We Calculated the Most Eco-Efficient Cars on the Road Right Now
Fuel efficiency is often cited as the key ingredient to determine a car's green factor, and yes, it's certainly important. But it doesn't tell the whole story. When you cut up the global-warming pie, CO2 emissions are a huge slice -- and one that eco-driven consumers sometimes don't fully grasp when it comes to electric vehicles like Tesla. True, an electric car won't emit CO2 on the way from point A to point B, but you can't call it a zero-emissions vehicle when plenty of CO2 is produced to recharge its batteries.
So which cars are truly environmentally efficient? And where do EVs like Tesla stack up, really? I turned to the EPA's list of fuel economy and emissions data for over 1,300 cars and trucks on the market today. Looking at every car's MPG, divided by the grams of CO2 it emits per mile, gives us our "Thrillist Efficiency Score." For EVs, its MPGe (which is like fuel economy... but for electrics!) over the average CO2 emitted for one mile's charge. And behold: the top-five most environmentally efficient vehicles, in nine different EPA categories.
Note: You can read more about my methodology at the bottom, and a quick note if you drive an EV (or want to buy one): these emissions numbers represent the national average, but your car’s emissions number will vary based on where your power is coming from. I.e., if your power is wind-based, your car will have a better score. If it’s from a coal-based power plant, just get a bike, bro.
Midsize carsThe range of the LEAF, at 107 miles, might not be reassuring to anyone with a long-distance drive ahead of them, but for everyday city driving, it's hard to argue with Nissan's electric solution. Meanwhile, the hybrid version of the Hyundai Sonata has a pretty nifty achievement here; it beat out some heavy hitters to get this rank.
1. Nissan LEAFThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.56
CO2 grams per mile: 204
CO2 g/mile: 101
CO2 g/mile: 158
CO2 g/mile: 277
CO2 g/mile: 129
Compact carsThe compact-car segment is actually pretty crowded, which is why it's so important for the Volt to win the efficiency sweepstakes against the likes of the Hyundai Veloster, VW Beetle, and Volvo S60, not to mention the entry-level Prius.
CO2 grams per mile: 51
CO2 g/mile: 201
CO2 g/mile: 221
CO2 g/mile: 128
Minicompact carsThis is a small category, and I'm not just saying that to make a hideous pun. There simply isn't a great variety of cars to pick from here -- most of the top 10 for this category are actually various FIAT 500 and MINI Cooper models, including the Cooper S and 500 Abarth. If you haven't picked up on the trend of small, lightweight cars being efficient, consider this your final notice. After the inexpensive cars are picked through, there's a bit of a price jump to the Porsches and Ferraris of the world.
1. FIAT 500eThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.55
CO2 grams per mile: 206
2. MINI CooperThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.11
CO2 g/mile: 286
CO2 g/mile: 317
*As Scion FR-S, before Toyota renaming
CO2 g/mile: 380
CO2 g/mile: 479
Large carsPerhaps surprisingly, Tesla doesn't crack the top 10 in terms of environmental efficiency unless it's broken down by the EPA's system, falling short of Ford's electric Focus and the Chevy Volt among others. Even within the large-car category, unless you live somewhere with really clean electricity production, the S550e actually produces less carbon dioxide per mile than a Tesla. You'll just be spending a lot more on gas, thanks to its 26mpg.
CO2 grams per mile: 229
CO2 g/mile: 225
CO2 g/mile: 227
4. Kia OptimaThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.11
CO2 g/mile: 281
CO2 g/mile: 282
Standard sport utility vehiclesThese SUVs aren't exactly bastions of eco-friendliness. That said, the technology involved in keeping them as environmentally friendly as they are, given their heft, is quite considerable. The majority of SUVs on the road saw efficiency ratings in the 0.2 range, MPGs barely over 10, and CO2 emissions toping 700g per mile. Given that, these five are downright Kermit-approved.
CO2 grams per mile: 342
CO2 g/mile: 373
CO2 g/mile: 405
CO2 g/mile: 408
CO2 g/mile: 412
MinivansMinivans just aren't great for the environment either. At least not right now. You can debate ad nauseam whether they're vehicles for uncool parents who have given up, or badass utilitarian vehicles that make life easier, but, at least according to the EPA, you can't buy one that gets 25mpg.
1. Nissan QuestThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.06
CO2 grams per mile: 395
CO2 g/mile: 402
CO2 g/mile: 416
4. Kia SedonaThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.05
CO2 g/mile: 432
CO2 g/mile: 430
Small sport utility vehiclesTechnically, this whole class should be called crossovers, but that's neither here nor there. The smallest "SUVs" are actually fairly tightly bunched together in terms of environmental efficiency, so price and personal taste are really your biggest determining factors here.
1. Lexus NX300hThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.12
CO2 grams per mile: 270
2. Honda HR-VThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.11
CO2 g/mile: 285
3. Buick EncoreThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.10
CO2 g/mile: 293
Price: $24,065 (2016)
CO2 g/mile: 297
5. Mazda CX-5Thrillist Efficiency Score: 0.10
CO2 g/mile: 302
Subcompact carsDing ding ding! We have a winner, ladies and gentlemen: the i3 reigns supreme, not just in the subcompact category, but across all categories. Interestingly, the i3 is at its most efficient when it uses a gasoline-powered range extender, a statistic that speaks volumes about the average efficiency of electricity production in America.
1. BMW i3 - Best in ShowThrillist Efficiency Score: 1.07
CO2 grams per mile: 37
CO2 g/mile: 195
CO2 g/mile: 206
4. Cadillac ELRThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.35
CO2 g/mile: 91
5. Scion iAThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.15
CO2 g/mile: 243
Two-seatersThe Miata is relatively inexpensive, fun as hell, and not deadly to the planet. The concept of lightness is a wonderful thing, isn't it? Following the same concept, the Alfa 4C is a car built purely for visceral entertainment, and it's pretty light as a result. In turn, it's actually pretty efficient. Who said you can't have your cake and eat it too?
CO2 grams per mile: 217
Price: $14,640 (non-electric)
2. Honda CR-ZThrillist Efficiency Score: 0.16
CO2 g/mile: 238
CO2 g/mile: 295
CO2 g/mile: 317
CO2 g/mile: 321
MethodologyIn order to properly compare cars of various types of propulsion (i.e., electric and gasoline/diesel), you need to figure out their energy consumption in a comparable unit of measurement. The EPA does this, but only for fuel efficiency, with MPG and MPGe, which is the "equivalent" MPG for an electric vehicle. According to the EPA, every gallon of gas is the equivalent of 33.6 kiloWatt hours (kWh), and every kWh results in just under 690g of CO2 production, on average.
With that knowledge, I converted every car's fuel efficiency from MPG (and MPGe) to gallons per mile. Since the EPA has real-world measurements (in grams per mile) for gasoline- and diesel-powered cars, I converted just the electrically powered cars to kWh/mile, then simply multiplied by 690 to get the average CO2 emission required for a mile's charge.
Note on electricity production: Production methods vary greatly in terms of pollution. A coal-based power plant produces exponentially more CO2 than a wind farm, for example. Thus, to reiterate, if your electric power is wind-based, your electric car will have lower pollution numbers than shown here, and the inverse is true if you have coal power. These numbers represent the national average, so bear that in mind when looking at the results.
Note on the categories: Some of the category placements may seem a little strange because the EPA goes off of interior volume and cargo space when determining a car's "official" category. Thus, a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe is a compact car, while a Nissan LEAF is mid-sized. Go figure.
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