Using less fuel is better for your budget, but it’s not necessarily better for the environment or for tailpipe emissions.
Of the 10 Top Picks for 2021 revealed by Consumer Reports on Thursday, four are Green Choices that reflect a newfound attention to that idea: the Toyota Prius, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Camry, and Tesla Model 3.
Tesla Model 3
According to Consumer Reports’ director of testing, Jake Fisher, the new Green Choice designation, also revealed Thursday, represents a broad shift in public awareness about emissions. Over a decade or more, the conversation has evolved from a conservation angle and concerns that we were going to run out of fossil fuels to one that’s much more centered around sustainability, global warming, smog-forming pollution, and even cancer-causing pollutants.
“We’ve done fuel economy tests for many, many years but we’ve never really put that information out about what comes out of your car,” he told Green Car Reports.
Fisher added that one of the most misunderstood pieces is that while diesel vehicles might get better mileage, each gallon of diesel results in higher CO2 emissions.
The disconnect between fuel economy and emissions is a nuance the American public didn’t care much about until five years ago, when the Volkswagen diesel scandal highlighted that some of the most fuel-efficient models on the market might also be some of the dirtiest. That helped accelerate awareness and frame it in a way the public could understand.
2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, 2013 Chicago Auto Show
“It used to be: Those cars are great because they get 40 mpg, and that’s good for the environment,” said Fisher. “You really have to look closer, and you have to look at what’s coming out of the tailpipe, not just what’s going into the engine.”
According to a nationally representative survey of 2,223 adults conducted for CR in January, 66% said that they were “very or somewhat worried” about tailpipe emissions contributing to health, and 61% said that vehicle emissions are a “very or somewhat” important factor in purchasing or leasing a vehicle.
Fisher says that while the organization isn’t yet including Green Choice in its ranking system, it is noting the designation with a green leaf icon, and it’s noticed that emissions excellence seems to follow overall excellence for vehicles—or vice versa. The Green Choice label goes on 25% of CR’s Recommended vehicles, while 40% of its Top Picks do.
2020 Toyota Prius
The designation is given to the cleanest 20% of vehicles, and for now essentially mirrors the EPA’s SmartWay Vehicle list.
Although there are definitely other elements that relate to the green footprint of a vehicle, such as recyclability, manufacturing, tires and brakes, and more, the tailpipe emissions associated with driving—or, for the future, the upstream emissions from the electricity—are what he calls “the big piece.”
That said, CR does intend to do more with emissions in the future. It has mobile emissions-testing capability, and it’s in the early stages of understanding how the public can best benefit from such testing.
In the meantime, the Green Choice rating helps separate the best from the rest. Even if you’re not yet ready for an EV, it highlights that there are models that might get about the same mileage but make a difference to the health of your neighbors and the earth.