Automaker Rankings (2002)

January 2005
Honda is still the Greenest Automaker, but Ford has overtaken GM as the cleanest of the Detroit Big Three.

Just six companies are responsible for over 90 percent of emissions from America's most polluting product, the automobile. These manufacturers rank among the largest companies in the world, and lie at the intersection of mounting concerns over corporate responsibility and environmental protection. This report relies on government data to quantitatively analyze which automakers are the greenest, moving beyond board room statements to evaluate what each of the Big Six automakers is actually selling in its showrooms.

We focus on the cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickups sold by the six largest companies in the US market, analyzing their emissions of smog-forming pollutants and global warming gases. Based on the relative emissions of the average new vehicle sold by each company, we then rank the automakers from cleanest to dirtiest, placing equal weight on their contribution to smog and global warming.

Ranking Results

UCS first undertook this study two years ago, analyzing emissions for model year 1998 (MY98) vehicles.  This report evaluates vehicles sold in 2001 (MY01), the most recent model year for which data are publicly available, as well as model year 2000 (MY00) for comparison purposes.  We found that the pollution ranking of the automakers has remained relatively constant since MY98, with one notable exception: Although still dirtier than the average, Ford has overtaken General Motors as the greenest of the Big Three as a result of its voluntary commitment to build trucks with lower smog-forming emissions.

Our quantitative comparison of emissions indicates that not all automakers are equal when it comes to the environmental performance of their products. The average new vehicle sold by Honda in MY01, for example, emitted 21 percent less global warming gases and 31 percent less smog-forming pollution than the average for the Big Six automakers.  In contrast, DaimlerChrysler's average MY01 vehicle was 9 to 10 percent dirtier.

Technology differences between cars and trucks are an important factor in our rankings. Current environmental regulations permit trucks to pollute more than cars.  As a result, the average MY01 truck emitted 2.4 times more smog-forming pollution and 1.4 times more global warming gases than the average MY01 car. Companies with sales dominated by trucks are generally dirtier; however, there are important exceptions.  Both Nissan and Ford are ranked above GM in our analysis —despite the fact that they sell more trucks than cars —because their trucks have lower smog-forming emissions. High truck sales do not have to be an environmental liability.

Improving Pollution Performance

Ample technology exists to cost-effectively reduce emissions of smog-forming pollutants and global warming gases. Future regulations will require all passenger vehicles to meet the same smog-forming emissions standards by MY09, but there are no significant engineering barriers to accomplishing this sooner. Several recent studies have further demonstrated that off-the-shelf technologies can reduce global warming pollution from both cars and trucks while saving consumers money at the pump. Incorporating these technologies into their product plans will yield much needed improvements in public health and environmental quality.

Automaker Action

Decisions about the environmental impact of US cars and trucks are concentrated in the hands of just a few corporations. Ford's commitment to cleaner trucks, and its resulting rise in our ranking, is proof positive that automakers can improve their pollution performance through voluntary action, although continued leadership is needed to maintain their edge. Unfortunately, Ford's more visible commitment to boost SUV fuel economy will mean little if these gains continued to be swamped by increasing sales of inefficient pickups elsewhere in their fleet.

Companies that continue to lower emissions of smog and global warming gases will climb the green rankings. For example, if Ford committed to not only make its trucks cleaner than required by law, but actually as clean as its cars, it would reach second place in our ranking. If it further extended its SUV commitment to all its trucks and achieved a 25 percent fuel economy improvement, it would be tied with Honda for first place.

Key Results, by Automaker

Honda is the cleanest car company by a large margin. It sells the fewest dirty trucks, and it is also market leader on fuel economy, a key determinant of a vehicle's greenhouse gas emissions. The fuel economy of Honda's compact cars, for example, is 10 miles per gallon higher than that of DaimlerChrysler's, on average. However, Honda's lead in the rankings has slipped in recent years as new tailpipe standards have forced the competition to catch up on smog-forming emissions. The company has also failed to bring efficient technology to its expanding truck market. From MY00 to MY01, the fuel economy of the average Honda SUV dropped by 5 percent.

Toyota is firmly in second place. It is the only automaker to have reduced its fleet average global warming gas emissions from MY00 to MY01, despite a continued shift to trucks and, in particular, to larger trucks. Toyota's truck sales have caused the company to fall behind Nissan on smog-forming emissions because Toyota's larger trucks are built to a less stringent environmental standard.

Nissan, which had fallen to fourth place behind Ford in MY00, regained third place in MY01 as it was forced to meet new tailpipe standards for smog-forming pollution. Nissan's strength on smog emissions is substantially offset by its poor performance on global warming gas emissions. Nissan's most popular cars and truck models are consistently among the least fuel-efficient vehicles in many size classes, and the company has been the most aggressive in shifting to truck sales in recent years.

Ford, which rose from fifth place in MY98 to third in MY00, slipped back to fourth by MY01. The primary reason Ford moved in the rankings was its commitment to meet tighter smog-forming pollution standards for its trucks. Ford's biggest trucks average 20-25 percent lower smog-forming emissions than GM's, although both companies' trucks are still several times dirtier than their cars. In contrast, Ford's global warming gas performance is lackluster. Both its cars and trucks are less efficient than the average and, in many size classes, Ford's most popular models have the lowest fuel economy in the industry. Ford does appear to be on the way to meeting its commitment to boost SUV fuel economy by 25 percent from MY00 to MY05. Its SUV fuel economy improved by 4.8 percent in the first year, exclusively through sales of smaller, more efficient SUVs (e.g., the Escape). However, Ford's SUV gains were largely offset by the declining fuel economy of its pickups, making its overall truck fuel economy improvement only 0.8 percent.

General Motors continued to move into the dirty large-truck market. Had GM matched Ford's commitment to build lower-emitting trucks, it would have retained fourth place in our rankings. GM's most popular large trucks are more fuel efficient than the competition, but its continued efforts to sell the largest vehicles harms its overall global warming gas performance. Indeed, GM's truck fuel economy appears to have fallen behind that of Ford's for the first time in several years.

DaimlerChrysler continues to be in last place. In both the car and truck categories, its vehicles are typically dirtier. However, it's DC's intense focus on truck sales that keeps it at the bottom of the rankings. From MY00 to MY01, DC's global warming gas emissions increased more than those of any other automaker, despite the fact that DC was also the only company to reduce its reliance on trucks. DaimlerChrysler is also the most aggressive automaker in exploiting loopholes in fuel economy laws that permit vehicles built to run on ethanol (but which almost never do) to receive inflated fuel economy ratings. In MY01, they sold nearly 200,000 Dodge Caravans that got 24 mpg when running on gasoline, but which the government recorded as getting 39 mpg.


Policymaker Action

Thirty years of motor vehicle policy experience remind us that we cannot rely on automaker good will to deliver much needed health and safety protection across the industry. While new tailpipe rules will eventually require all cars and trucks to meet the same, lower standard for smog-forming emissions, policymakers should begin crafting new regulations to deliver additional air quality improvements and protect public health.

Policymakers have moved more slowly to address both the global warming gas emissions and oil consumption of motor vehicles. Loopholes persist in current rules that must immediately be closed, but new policies need to be put in place to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities available through existing and future automotive technologies to improve the industry's environmental performance.

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