Image: The Honda Civic GX
Honda
The Honda Civic GX looks like any other Honda Civic, but unlike ordinary Civics, the car is powered by natural gas.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/22/2008 11:54:03 AM ET 2008-10-22T15:54:03

It’s not easy going "green," especially for car shoppers looking to buy a new set of eco-friendly wheels. How do you sort among the various ratings and specifications to determine which new cars are the cleanest?

There is a mind-numbing array of statistics to be weighed, including EPA gas mileage numbers, emissions scores with impenetrable names like “Tier II, Bin 5,” and grams of carbon dioxide per mile. This complex process virtually ensures that no shopper can have a clear idea of how to compare the overall “greenness” of one car over another.

Recognizing consumers’ need for a simple way to pick a clean vehicle, the EPA created the SmartWay program, which awards a SmartWay “Green Leaf” or a SmartWay “Elite Green Leaf” to the very cleanest of new cars.

The program started in 2004 as a way to rank the fuel efficiency of commercial trucks and  was so successful that in 2006 the agency decided to expand it to include passenger vehicles, said Mitch Greenberg, manager of the EPA SmartWay program.

“The primary goal for SmartWay is to create a demand for cleaner, more efficient transportation,” he said.

Of course all vehicle makers must meet minimum federal standards for pollution, as they do for crash safety. So the SmartWay program is designed to recognize vehicles with truly outstanding green credentials.

Cars are given two ratings by the EPA, on a scale of one to 10: An air pollution score and a greenhouse gas score. Vehicles that score more than 13 when the two scores are combined earn the SmartWay certification, so long as neither score is lower than a six. To get the SmartWay Elite certification, the car must score a nine or better in each category.

So far the natural gas-powered Honda Civic GX, the hybrid Toyota Prius and hybrid versions of the Civic, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry have earned SmartWay Elite certification for the 2009 model year.

The score is a moving target to ensure that SmartWay-certified vehicles are in the top 20 percent of available models.

This will help SmartWay escape the fate of the federal "Five-Star” crash safety rating, which is achieved by most new models, robbing the achievement of any bragging rights.

Details of the SmartWay program can be found on the EPA’s Web site.

As the EPA has previously demonstrated with the Energy Star program for home appliances, consumers respond to this type of certification. Even if everyday drivers don't have as much financial incentive as commercial truck operators to shave their energy costs, many are interested in knowing which are cleanest for the environment, said Greenberg.

So far there’s no plan to place SmartWay certification on the so-called “Monroney” window stickers on all new cars which already list fuel economy ratings. But manufacturers that earn the certification are keen to advertise that fact, so they will likely apply static cling stickers to models in the showroom and lot so consumers can easily see which cars have scored a Green Leaf, Greenberg said.

Manufacturers have not yet started putting stickers on cars but are expected to do so soon, perhaps with the current 2009 model year, according to EPA.

Such support could be crucial to helping the program catch on.

“When you look at the hypercompetitive nature of our business, when consumer demand manifests itself then manufacturers engage in a race to go above and beyond mandated requirements,” said Greg Martin, General Motors’ director of global policy. 

Regardless of certification, working out how green a car is can be especially tricky when it comes to comparing various alternative powertrains, such as gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles  or "clean" diesels.

A green rating that recognizes fuel efficiency and reduces CO2 emissions as well as other pollution is potentially beneficial to manufacturers like Volkswagen, which has been largely overlooked despite good green credentials, even as hybrid-selling companies like Toyota and Honda get green accolades.

“A lot of consumers don’t understand CO2 [ratings] yet,” said Steve Keyes, general manager of public relations for Volkswagen of America. “This whole notion is a little in its infancy,” in the United States, he said. By contrast, in Europe new cars brandish their grams per mile of CO2 emissions, he said.

While their fuel efficiency helps cars like the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI achieve SmartWay certification, diesels are challenged to achieve the rating. Diesels get superlative gas mileage, and as a result they have correspondingly low carbon dioxide emissions, but they have struggled to control smog-forming pollution.

“Diesels come out less well-represented than we’d like here,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, an industry group.

The EPA is not the first organization to rate cars for the environmental friendliness.

For years, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or ACEEE, has listed its "greenest" and "meanest" passenger vehicles.

Therese Langer, transportation program director for the ACEEE, said the group applauds the EPA’s effort for expanding consumer access to important environmental information, although she sees advantages in her group's own rating system.

Specifically, the ACEEE considers all the emissions produced in the creation of a fuel, so that vehicles using fuels like ethanol don’t score as well as they might without taking that into account.

Also, EPA SmartWay scores that credit a flexible fuel vehicle’s ability to burn E85 (an alcohol fuel mixture that typically contains 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gas) fail to consider the scarcity of E85 pumps, she added.

It was the recognition that future products need to be a quantum leap beyond those of today, not incremental improvements, that prompted GM to launch the program to develop its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, said GM’s Martin.

“With Chevy Volt we made a very conscious decision that it wasn’t good enough to make another hybrid vehicle but to go beyond that to something that captures the consumers imagination,” he said.

And it will probably also capture a SmartWay Elite certification when it arrives on the market.

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