What makes a car green? Studying fuel economy is not enough; neither is pointing to the plug on an electric vehicle and declaring it superior to gasoline-powered cars. To see the environmental impact of an automobile, you have to consider the emissions and footprint beginning with the earliest stages of production and ending when it gets scrapped for parts.
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) does this very job and releases its list of greenest cars every year based on the findings. To settle issues surrounding the electric grids in each region, the ACEEE uses an average national standard for the power charging up plug-in hybrids and pure EVs. This system, combined with the high weight of EV batteries, knocks out some all-electric cars in favor of gas-electric hybrids. In fact, the world’s best-selling EV does not appear anywhere on this year’s list.
All told, three of the top 10 on this year’s list had no plugs attached. The two things all 10 have in common are compact frames and elite fuel economy. Here are the 10 greenest cars of the 2016 model year, according to the ACEEE. Note: Because the BMW i3 specs were released late, this EV did not make the list despite landing the highest score ever in the 2015 rankings.
10. Ford Focus Electric
Though there have been no powertrain updates on the Ford Focus Electric since it appeared in 2011, it remains one of the greenest cars on the U.S. market. Its standout mark was the 3.27 miles per kilowatt-hour (m/kw hr) it achieves in city driving, or what the EPA calls the equivalent of 110 miles per gallon, giving it a score of 57. Focus Electric’s combined 105 miles per gallon equivalent also makes it 10th on the EPA’s list of most economical vehicles. It’s one of the few instances where the rating matched up with the ACEEE’s evaluation. A new Focus EV with more range will debut late in 2016.
9. Toyota Prius
The Toyota Prius is still setting fuel economy standards after all these years. For the standard 2016 model, the 54 miles per gallon in city driving put it among the most economical gas cars to ever hit the road. Combined with the small footprint and low curb weight of 3,075 pounds, the original hybrid bumped every plug-in hybrid and many EVs off this list with a score of 58. Once the Prius plug-in hybrid appears, expect the bar to be set even higher.
8. Toyota Prius c
How many Prius models are there? Technically, there are five, beginning with c, the smallest and least expensive ($19,560), and ending with v ($26,675), the wagon that is the largest and priciest of the bunch. Then there are three versions in between — Two, Three, and Four — that are referred to simply as “Prius.” Each of the five models has numerous trims, so it’s a little confusing, but in the case of Prius c there are no styling or economy changes for the 2016 model year. Everything stayed the same, and it’s still the eighth greenest car available in America by ACEEE standards with the score of 59.
7. Kia Soul EV
The Kia Soul EV may be tall, but don’t let the wagon frame fool you into thinking it is long by any stretch. This compact footprint helps keep the weight down and the overall environmental impact light. At 3.55 m/kw hr, or the equivalent of 120 miles per gallon in city driving, the Soul EV is among the elite in economy as well as lifecycle emissions. It scored 59, just enough for it to edge the Prius c.
6. Nissan Leaf
The 2016 model year brought a new Nissan Leaf SV model capable of a 107-mile range, which features 3.67 m/kw hr and scored a 60 in the ACEEE ratings. Leaf S models with 83 miles of range fare a little better with 3.75 m/kw hr and a score of 61, putting it on par with the top five cars on sale in the U.S. Combined, the two pure EVs received a score of 60. After the Tesla Model S, there is no car with greater range than the new 2016 Leaf SV. Its combined economy has the EPA rating of 114 miles per gallon.
5. Volkswagen e-Golf
Continuing the run of compact (168 inches) and economical (116 miles per gallon combined) electric cars, the Volkswagen e-Golf cracks the top five in the latest ACEEE rankings with a score of 61, just enough to edge the Leaf by percentage points. As with most other cars on this list, the e-Golf’s best attribute is its fuel economy in the city. Sales have been slow in the U.S. for this car, but it remains a popular model for European consumers.
4. Toyota Prius Two Eco
The big winner on fuel economy and lifecycle emissions is the Prius Two Eco ($24,700), the model that shattered expectations by achieving 58 miles per gallon in city tests by the automaker. Besides the four pure electric cars it beat on this list, the Eco model clipped the Chevy Volt (11th) and every Tesla available. For consumers who have no access to charging infrastructure or California compliance cars, it’s the greenest new automobile you can buy with a score of 61.
3. Fiat 500e
For many consumers, the ACEEE list will end with the Prius Eco at No. 4. That’s because EV models like the Fiat 500e are compliance cars only available in a few West Coast states. If you do have access to a 500e, you can take advantage of its small footprint and equivalent of 112 miles per gallon combined. The ACEEE gave it a score of 62 in its tests for 2016.
2. Chevrolet Spark EV
The Chevy Spark EV is an odd case for a compliance car in that it is available in Maryland in addition to California and Oregon. At the equivalent of 119 miles per gallon, it ranks second behind the BMW i3 for most economical car in America by EPA standards. ACEEE lifecycle emissions calculations give it the same place on this list, just ahead of the Fiat 500e at 63.
1. Smart Fortwo Electric Drive
Topping the list of greenest vehicles in 2016 is a car few people would ever consider buying. With two seats, 68 miles of total range and the power to terrify drivers at any high speed, the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive is by no means a contender for the hearts and souls of Americans. However, it is the greenest car you can buy on the U.S. market, for what it’s worth. Currently, what it’s worth is $20,740 before incentives.