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Greenest Family Cars

Finding a car that suits your family’s needs is one thing, but if you’re environmentally-conscious, your search might extend beyond comfort, cargo space and available options. “Choice of car is the biggest environmental decision a family can make,” says Bradley Berman, founder of PluginCars.com and HybridCars.com. “If you want to reduce your environmental impact, or help sever ties with oil spills and related environmental and political hazards related to petroleum, then buy the greenest vehicle that still meets your transportation needs.”

Each year, the Environmental Protection Agency rates vehicles in its Green Vehicle Guide, which gives an air pollution score and a greenhouse gas score to each vehicle for the tailpipe emissions they emit, to help you find the cleanest, most fuel-efficient vehicles. Vehicles that emit no air pollutants or greenhouse gases can earn a top score of 10. The lower a vehicle’s score, the more it contributes to local and regional air pollution, which creates problems such as smog, haze and impacts global warming. According to the Centers for Disease Control, air pollution also contributes to health risks in children such as asthma attacks, which can be triggered by emissions from car exhaust.

We’ve taken a hard look at the data to drill down to the family vehicles that take it easy on the environment and provide the space and comfort your family needs. Berman, who has a family of four, says he would put the Toyota Prius, Ford Escape Hybrid and the Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI at the top of the eco-friendly family car list. “These three cars are the most fuel-efficient in their categories,” says Berman. “Unless you have a large family, one of the three will serve family needs while delivering exceptional efficiency and low emissions.”  

In general, the hybrid and clean-diesel cars on our list maximize fuel economy with lower emissions, but we’ve also included gas models that earn decent ratings, often at a significantly lower price.

In Pictures: Greenest Family Cars

Affordable Compact SUVs

The Ford Escape Hybrid offers exceptional fuel economy, as well as good pollution and greenhouse gas scores for an affordable compact SUV. Additionally, the Escape’s seats are made from recycled materials that would have otherwise ended up in landfills. However, if your budget won’t allow its $31,395 price tag, don’t overlook the base Chevrolet Equinox, which offers slightly better cargo space as well as good fuel economy.

Make/Model

Price

Drive Type

Fuel Type

Transmission

Air Pollution Score*

MPG City/Hwy

Greenhouse Gas Score*

Seats

Cargo Space*

Ford Escape Hybrid

$30,570

FWD

Gas Hybrid

CVT

7

34/31

7

5

30.9

Chevrolet Equinox

$22,995

FWD

Gasoline

Automatic

6

22/32

6

5

31.4

*Cargo space is in cubic feet with all seats in use. Scores for air pollution and greenhouse gas are out of 10.

Affordable Midsize SUVs

If you’re looking for an affordable midsize SUV with a fuel-sipping hybrid powertrain, the all-wheel drive Toyota Highlander Hybrid is currently the only game in town. However, if the $38,140 Highlander Hybrid is too pricey, consider the base Kia Sorento, which offers comparable interior space and is slightly more fuel-efficient on the highway.

Make/Model

Price

Drive Type

Fuel Type

Transmission

Air Pollution Score*

MPG City/Hwy

Greenhouse Gas Score*

Seats

Cargo Space*

Toyota Highlander Hybrid

$38,140

AWD

Gas Hybrid

CVT

7

28/28

7

7

10.3

Kia Sorento

$23,150

FWD

Gasoline

Automatic

5

21/29

5

7

9.1

*Cargo space is in cubic feet with all seats in use. Scores for air pollution and greenhouse gas are out of 10.

Minivans

Minivans often trade off fuel economy and eco-friendly drivetrains for comfort and cargo capacity. But in this category, the Honda Odyssey is the best option for families who need good cargo space and seating for seven or eight. If you’re willing to give up some interior space, the Mazda5 also stands out with identical air pollution and greenhouse gas scores at a significantly lower price.

Make/Model

Price

Drive Type

Fuel Type

Transmission

Air Pollution Score*

MPG City/Hwy

Greenhouse Gas Score*

Seats

Cargo Space*

Honda Odyssey

$28,075

FWD

Gasoline

Automatic

5

19/28

5

7-8

38.4

Mazda Mazda5

$20,195

FWD

Gasoline

Automatic

6

21/28

6

6

5.58

*Cargo space is in cubic feet with all seats in use. Scores for air pollution and greenhouse gas are out of 10.

Affordable Small Cars

Fuel-efficient small cars like the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Ford Fiesta hatchback are among the greenest options for small families who don’t need a ton of cargo space. The Fiesta hatchback is also available with a $395 Super Fuel Economy package. Adding this package does not lower the Fiesta’s emissions, but it does give it two additional mpg on the highway.

Make/Model

Price

Drive Type

Fuel Type

Transmission

Air Pollution Score*

MPG City/Hwy

Greenhouse Gas Score*

Seats

Cargo Space*

Honda Civic Hybrid

$24,050

FWD

Gas Hybrid

CVT

8

44/44

9

5

10.7

Ford Fiesta SE Hatchback

$16,595

FWD

Gasoline

Automatic

6

29/38

8

5

15.4

*Cargo space is in cubic feet with all seats in use. Scores for air pollution and greenhouse gas are out of 10.

Affordable Midsize Cars

In terms of recognition for eco-friendliness, there isn’t a car on the road that outshines the iconic Toyota Prius. But the Prius offers more than just excellent fuel economy; it also offers excellent cargo space and gets the EPA’s top score for greenhouse gas emissions. Shoppers looking for a green non-hybrid option may prefer the base Kia Optima, which boasts attractive sedan styling and an impressive list of standard features at a lower price.

Make/Model

Price

Drive Type

Fuel Type

Transmission

Air Pollution Score*

MPG City/Hwy

Greenhouse Gas Score*

Seats

Cargo Space*

Toyota Prius

$23,520

FWD

Gas Hybrid

CVT

7

51/48

10                      

5

21.6

Kia Optima

$19,200

FWD

Gasoline

Manual

5

24/35

7

5

15.4

*Cargo space is in cubic feet with all seats in use. Scores for air pollution and greenhouse gas are out of 10.

Affordable Wagons

If you need SUV space but also want better fuel economy, wagons like the Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen and Hyundai Elantra Touring are tough to beat. The SportWagen’s optional clean-diesel engine makes it the most fuel-efficient and environmentally-friendly wagon in the lot. Although the Elantra Touring can’t match its fuel economy, it’s equally green with identical pollution and greenhouse gas scores.

Make/Model

Price

Drive Type

Fuel Type

Transmission

Air Pollution Score*

MPG City/Hwy

Greenhouse Gas Score*

Seats

Cargo Space*

Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen

$24,995

FWD

Diesel

Manual

5

30/42

7

5

32.8

Hyundai Elantra Touring

$17,195

FWD

Gasoline

Automatic

5

23/30

7

5

24.3

*Cargo space is in cubic feet with all seats in use. Scores for air pollution and greenhouse gas are out of 10.

Your decision to buy a green car may have a lot to do with fuel economy and rising gas prices, but protecting our natural resources and reducing harmful emissions will also help Mother Earth breathe easier. When you set out to buy a new car, making eco-friendly choices will also make the world a better place for your children to live.