Model year 2017 is bringing exciting advances in automotive technology. While vehicle sales are expected to plateau after two record years, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) still predicts Americans will buy more than 17 million vehicles for the third consecutive year. With low gas prices and aggressive dealer financial incentives, sales of pickups and SUVs continued to grow in 2016 while small car sales declined. Pickups, SUVs, and crossovers accounted for nearly 60% of new vehicle sales. Within every segment of the market, consumers today can choose from a wide variety of more fuel-efficient and environmentally-friendly vehicles.
Shades of Electrification
A greater number of hybrid, plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and all-electric vehicles (EV) are available for model year 2017 than ever before. Hybrid options are available in almost every vehicle type including SUVs, minivans, and the popular crossover segment. Modern hybrid drivetrains achieve improved fuel economy and regularly offer upgraded performance over the gasoline-only versions. With greater choice comes lower prices, placing hybrids and full-EVs within reach of more consumers. Notably, the new all-electric Chevrolet Bolt boasts an EPA-estimated range of 238 miles, and received both a Motor Trend Car of the Year award and the Car of the Year award at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show. Priced at $29,995 after federal tax credits, the Bolt is the first EV with a 200+ mile range sold for less than $65,000. Tesla and other manufactures plan to introduce similarly-priced high-range EVs as well, signaling a move toward versatility and affordability in EV offerings.
2017 also brings new plug-in hybrid options. The Toyota Prius, now in its fourth generation, once again includes a plug-in option beginning in 2017. The Prius Prime ($27,100 MSRP) has an all-electric range of 22 miles, and 26% better all-electric efficiency over the first generation plug-in model. The Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which won the Utility Vehicle of the Year award at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show, adds a plug-in hybrid model in 2017 with an all-electric range of 30 miles. The plug-in hybrid option starts at $41,995, compared to the similarly equipped gasoline-only version at $34,495. However, the plug-in version achieves price parity with the gasoline model after a $7,500 federal income tax credit. EPA estimates the plug-in version would save an additional $3,000 in fuel costs over five years.
Traditional hybrid powertrain options have increased as well. Hyundai will offer two versions of its all-new 2017 Ioniq mid-size hatchback. An all-electric model that scored exceptionally well, topping our Greenest List, will accompany the hybrid base model. Hyundai has not announced release dates or MSRP, but the automaker plans to sell the Ioniq as a 2017 model. After a one-year hiatus, Honda will reintroduce the all-new Accord Hybrid sedan, achieving the highest fuel economy in Honda’s fleet. The hybrid option has an EPA-rated combined fuel economy of 48 MPG – a 60% improvement over the gasoline-only Accord’s 30 MPG and a small increase from the outgoing model.
Prices for various returning hybrid models have realized modest price drops from last year. Most notably however, the 2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is now offered with fewer bells and whistles at $36,270, while in 2016 it was only available on a higher-trim model at $47,870.
Improved Engine Design
The gasoline internal combustion engine still powers 97% of vehicles scored this year, and manufacturers continue to improve efficiency and increase power. High-compression-ratio engines once found in high-performance cars are beginning to appear in even the most modest of vehicles. Until recently, Atkinson cycle engines were small and only found in hybrids. Atkinson cycle engines are now powering a variety of non-hybrid vehicles.
High Compression Ratios
High compression ratio gasoline engines were historically designed to optimize power in high-performance vehicles, and usually required premium fuel. Manufacturers are now turning to high compression ratio engines to maximize both efficiency and performance in all types of vehicles. The compression ratio of a gasoline engine is the ratio of volume of the combustion chamber when the piston is at the bottom of the cylinder, to the same (smaller) volume when the piston is at the top of the cylinder. A high compression ratio can be used to increase both efficiency or power, or both. Unfortunately, gasoline engines are subject to detonation (or “knocking”), in which the compressed fuel-air mixture ignites by itself rather than when the spark plug fires. This condition can create major or catastrophic damage to the engine. The higher the compression ratio, the more likely detonation is to happen. Engine designers can decrease the occurrence of engine knock by requiring costlier high-octane fuels; however, the additional fuel cost can be greater than savings from the increased fuel economy.
