Hey there, Captain Planet. So you say you want a Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV)? But did you know that LEVs are actually the highest polluting cars and light trucks available on the market right now? Gas mileage ratings are easy to find, but manufacturer websites and new car window stickers are less than helpful on emissions.
First, let’s clear the air on emissions. Pollution controls were first added to vehicles back in the 1960s, when the average car created 2,000 pounds of smog forming emissions in its 100,000-mile lifespan. Following guidance from the Clean Air Act and the California Air Resources Board, manufacturers sold Low Emissions Vehicles in the late ’90s producing emissions of just 50 pounds per 100,000 miles. That was great progress, but SULEV (or Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) is the goal now, with an engine producing just a pound of emissions every 100,000 miles. It seems to be working, as the EPA reports vehicle emissions at record lows, and the air of Los Angeles no longer looks like nacho cheese.
The hot trend lately is electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf. These are Zero Emissions Vehicles, and earn the fancy ZEV acronym. While the vehicle may be charged by a coal plant, there are zero emissions coming from driving the car, giving them the perfect score of 0 grams of greenhouse gas emissions per mile. That’s awesome, but EVs aren’t for everyone, which is why we’re looking at hybrids and conventional gas engines that produce the cleanest emissions on the market.
The BMW i3 is what happens when you combine the eco crowd with designers from the future. It looks like nothing else on the road, and unlike most hybrids, that’s actually a compliment here. While it is rather small, the i3 has comfortable seats and surprising headroom, making it a great one or two occupant commuter. The dash is Tesla-inspired with dual screens, and the cup holders look like art deco pieces. Driving the i3 is easy on Mother Earth, emitting just 37 grams of greenhouse gas per mile. If that isn’t enough bragging rights, there’s the fact that the i3 has the best mileage of any hybrid at 117 MPGe. That’s 30 more than the $100,000 Tesla Model X P100D. That’s instant street cred.
Looking for more interior room? Chevy’s Volt has a shockingly good interior, with seating for four real-sized American adults. While the Volt primarily operates on electric power like an EV, when the battery runs low it becomes a regular hybrid, operating on a gas engine to recharge the battery. This creates incredible efficiency, with 106 MPGe in electric mode, and 42 MPG on just the gas engine. At just 51 grams per mile, it also earns the EPA’s best emissions rating. The interior is slick, with a high quality and upscale feel. Shop for a Premium trim, as the leather and navigation features are worth it.
The world’s best-selling hybrid still offers a lot of miles for the buck. Like the Volt, the Toyota Prius features a gas sipping four-cylinder engine and an electric battery/motor combination working together for maximum efficiency. It’s no racer, but has plenty of power for on ramps. The seats are comfy, and the multiple storage solutions are ingenious. The result is arguably the most usable hybrid on this list. 52 MPG combined city/highway is still great mileage in 2017, and producing 170 grams per mile is an example of incredibly low gas emissions. The Prius is also one of the best road trip cars ever made, with an estimated 588 mile range according to the EPA.
The ’90s Mitsubishi Mirage was a forgettable sedan, but Mitsu brought the name back in 2012 as one of the most affordable cars you can buy. It’s also one of the most efficient. At just 228 grams per mile, and up to 42 MPG highway, the Mirage has hybrid-like efficiency for very little money. While it’s one of the lightest cars sold in North America, the Mirage doesn’t skimp on options. Depending on year, you can get projector headlights, LED tail lights, Apple CarPlay, and a booming Rockford Fosgate system. It’s like an oasis in the desert of boring economy cars.
What the heck is a “Yaris” anyway? What it means is you’re getting up to 35 MPG highway. In addition to its fuel thriftiness, the Yaris is efficient and clean burning at 278 grams per mile. It’s also one of the most affordable cars, usually trading the title with the equally affordable and efficient Nissan Versa. That low price translates to an even better deal on the used market. Check out the options list, where there’s hands-free Bluetooth, a touch screen infotainment system, and keyless entry. Think of it as a compact and fun Prius C, for half the cost.
Surprised to see this one here? All manufacturers care about clean emissions, and BMW proved it with their first SULEV engine in the 2003 325i. Producing one-fifth of the emissions compared to ULEV category, the engine technology proved reliable with no loss of power. The 328i produces only 330 grams per mile, and can achieve up to 35 MPG highway, same as the Yaris. The sport suspension and steering make it fun to drive while feeling like you are saving the world.