Market Trends

Model year 2016 is projected to be an exciting year for the automotive industry. Reduced gasoline prices, low interest rates and favorable conditions for households are expected to drive vehicle sales to a record high in 2016. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) forecasts 17.71 million car and light truck sales in 2016, a 2.3% increase over the 17.5 million sold in 2015. Consumers continue to benefit from accelerated technology adoption, with some of the most fuel-efficient and environmentally-friendly vehicles ever produced appearing in the market.

Enhanced Engine Design

New internal combustion engines for 2016 make use of technology improvements to maximize fuel economy while still satisfying consumer demand for power and reliability. Technology once found exclusively on premium models continues to make its way to even the most modest car, providing feature-rich options and better fuel economy.

The use of direct fuel injection and turbochargers to improve fuel economy continues into 2016. Direct fuel injection is rapidly becoming common-place across the entire fleet. Direct injection increases fuel efficiency and low-end torque by more precisely measuring the amount of fuel used and better mixing of fuel and air in the cylinder. The result is a more complete combustion with cooler engine temperatures, allowing for a higher compression ratio, which boosts fuel efficiency and power.

Once used exclusively to increase power, turbochargers are now paired with direct injection allowing for smaller, more fuel efficient engines able to satisfy consumer’s power demands while conserving fuel. Increasing displacement is no longer the rule of thumb for increasing power; small turbocharged engines with modern technology and manufacturing techniques can equal or surpass the power output and reliability of older naturally aspirated engines. Honda introduced its first-ever turbocharged engine as an optional upgrade in the new 2016 Civic, and the trend is expected to continue.

Atkinson cycle engines are now found in more non-hybrid vehicles, due to their favorable fuel economy. Atkinson cycle engines are more efficient than traditional Otto cycle engines as they keep the intake valves open longer to allow a reverse flow of intake air, which effectively shortens the compression stroke of the pistons in relation to the power stroke. This change results in greater fuel efficiency at low loads, while maintaining traditional power output when needed. The new Toyota Tacoma features a 3.5-liter V6 Atkinson cycle engine, along with a 12 percent reduction in aerodynamic drag from the previous model. The new four-wheel drive V6 six-speed Automatic Tacoma gains 42 horsepower and 20 mpg, an 11% increase over last-year’s EPA combined fuel economy over the similarly equipped outgoing 4.0-liter V6 model.

The new 2016 Toyota Prius will come with the same 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle engine from the previous model, but with a minor power reduction in favor of increased thermal efficiency. Despite the power drop, operating improvements and gearbox changes ensure similar or better acceleration than before. Less weight and a markedly low drag coefficient of 0.24 contribute to its efficiency, with some of the best fuel economy numbers ever; the $24,700 Prius Two Eco boasts an EPA-estimated 58 mpg city and 53 mpg highway.

This year, engine water injection returns to production vehicles for the first time in nearly 30 years in the limited-production 2016 BMW M4 GTS. Water injection sprays a mixture of water and methanol into an engine’s intake ports which cools the combustion chamber. This improves fuel economy by up to 8%, increases power and torque by up to 10%, and lowers carbon emissions. BMW has plans to use water injection on its higher-volume vehicles in the future to meet upcoming emissions standards.

Transmission Innovations

Manufacturers are relying more on continuously-variable transmissions (CVTs) and an ever-increasing number of gears in automatic vehicles to improve fuel economy. Each engine has a unique set of operating conditions at which it’s most efficient; using the transmission to allow the engine to run near peak efficiency can reduce fuel usage by 6% or more. CVTs have not been considered to be as durable or drivable as traditional automatic transmissions, but manufacturers continue to improve the CVT, allowing for faster acceleration, greater efficiency, and improved functionality. The new Nissan Maxima comes with one of the most advanced CVTs ever, with wider gear ratio coverage, dynamic shifting, and selectable modes which enhance driver enjoyment while helping the Maxima achieve an EPA-rated 30mpg highway. Manufacturers are also continuing to increase transmissions to eight, nine, and even 10-speeds in traditional automatics. Like the CVT, this allows the engine to run near its most efficient speed more of the time, while maintaining durability of the drivetrain.

Lightweighting

Reducing vehicle weight improves fuel economy by reducing the energy required to accelerate, allowing for a smaller and more efficient engine in the same size vehicle. Most manufacturers have taken steps to decrease vehicle weight by replacing materials with lighter alternatives or through design changes. The all-new Cadillac CT6 sedan uses aluminum throughout the car’s structure, weighing much less than comparably sized vehicles like the BMW 7-series. The new Chevy Malibu is nearly 300 pounds lighter than the outgoing model through the use of a higher-strength steel structure, helping it achieve an estimated 27 mpg city – an 8% increase over the previous model. Expect to see more lightweighting in future models as manufacturers strive to meet CAFE fuel economy standards and improve handling. 

Start-Stop Systems

Start-stop systems continue to penetrate the market as a means to reduce fuel consumption during stop-and-go driving. Start-stop systems turn off the engine when the vehicle is at a complete stop or coasting at highway speeds, restarting when the driver releases the brake or uses the accelerator. With the engine off, no fuel is used while it would otherwise continue to operate. New technology for start-stop systems allows a quick and nearly unnoticeable engine restart, extending the life of engine components and increasing likelihood that drivers won’t deactivate the system. General Motors is introducing start-stop systems using fast and efficient capacitors rather than heavy lead-acid batteries in its 2016 Cadillac ATS and CTS sedans.

Diesel Vehicles

Modern diesel engines are under intense scrutiny after the EPA announced that Volkswagen has cheated federal emissions standards since 2009 with the use of defeat devices, leading to actual emissions many times higher than the standards allow. Following the EPA notice of violation to Volkswagen, greenercars.org suspended its Green Scores for all affected VW, Audi and Porsche diesel models.

