The Hummer Myth: Are Bigger Cars Worse For The Environment?

Look out the metaphorical windshield towards the automotive future and you might see yourself behind a HUD screen, rather than behind a steering wheel. Self-driving cars aren’t quite here yet (but they are coming). In order to understand where the industry is headed, we must first look back at the vehicles reflected in our rearview mirror.

To do that, we should first confront a notion that has plagued automotive manufacturers since the first engine cranked. The idea, broadly speaking, is that a larger, more powerful car requires football fields of gas and produces bovine-like carbon emissions. Hence, or so the notion goes, the draw of alternatively-fueled vehicles, which use less gas, emit less carbon dioxide, and keep the earth a little greener. Simply put, it’s David the Prius vs. the Hummer’s Goliath.

This controversy has fostered many discussions — both formal and informal — regarding the comparison between big and little vehicles. However veritable those discussions are, the point of the matter is this: at the end of the day, is it really so black and white? We’re going to dig a bit deeper to find out.

Ground Rules

In an effort to understand what is at stake here, let’s begin by selecting the best-selling vehicles in each of the following categories: crossover/SUV, truck, hybrid, and electric car. Each of these four segments comprises the basics of the argument we presented earlier. SUVs and trucks continue to dominate, while hybrid and electric vehicles have finally — and will continue to — gain both traction with buyers.

To give our argument of “Hummer vs. Prius” more context, we’re going to take a contender from each category and discuss it in terms of: (1) affordability, (2) resale value, and (3) fuel efficiency. The “best” car will be affordable to most families, have a good resale value in order to upgrade as technology advances, and cost less to fuel up.

Yes, these factors are all based on monetary value. In order for a car to be effective, a large amount of people have to buy into it — literally. So by comparing the best-selling players in each segment, we can conclude that they are representative of their class. The true test is to see how they perform when pitted against each other.

Without further ado, let’s introduce our first contender. It’s the veritable standard of the “green” car movement.

Garage Door #1: Prius Prime

As one of the three top selling electric cars worldwide, the Prius Prime is for many the epitome of a “green” car. The 2019 Prius Prime begins at $27,300, according to the official Toyota website, so it earns high marks in the area of affordability. That’s not even considering the various state or federal tax credits that some consumers can claim, making it even cheaper. According to Kelley Blue Book, the Prime is a wise investment because “Prius models tend to hold their value.”

Now let’s take a closer look at fuel efficiency. When driven in gas-only mode, the 1.8-liter 4-cylinder found in the 2019 Prius Prime achieves 55 city and 53 highway EPA-estimated MPG. Turn on the hybrid feature, and that cranks up to 153 MPGe. Even lighter cars with more powerful engines would be hard-pressed to post such numbers.

To get more perspective, let’s consider one of the best-selling hybrid vehicles from recent years, one that may surprise you.

Garage Door #2: Chrysler’s Pacifica Hybrid

The 2019 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid represents future parent mobiles. With a starting price of around $40,000, it’s a bit higher-priced than the Prius Prime, but with more seating and cargo space. Some jurisdictions offer close to $7,500 in rebates and tax credits as well, which means a lot more money to spend on groceries and not on the new minivan.

Fuel efficiency ratings for the 2019 Pacifica Hybrid aren’t as impressive as the Prius. The EPA reports a combined fuel economy of 30 MPG on gas only, but a more impressive 84 MPGe when using the hybrid engine. While Honda’s Odyssey and Toyota’s Sienna perform better in terms of resale value, the Pacifica Hybrid is not far behind.

We’ve set the bar for the electric and hybrid segments. How do you think the best-selling crossover/SUV and truck will perform against these “green” standards?

Garage Door #3: Honda CR-V

Though Toyota’s RAV4, the Subaru Outback, and the Nissan Rogue all comprise the top-selling crossover SUVs of 2018, the Honda CR-V is what we would consider to be the standard of this segment. Starting around $24,350, the 2019 CR-V is already more affordable than the Prius Prime. You won’t, however, receive any rebates or tax credits like you would for buying a hybrid or EV.

All the same, the CR-V is available in all-wheel drive, and ranks in at 27 city and 33 highway MPG. Those numbers increase by a few digits if you opt for the smaller 1.5-liter turbocharged inline-4-cylinder, or the FWD model. Kelley Blue Book underscores the high resale value of the CR-V, noting it has done well in past years with no changes in sight.

Garage Door #4: Ram 2500 Diesel

Here’s what it’s all been about: the true test of the diesel-powered bull dogs that “git ‘er done.” Edmunds named the Ram 2500 Diesel one of the best diesel pick-up trucks for 2018, stating: “diesel-powered trucks can tow more while consuming less fuel than comparable gasoline-powered pickups.” Trade-offs include higher prices at the mechanic shop when it comes to parts and services, but overall, diesels are more efficient than most people consider them to be.

A prime example is the 2019 Ram 2500 Diesel, with its 6.7-liter Cummins turbo diesel engine. While the EPA does not rank heavy-duty trucks in terms of MPG, it is estimated the 2018 Ram 2500 will get about 14 miles to the gallon on the highway. Many will consider that proof that “dirty” diesels are terrible for the planet, but consider that diesel burns more efficiently than regular gas, and that most diesels are used to haul large loads of materials, equipment, animals, etc. You wouldn’t expect an ox to finish a horse race first when pitted against a thoroughbred. In the same vein, Kelley Blue Book gave it a respective nod in terms of resale value, but the Ram name is known for dependability.

Who Won? What’s Next?

We hope you’ve learned a few things from our discussion. The purpose of this article was to shed more light on the controversial topic of bigger cars being “worse for the environment,” using popular models to illustrate the complexity of the entire subject. Frankly, sometimes bigger is better (depending on your needs), and there’s a place for being environmentally conscious in a family or heavy duty vehicle.

As much as everyone wants to simplify things down to hybrid and electric vs. the “dirty” fossil fuels, much of our industrial shipping methods include more of the latter types of transportation than the former. Volvo might be one of the first to use “automated” trucks, but most trains, boats, and even planes rely on good old fossil fuels. And while it’s easy to agree with popular opinion, everything switching over to “green” power instantly simply isn’t feasible.

On a smaller scale, a family of four or five might opt for a Dodge Caravan (starting at $26,000) over the Pacifica Hybrid ($40,000) simply based on price alone. What we’re trying to say is that the decision to drive a Prius isn’t going to be the right one for everyone. We encourage you to research more on your own and find out where you stand on the issue, based on your own needs.