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Going Green: Cars with the Smallest Carbon Footprint

Every individual on the planet consumes precious resources. In doing so carbon dioxide and various carbon compounds are emitted. Scientists contend those emissions, also known as greenhouse gases, impact the environment, leading to climate change and a host of related problems.

The amount of carbon used by businesses, products and people is known as a carbon footprint. Your footprint will vary depending on the way you live with some of those variables based on your preferred mode of transportation.

The vehicle you drive produces carbon directly, unless it is an electric vehicle. But even electric vehicles have a carbon footprint as the electricity supplied is harnessed, transported and consumed. If you’re looking to go green by shopping for a car with the smallest carbon footprint, our list of rational, scientific and practical choices may give you something to consider.

Tesla Model S

Among electric vehicles, no model has the range of a Tesla Model S. This large, rear- or all-wheel drive luxury sedan has a starting price of about $70,000 before tax credits are taken. It is powered by a pair of electric motors, including a front motor and a high performance motor fixed to the rear axle.

The Model S’ EPA-rated range varies depending on the model chosen. For instance, a rear-wheel drive Model S with a 70-kilowatt battery pack has a range of 230 miles. An all-wheel drive model with the 85-kilowatt battery pack has a range of 270 miles. We give the Tesla Model S top billing for the smallest carbon footprint as it goes farthest before needing to be charged.

Toyota Mirai

Among vehicles that run on hydrogen, the Toyota Mirai may be the most efficient one yet. But unless you live in California, you cannot yet obtain this $57,700 sedan.

The Mirai represents Toyota’s investment in fuel cell vehicles, and the automaker hopes it revolutionizes the auto industry in the same way that the Toyota Prius did. The Mirai has a longer range than the Tesla Model S and only emits harmless water vapor. Its 312-mile range may be longer than the Tesla, but this model has a higher carbon footprint as hydrogen must be transported by trucks to filling stations. You might also look at the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell when evaluating fuel cell vehicles.

Nissan Leaf

So far, we have looked at rational reasons for rating cars with the smallest carbon footprint. However, the Automotive Science Group (ASG) relies upon scientific principles based on “ecological economics” to rank today’s vehicles. These methods look at various social, environmental and economic considerations and in doing so, the Nissan Leaf sits at the top of that list.

The Nissan Leaf, an all-electric four-door hatchback introduced in 2011, finished ahead of the 1,400 other vehicles sold in the North American market as evaluated by the ASG. The ASG found that the Leaf holds “the smallest life-cycle carbon footprint of any model year 2015 automobile.” Nissan’s electric vehicle retails for about $30,000, is the best-selling EV available, and has an 84-mile range. You might compare this model to a Ford Focus Electric when evaluating the Leaf.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV

So far, we have looked at electric-only range, hydrogen fuel vehicles and a scientific study to determine carbon footprint impact. Another consideration should be the price. After all, if you must go to work to earn the money to pay for your efficient vehicle, each time you take to the road or use mass transit means you’re expanding your carbon footprint.

With cost being the chief factor for buying an EV, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV starts at $22,995, which is $7,000 less than the Nissan Leaf. This bare bones EV is powered by a 16-kilowatt battery. In comparison, the Leaf has a 24-kilowatt battery. Buyers of the Mitsubishi EV may qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit as well as state credits. Thus, the final price for your EV may come in under $15,000, and trips to the service station will never be part of the equation. The Chevrolet Spark EV is another low-cost model to consider.

Carbon Footprint Sustainability

A list of cars with the smallest carbon footprint exposes itself to much scrutiny and criticism. But that’s a good thing if you have “going green” on your mind. If you are aware that your current vehicle is the antithesis of sustainability and want to make a change, then that is a positive development.

On the other hand, if the only type of vehicle your family can utilize is gas or diesel powered, you can still reduce your carbon footprint by choosing a more efficient model or limiting the miles you drive each year. Combining errands, keeping your tires properly inflated, avoiding jackrabbit starts and using cruise control are beneficial moves to help reduce your impact on the environment.

When it comes time to shop for a different vehicle, check out our list of certified pre-owned vehicles. You’re bound to find something that gives you what you need as you do your part to promote sustainability.

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