compact car might not mean much if you want to take your family camping in the woods somewhere. So we also checked emissions for SUVs. First up was the 2015 Honda CR-V, with 313 g/mi. All CR-V trims are available with AWD and cargo space of 70.9 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. The Honda HR-V also performs well on its emissions (309 g/mi), but is considerably smaller than the CR-V—so be sure to weigh just how much space you’ll need.
The 2016 Subaru Outback comes in just behind the CR-V at 315 g/mi, but matches it in mileage—28 mpg combined—making the race for the most eco-friendly SUV a close one. The Outback has drummed up some pretty serious respect over the years, and Subaru gave the model a big upgrade in 2015. This year’s edition features additional improvements to the ride, safety features, and telematics. The previous-generation Outback does okay in emissions (339 g/mi) and fuel economy (26 mpg), but probably not well enough for us to suggest a used model from before 2015.
Trucks are great, and the trucks made today are better than ever. They offer on- and off-road capability, a comfortable ride, a convenient truck bed, and strong engines. The problem, of course, is that those strong engines also produce lots of unwanted emissions. Luckily, there are a couple of trucks that run cleaner than the rest. 4WD versions of the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, equipped with a gas-powered 2.5-liter inline-4 engine, both return 19 mpg city/25 highway/22 combined while emitting a relatively measly 422 g/mi. For comparison, the 2015 Ram 1500 pumps out 459 grams from its turbodiesel 6-cylinder.
The Colorado and Canyon, however, are midsize pickups, and chances are, if you’re buying a truck, that you’ll want a full-size, half-ton pickup. The Ford F-150 earned plenty of praise for its aluminum redesign in 2015, but it’s the truck’s 2.7-liter turbocharged 6-cylinder that deserves the glory if we’re going to talk about emissions. Despite its powerful 325 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque, the EcoBoost engine spits out only 453 g/mi while returning 18/23/20. 453 grams might be close to twice what the Mitsubishi Mirage emits, but you wouldn’t want to put 1,500 pounds of fertilizer in the back of the Mitsubishi either.
What car would you consider driving to cut down on emissions?
–Chase Hammond, John Harrington, Matt Smith, and Steve Halloran
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