2016 Green Car of the Year: No Diesels or Electrics, Please

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 15, 2015

The nominees for 2016 Green Car of the Year are out, and it’s hardly surprising that the list is diesel-free. The contest, sponsored by Green Car Journal, has been kind to diesels over the years—the Jetta TDI won in 2008, and the Audi A3 TDI in 2010. But both cars were stripped of their titles—sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?—after VW’s big diesel emissions scam was revealed. I thought that kind of thing happened only to Miss Americas who misbehave.

There aren't any battery electrics in the lineup, either, but that probably reflects the dearth of new model introductions recently. Was it too late for Tesla's Model X?

The envelope, please. The nominees for the 2016 Green Car of the Year are:

Audi's A3 Sportback e-tron hits U.S. shores this month. (Jim Motavalli photo)Audi A3 Sportback e-tron. A deserving contender, this is a Germanic Chevy Volt competitor that goes on sale in the U.S. this month. It’s unlikely VW’s scandal will affect this car, because instead of a diesel it has a 150-horsepower, 1.4-liter gas engine hooked up to a 102-horsepower electric motor. The electric range at 19 miles is far less than the 2016 Volt’s 53. I’m wondering if Audi didn’t make a strategic error there, because plug-in hybrid owners really like to boast about the high percentage of their electric miles. European owners love their Sportbacks, but wish it had more real-world range.

The 2016 Chevy Volt meets the press in Detroit. (Jim Motavalli photo)Chevrolet Volt. The 2016 second-generation model is a big leap forward. Aside from the 53 miles of EV range (up from 38), the car also features a lightened 18.4-kilowatt-hour battery pack (with fewer cells but 20 percent more energy storage), LED headlights, a drive unit that is 100 pounds lighter and 12 percent more efficient, active grille shutters (which cut drag) and regenerative braking on demand. The car is 3.3 inches longer, which may not seem like a lot but it enables both better rear legroom and five-passenger seating (the four seats was a Volt Achilles' heel). The first Volts are reaching customers in California now.

The Honda Civic Concept points the way to a design family for 2016. (Jim Motavalli photo)Honda Civic. Until recently, Honda had a record of infallible progress in the U.S. market, but then it stumbled badly with the lackluster 2012 Civic—a misbegotten product of recession-inspired belt tightening. It was like a bare-bones rental car, unless you poured on the options. Well, the 10th generation generation Civic is poised to restore the luster. I was at the New York Auto Show in April when the covers came off the new Civic Concept, which takes the line in a decidedly sportier direction. The sedan is coming out this fall, followed by a performance-oriented Si, a hatchback, and a Civic Type R.

Still, the Civic is a bit of a longshot on this list. The Civic’s green family has gotten smaller, with the loss of the Civic Natural Gas, the Fit EV (due back in 2018) and the long-running hybrid. The 2016 Civic will get 1.5- and two-liter engines, plus an optional turbocharger. The standard 2016 Civic is expected to get at least 40 mpg on the highway when it appears, which is why the hybrid was canned.

The Sonata Plug-In Hybrid is the green range topper. (Hyundai photo)Hyundai Sonata. I like the choice that Sonata buyers have—gas, hybrid or plug-in hybrid. In any configuration, it’s fuel-efficient and full of luxury touches for the price. The hybrid makes 43 mpg on the highway (one reason Honda has to be in that ballpark). The plug-in hybrid has 24 miles of all-electric range, which could be better.

The 2016 Prius dropped from the sky in Las Vegas. The smart bets were on it succeeding. (Jim Motavalli photo)Toyota Prius. The Prius made a spectacular debut, lowered down by chain at a Vegas casino. The styling is wild (with some similarities to the new Mirai fuel-cell vehicle), but I expect it to grow on me. The car is larger, but also 10 percent more fuel efficient (could it reach 55 mpg?). Rear legroom is quite good. I wish we had more details about the car, but I expect it’s on the way. An Eco model is an interesting idea—a green version of an already green car? The trim levels are expected to be: Two, Two Eco, Three, Three Touring, Four and Four Touring. The Prius One will be a stripped fleet version.

According to Green Car Journal:

Every trim level except the Touring version, which will be the highest-spec model, will come with fabric seats and ride on 15-inch alloy wheels. The basic trim level, Two, does without a navigation system and features a three-spoke urethane steering wheel in both its Prius Two and Two Eco versions. One interesting detail on the Two Eco: It deletes the spare tire fitted to the regular Prius Two and replaces it with an inflator kit, presumably to reduce overall vehicle weight.

So let the best car win. Perhaps after a decent interval we can also return clean diesels to the podium. 

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