Are Hybrid Cars Really Greener? Not Always


Hybrid cars are all the rage. But are they really greener?

Some people might call my car a junker, but I roll around town in my 1997 Nissan 200sx with pride. That’s partially because I’m glad to tout my non-preoccupation with shiny new stuff, but mostly because my trusty little subcompact gets 35 miles to the gallon on the highway. That’s right—read it and weep, hybrid-SUV owners. The truth is that, despite the clever marketing, hybrid cars are not always greener than their traditional counterparts—and not just because of gas mileage.

First of all, let’s talk new versus used. Cars require factories to produce them, which require parts, which require raw materials…you get the idea. So that Prius uses a whole lot of energy and resources before ever seeing the sales lot. In fact, Wired magazine estimates that pollution-wise, building a new Prius is equal to burning 1,000 gallons of gasoline.

Given the wastefulness of auto production, it’s often better to buy a used car than a new one, even if the mpg is somewhat lower. Obviously a Hummer is a worse choice than a Prius in almost any case (unless that monstrous vehicle runs on biodiesel), but a car built a decade ago that gets around 30 miles to the gallon is greener than a new hybrid that gets 46 mpg, according to Wired.

Speaking of mpg, not every hybrid gets great gas mileage. The aforementioned SUVs range from 20 to 34 miles to the gallon, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. (Ahem, not quite up to par with my little 2-door.) Hybrid pickup trucks are even more abysmal, with Chevys and GMCs ranging from 20 to 23 mpg. Surprisingly, pricey luxury cars are the worst offenders: a 2013 Lexus LS 600h gets 19 mpg city and 23 highway, and the 2012 BMW ActiveHybrid 7 gets just 17 mpg city and 24 highway. Yep, that’s 17 luxurious miles per gallon driving on surface streets. But I bet it’s fast.

Despite the eco-unfriendliness of certain models, there are a fair number of hybrids with better mileage than most traditional cars. The 2013 Prius gets 48 mpg city and an impressive 53 mpg highway, while the 2013 Ford C-CMAX gets 47 mpg across the board. Interestingly, you can come close to these numbers with a true blast from the past like the 1986 Honda CRX HF, which gets 42 mpg city and 51 highway — but the repair bills could get steep.

So what’s an eco-lover to do? Emissions-free electric cars are a good choice, but only if you live in an area that produces clean power. Otherwise, think small and used. If you don’t want to risk something too old, a used hybrid might be a good idea. They’ve been out long enough now to hit the used-car circuit and get better mileage than many other options. Whatever model you go with, it’s crucial that you consider the ecological impact of your choice. Transportation emissions are responsible for most of the pollution in the United States, spewing toxins into the air we breathe and contributing to climate change — which affects all of us.

image: SusanAstray