VW “clean diesel” vehicles have repeatedly placed well in ACEEE’s annual rankings, only a few places away from the “Greenest” list. But the Green Score for the 2015 VW Jetta 2.0-liter diesel would have plummeted from an impressive 47 to the middle of the “Meanest” vehicle list had it been scored using actual NOx emissions values recently reported in on-road testing.

Even with the Volkswagen emissions scandal, new diesel offerings will be available in the American market through 2016. Popular in Europe for its fuel economy and ample low-end torque, consumers have long asked manufacturers for diesel engines in their lineups. Despite its advantages, emissions equipment unique to diesel vehicles can be costly or come at the expense of power and efficiency. Manufacturers such as BMW, Chevrolet, Jeep, and Ram continue to provide several diesel options, and new diesel offerings for 2016 include Land Rover (Range Rover, Range Rover Sport), Mercedes (C300d, E250 BlueTec), Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon.

Fuel Cell Vehicles

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have continued to advance since Hyundai released the world’s first mass-produced fuel cell vehicle in 2015. Toyota announced the mid-size 2016 Mirai sedan for California, boasting a range of 300 miles and with an MSRP of $57,500. Honda countered with the announcement that it would release the roomier FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle in the spring of 2016. The Clarity comes with an expected range of 435 miles and an MSRP similar to the Toyota Mirai. Other manufacturers plan to test the viability of fuel cells in their lineups. Mercedes has confirmed plans to release a hydrogen-powered GLC using a new fuel cell stack design in 2017.

Hydrogen fuel cells convert chemical energy contained in hydrogen gas into electricity used to power a vehicle. The only direct emissions from a hydrogen fuel cell are water vapor and heat, but similar to electric vehicles, production and transport of hydrogen to fuel the vehicle creates emissions, as does manufacturing the vehicle itself. Unlike electric vehicles, which typically must plug in for multiple hours to recharge their batteries, filling a hydrogen vehicle takes about as long as filling a gasoline or diesel vehicle. However, the shortage of public hydrogen filling stations severely limits adoption of this zero-tailpipe-emission technology.

Efficient Plug-in Electric Options

Automakers continue to offer plug-in vehicles – both plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and all-electrics -- for model year 2016. Various plug-ins are available in 2016, with prices ranging from $25,995 to $65,000 before tax credits. Combining the range and power of an internal combustion engine and the immediate torque of an electric motor, a PHEV can deliver similar performance with less fuel and fewer emissions than a gasoline engine alone. Brands introducing new plug-in hybrid vehicles to the market in 2016 include Mercedes (S500), Audi (A3 E-tron), BMW (X5 xDrive 40e), and the Hyundai Sonata. The 2016 Chevrolet Volt’s battery increases from 17.1 to 18.4 kWh, boosting all-electric range to 53 miles from the 38 miles in last year’s model, and decreases battery mass by 31 pounds. The Nissan LEAF SV (all-electric) also receives a battery upgrade, increasing range from 84 to 107 miles, but with a price increase from $32,950 to $35,050. Toyota has temporarily paused production of its Prius plug-in model, but a new model is expected to be available later in 2016.

Tesla announced the 2016 Model X all-wheel drive electric crossover with a range of 220 miles that can be extended to 257 miles with the optional 90 kWh battery. Building on the foundation of performance and features set by the Model S sedan, the Model X is the first crossover on the market that runs exclusively on battery power. The Model X features room for up to 7 people and will begin delivery in early-2016 with an expected MSRP of $80,000 before tax credits. 

Autonomous Vehicles

While completely autonomous vehicles are still in the early stages of development, vehicles with semi-autonomous capabilities have started arriving on the American market. Software additions to the Tesla Model S and the new Volvo S90 sedan allow these vehicles to change lanes on the freeway, adjust speed, and brake autonomously. Such technologies are expected to see immense growth, with one million semi-autonomous vehicles by 2017 and nearly ten million predicted by 2020. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to dramatically reduce crashes and, once connected with other vehicles and with highway infrastructure, to improve traffic flow and in effect add capacity to existing freeways. At the same time, this kind of “effortless” transportation could increase vehicle miles travelled and environmental impacts, especially if it encourages more people to live far from work and other destinations. 

Greener Choices for Everyone

When it comes to buying a new vehicle, the most environmentally friendly step you can take is simple: first evaluate your needs and your budget, then look for the models with the highest green scores among the cars and trucks that meet your requirements. Even though some of our top ratings go to alternative fuel vehicles, most vehicle classes feature nationally available, gasoline-powered vehicles that score significantly better than average.

Our Greener Choices table highlights top-scoring vehicles available to everyone in almost all major market segments. The list includes only automatics. While in the past manual transmission versions of vehicles on the Greener Choices list often had higher fuel economy, this is less common today, thanks to advances in CVT and automatic transmissions. The good news is that you can find cleaner and more efficient vehicles throughout the market. Besides looking at the models in this table, use the greenercars.org database to find other vehicles in your preferred class size that also score well.

Buying green does more than fulfill your own personal commitment to protect the environment. Naturally, each greener choice by an individual consumer reduces pollution directly. But the market is also a give-and-take between consumers and manufacturers. As more and more consumers buy green, automakers will increasingly view environmentally friendly design as an opportunity rather than an obligation. Then they will be motivated to invest even more in improved technology, and even more green cars and trucks will be available in the years ahead.

Finally, keep in mind that the average car or light truck is likely to keep running for a dozen or more years. Even if you don’t keep your new vehicle for more than a few of those years, the choice you make now will expand the options available to used car buyers in the future. So instead of putting yet another gas guzzler on the streets, the greener choice you make today can help cut pollution for years to come.