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Published on August 7th, 2014 | by Christopher DeMorro

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Are New Cars Really Cleaner Than Old Cars?

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August 7th, 2014 by  

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I’ve long been a proponent of the idea that the greenest car is the one already on the road, and with an estimated 1.2 billion vehicles already roaming the Earth’s surface, I think that point is more important than ever.

Yet there is a strong argument to be made that in today’s age of efficient hybrid and electric vehicles, a new car can actually be quite a bit cleaner than one that’s already been built. At least that’s the gist of a recently published article over at Green Car Reports, and even though I still prefer the car on the road to the one not-yet-made, even I have to admit we’re reaching a point where that argument may no longer hold weight.

The old argument is that manufacturing a car is an energy and material-intensive process, and that a newer, greener car takes many years to undo the damage from building it. Studies have found that between 68% and 75% of a vehicle’s lifetime emissions come from burning fuel, while manufacturing accounts for between just 6% and 22% of said emissions, with the remainder coming from production and transportation of said fuel.

As cars become even more efficient, the discrepency in fuel consumption and emissions only grows; a 40 MPG car driving 15,000 miles a year will use about 375 gallons of gasoline, compared to an older car getting 30 MPG, which will use 500 gallons of fuel. Over a ten year span, you’re looking at 1,250 gallons of fuel difference, or about 2.5 years of operating the less-efficient car, As cars increase in fuel economy, that discrepancy is only going to grow.

You also have to consider that manufacturing processes are incorporating more recycled materials, like soda bottles and even old cash, into modern vehicles. The car-building process itself has been streamlined and made more efficient, with new paint processes and green factories adding environmental credibility to new cars.

Ultimately though, the greenest car is the one that uses no oil at all, and automakers are finally taking electric cars as seriously as they should. To me that means the greenest car is an old, already-built vehicle, but with a modern electric drivetrain.

Tesla-powered Buick Riviera, anyone?

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About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or esle, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.



  • Rick Kargaard

    I usually drive my vehicles until it is no longer practical to repair them. I have always considered this to be the most responsible action, along with driving compact cars. It also provides significant financial incentives.
    My last car sustained major front end damage from a chunk of ice falling from a truck. Then the replacement timing belt failed at 160 thousand K and destroyed the engine. It got retired earlier than most but even then the shell was purchased by a mechanic with the intent of repairing it for his daughter. It will likely see several more years of service.
    For myself I replaced it with a nearly identical used car, three years newer and with half the mileage.That meant I could keep my old snow tires and rims. My cost, only 4300.00. Total capital cost for cars, for ten years (so far,) has been 17,500.00 (Canadian).
    I get between 40 and 50 miles per gallon (Imperial) depending on how I drive.
    It would be a real challenge to match that with EVs currently available.
    Despite that, I would love to own one, for their other inherent advantages, and will take a serious look at them when I need a replacement vehicle..

  • Ronald Brakels

    One little bit of trivia: New cars become more efficient in the first few years of driving as they get worn in. After that they suffer a slight decline in efficiency. Neither the rise or the decrease is very significant. The effect should be less for electric cars as they have far fewer moving parts to either wear in or wear out.

  • sarah parker

    A new car can actually be quite a bit cleaner than one that’s already
    been built. Now the trend is to make a decision at home before buying
    a car, like what Ford are doing: The
    site has an AMAZING 3D experience!
    http://www.experiencefordfocus.com/

  • Patrick Linsley

    The mid sixties rivi’s would be a bitchin’ swap! That or a mid sixties Toronado! Just for a victory lap a 1970 Eldorado would be the cherry on the top (for fun maybe a Maverick or a Vega). There was some really progressive styling for awhile until the big bumpers were required starting in 1973 (thanks insurance co’s!) and completely destroyed the looks of the cars.

  • thunder

    there is a company in Lithuania which removes gasoline engine from old audi a2 and replaces that with electric motor and lithium batery. environmentally-wise, respectful activity. Btw, audi a2 has all aluminum body.

    • Chris Marshalk

      What an AMAZING Idea. I wish I could remove the Engine and replace it with a battery. Don’t think there is a company in Australia that does it here.

      • Ronald Brakels

        People do it privately, so you could find someone to help you out. But once electric car makers stop charging the early adopter premium the economics for the vast majority of Australians is going to favour simply buying a new electric car. But in countries with lower wages and higher tariffs on new cars, maybe we’ll see thriving conversion businesses in India, Nigeria, etc.

  • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

    “To me that means the greenest car is an old, already-built vehicle, but with a modern electric drivetrain.”

    Clever twist there. :D

  • MikeLima

    Hi! That Buick looks like something only their mother and an American driver would love ;)
    The crash tests of only 10 years ago versus those made with contemporary cars show that the difference is not a small one across even closely related generations of vehicles. The idea of a modular car that can be improved with a more efficient drivetrain would have to be balanced against having older, out-of-warranty, less safe cars on the road for a longer period.
    Manufacturers might be OK with a rental of car components rather than a one-off sale, but I don’t know if it would stick. If it means that the largest industry in the world would lose significantly, I think we’ve got our answer.

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