Reader Question: How bad is my SUV?

2008 Honda Element

We get a lot of interesting emails in the AutoblogGreen inbox. Some of them provide good tips or lead us to stories of people doing amazing things. Some just make us laugh. And some just ask us a question we're just not able to help (no, I can't tell you how to order ethanol in Africa. Sorry). A message we got today is a blend - part good idea for a post, part need more info. Here's the note from reader Kelsey:

I have a 2006 Honda Element. I'm trying to find any information available about how bad my SUV is for the environment, according to how much I drive and how I use it, etc. I keep finding articles that deal with the "greenest" cars, even the ones that are the worst, but not a lot about specific cars like mine. Any suggestions on where to look? Thanks for the help!

It's not hard to find sites that take SUVs to task - and with good reason. For most people, these giant rides are just overkill and a more reasonable vehicle should certainly be on their radar. Still, while we're not interested in the anti-SUV sites right now; we should also shy away from the types of stories that say a Hummer is better than a Prius. That's just not true.

In Kelsey's case, the best place to start is the Element's miles per gallon. This is one of the areas where we have the numbers available. According to the EPA, a 2006 Element with 2WD, an automatic 4 speed transmission and the 4 cyl, 2.4 L gets 19/24mpg city/highway (the manual gets 19/23 and and the 4WD versions are similar). As Kelsey writes, how much the vehicle is driven and the driving style plays a huge role in the Element's impact on the environment. But for now, let's stick to the averages. Kelsey, feel free to chime in with a comment to let us know how accurate these numbers are. Read more after the jump.

So, the DOE has this handy kids' page that lays out some average statistics in an easy-to-understand fashion. The average American car is driven down the road over 12,000 miles each year. Using the combined mpg rating for the 2006 Element of 21mpg, that comes to 517 gallons a year. Another U.S. government page, this one from the EPA and not very kid-friendly, has a calculation to determine how much CO2 is emitted per gallon of gasoline: 19.4 pounds. So, 571 gallons times 19.4 pounds means 11,077 pounds of CO2 per year. Driving Green says that this is as much carbon as is "stored in 128 tree seedlings grown for 10 years." Another way to look at it is that those 11,000 pounds (5.5 tons) is about how much CO2 is emitted by five passengers (on a per-passenger average) on a flight from NYC to LA, according to Carbon Planet's calculator. So, in the big picture, the Element's annual emissions are not that great - this isn't an Escalade, after all - but there are still lots of ways to reduce them and reduce the vehicle's impact on the invironment.

Go on a lot of short trips? Hop on the bike or walk. Combine trips. And start driving a bit more green by going at your own slow pace - learn to ignore the honks and stares. Since Kelsey's Element is fairly new, it's much more efficient than an average car from five or ten years ago, especially considering all of the added features that it has in comparison to older vehicles (more air bags, etc.). For this reason, there's a case to be made for keeping the Element instead of ditching it for another vehicle, a hybrid perhaps. The most important question is if the Element is the right size for your needs. How much of the SUV's cargo space is regularly used? Would a Prius or even an efficient larger sedan fit the bill? Would getting a highly-efficient scooter or investing in a car sharing program meet your needs just as well most of the time? There's a lot of unknowns here, but we can guess that some improvements can be made.

As to the question about which sites give some straight-up information about Kelsey's Element's role in global warming, I like those government sites linked to above. If you have your own favorites, let us - and especially Kelsey - know in the comments section.

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