Using advanced engine design and control technology, engineers have figured out how to increase the compression ratio while requiring only regular (87-octane) fuel. Mazda fully embraced high compression ratio engines in its strategy to increase fuel efficiency. In fact, 2016 marked the fourth consecutive year in which Mazda achieved the highest fleet-average fuel economy of the mainstream auto manufacturers using only gasoline engines.
The 2nd generation Chevrolet Volt, available throughout the country in 2017, also receives a new high-compression engine. Its 1.5-liter four-cylinder comes with a 12.5:1 compression ratio, an increase from the previous generation’s 1.4-liter 10.5:1 compression ratio. The new engine produces 20% more power and 10% more torque, while increasing EPA-combined fuel economy from 37 mpg to 42 mpg when running on gasoline.
Atkinson cycle engines also continue to be found in more traditional, non-hybrid vehicles due to their favorable fuel economy. Atkinson cycle engines 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. The change results in greater fuel efficiency at low loads with little compromise in power. Compared to the traditional Otto cycle, Atkinson cycle engines typically produce less power at low speeds. As a result, they have been traditionally found in hybrid vehicles with an electric motor to supplement low-end power. New non-hybrid vehicles for 2017 with an Atkinson cycle engine include the Toyota Sienna and non-hybrid Highlander. Atkinson cycle engines are also found in a number of returning pickups, SUVs, and even high-performance cars. The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid uses a higher compression ratio Atkinson cycle-version of the gasoline version’s 3.6-liter. Engine designers are able combine the fuel-sipping qualities of the Atkinson cycle and low-end power from traditional Otto cycle engines, so expect to see more vehicles with this technology as manufacturers complete their redesign cycles.
Transmission design is also central to both efficiency and performance. About 5-6% of total engine power is lost in the transmission and drivetrain due to friction and other losses, preventing some engine power from making it to the wheels. Fuel economy improvements are possible by using low-friction components, improved designs, and low-friction lubricants. A greater number of gears in traditional automatics can also increase fuel economy by allowing the engine to operate where it’s most efficient more of the time with the benefit of smoother shifts and improved acceleration. Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVT) offer even greater improvements, allowing the engine to operate where it’s most efficient across all driving conditions.
For 2017, Ford and GM partnered to design new 9- and 10-speed automatic transmissions. The 9-speed is designed for front- and all-wheel-drive applications, while the 10-speed is destined for rear- and four-wheel-drive full-size pickup trucks and performance vehicles. Both transmissions promise a 3-4% fuel economy improvement over existing 6-speed automatics from a combination of benefits from decreased drivetrain losses and the greater number of gears. The 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and the 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor will be the first vehicles to receive the new 10-speed to demonstrate its application in performance-oriented vehicles, but will soon show up in the rest of their respective fleets.
Continuously variable transmissions are regaining consumer acceptance through steady improvements. CVTs operate by selecting from an infinitely variable gear ratio for a given speed, maintaining optimal engine speed in all driving conditions. CVTs fell out of favor with consumers as they were primarily paired with low-power vehicles, and felt unfamiliar to U.S. drivers. Manufacturers have improved nearly every aspect of CVTs, which now bring both higher fuel economy and faster acceleration when compared to the automatic transmission option. Nissan released its new XTRONIC CVT transmission last year, which finds its way to the new Pathfinder for 2017. The transmission can simulate gear changes while accelerating, and offers up to a 10% fuel economy improvements over earlier versions.
Automated Vehicle Features
Automated vehicle technologies are quickly appearing in production cars. Manufacturers are combining these technologies to offer nearly-automated driving in certain conditions. Tesla continues to pioneer its Autopilot semi-autonomous driving feature on new and existing models. Through wireless over-the-air software updates in early 2017, Tesla enabled low-speed automatic steering in traffic, forward collision warning and automatic cruise control in its Autopilot mode. Volvo has combined autonomous technologies to develop its Pilot Assist technology for the all-new 2017 XC90. The system is capable of semi-autonomous highway driving (similar to Tesla), but can control acceleration, braking, operating at speeds of up to 81 mph and steering in traffic jams. All major manufacturers have plans for automation, with Ford expecting to offer a fully autonomous vehicle for ride sharing by 2021.
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.