Finding a green and safe car: What the Green Vehicle Ratings mean — and don't mean — especially in Washington...

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Finding a green and safe car:

What the Green Vehicle Ratings mean — and don’t mean — especially in Washington:

Edmunds.com has an easier-to-follow explanation than the Environmental Protection Agency does of SmartWay, the EPA’s program, with two important caveats:

The first caveat: “The SmartWay program focuses solely on the end-user experience after both fuel and vehicle have been delivered to market. The ecological merits or pitfalls of capturing and refining a particular fuel or building a certain type of automobile technology are not addressed. These complex topics are harder to grasp and their waters muddied by competing alternative-fuel lobbying efforts and PR campaigns. A widely acceptable rating metric for the “before-market” aspect of the green story has yet to emerge.”

The second caveat: To find out which cars have earned SmartWay and SmartWay Elite recognition, go to www.epa.gov/greenvehicles. But be aware of one confusing aspect: If you click on “Washington state” to see the top “SmartWay elite” green vehicles, you’ll see only the Honda Civic. If you click on “all states,” you’ll see additional vehicles. Does this mean cars with a different standard are sold in California or other states than in Washington? No. It means that in California, or in states that follow California’s guidelines, higher standards are required. So cars submit data showing they meet those standards, and that means these cars rate as “greener.” But actually the cars sold in Washington state are not any different — it’s just that the car manufacturers aren’t going to claim those higher standards were met, and thus be held to them, for cars sold in Washington, because legally they don’t have to. So for a true view of which cars are the greenest, click “all states” instead of Washington state.

NOTE: You can’t get a green rating for a used car made before the year 2000.

What about reliability?

Besides green and safe attributes, if you want to check out reliability, go to Consumers Reports, which adds that factor to safety and fuel economy in its analyses. You’ll have to buy their annual April car issue or subscribe to get all the details, although there’s quite a bit of information for free on the Web site, www.consumerreports.org,including its list of “top picks for 2008.”

Its top picks list includes one car that also made both the safety institute’s and EPA’s top green lists: the Honda Accord.

On the safety front, Consumer Reports includes consideration to both the govermment and highway institute crash tests, giving greater weight to the highway institute’s.

It also includes an award for the greenest car, with Toyota Prius the winner: “The gas/electric Prius hybrid retains its lock on this category for the fifth straight year. Despite a wave of new hybrid models, the Prius’ 44 mpg overall is still the best we’ve measured in any five-passenger car. The interior is roomy and versatile, and the Prius has been very reliable. Price: $24,000.”

Cars for teen-age drivers

Safety’s got to trump green when you’re talking about a teen. Here’s advice on that score from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: “For a teenager, it’s even more important that you look at size and weight, because they are more likely to get in crashes,” says spokesman Russ Rader. “You want them as protected as possible. Small cars are off the list.”

Best safety choice, according to the institute: A large car with the latest safety features; a new mid-size car with all the safety options is still a good choice. To up its green ante, get it in a 4 cylinder rather than a 6 cylinder, and the fuel economy is close to many small cars, says spokesman Rader. “A mid-size car offers a good level of protection, too. It’s when you start moving into the smallest vehicles on the U.S. market, the death rates really start to climb significantly,” he says. “The smallest, lightest cars on the market have about twice the death rate of large cars. That’s the direct comparison.”

“If your choice is to buy them a brand new car but you can only afford a small car,” he says, “they’re better off with a older, large car. We recommend an older luxury car. You’re going to have generally size and weight on your side with an older luxury car, and a luxury car is more likely to have all the air bags and stability control on it, because stability control started with luxury cars around 1998 and 1999. Or, look at older family cars. Ford Taurus has always had good frontal crash tests. Although it may be difficult to find these cars with side air bags, it has a size and weight you want.

“We wouldn’t put them in SUVs either,” he says, explaining that teens’ lack of experience and often judgment exacerbates the problem posed by SUVs’ “inherent rollover problem.”

Consumer Reports has a bit different take in its recommendations for teen drivers, since it notes that a large car, while safer in a crash, can also be unwieldly to drive for less experienced teen drivers. It has a list of recommended cars for teens, which also takes reliability of cars into consideration, along with mileage and safety:

Who’s crashing what?

Crash tests are undertaken by two major groups, the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Institute for Highway Safety, an independent, nonprofit funded by the insurance industry, to research ways to reduce death, injury and property damage in crashes. The safety institute’s tests do test crashes at higher speed against tougher barriers than the federal government, and its side test crash simulates being hit by an SUV because of the importance of the impact to heads when hit by a higher vehicle. It also tests rear crashes (less serious than front and side, but affecting whiplash), whereas the feds don’t. But the feds also include a rollover test, which the safety institute doesn’t.

Top safety picks for 2008

Below is the list of “safest cars, 2008” from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Those cars that also rated as SmartWay or SmartWay Elite from the Environmental Protection Agency are in boldface and have a “G” next to them.

Large cars

Audi A6

Cadillac CTS

Ford Taurus with optional electronic stability control

Mercury Sable with optional electronic stability control

Volvo S80

Midsize cars

Audi A3 — G

Audi A4 — G

Honda Accord 4-door models — G

Saab 9-3 — G

Subaru Legacy with optional electronic stability control

Midsize convertibles

Saab 9-3 — G

Volvo C70

Small car

Subaru Impreza with optional electronic stability control

Minivans

Honda Odyssey

Hyundai Entourage

Kia Sedona

Midsize SUVs

Acura MDX

Acura RDX

BMW X3

BMW X5

Ford Edge

Ford Taurus X

Honda Pilot

Hyundai Santa Fe

Hyundai Veracruz built after August 2007

Infiniti EX35

Lincoln MKX

Mercedes M class

Saturn VUE built after December 2007 — G

Subaru Tribeca

Toyota Highlander — G (Hybrid Model only)

Volvo XC90

Small SUVs

Honda CR-V — G

Honda Element

Subaru Forester with optional electronic stability control

Large pickup

Toyota Tundra

Note: if you’re comparing cars for crash-worthiness, you need to compare cars in equal weight classes.

— Seattle Times staff