What’s eligible: Any 2021-model vehicle that’s available nationwide regardless of when it was introduced or last updated.
Criteria: We consider all vehicles that reduce consumption and/or minimize the release of carbon and pollutants, regardless of fuel type. Vehicles that do so at a lower overall cost have an edge over those with steep premiums. The winner was chosen from among our favorites in five eco-friendly categories: battery-electric, plug-in hybrid, gas-electric hybrid, clean diesel and regular high-mileage gasoline.
Winner: 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E
Though pure battery-electric vehicles are arguably the most eco-friendly type — especially when fueled with cleaner electricity from renewable sources — Cars.com hasn’t rushed to select an EV as its Best Eco-Friendly Car every year, mainly for reasons of accessibility. Many Americans aren’t in the position to charge at home, and many of the most recognizable or even desirable EVs aren’t available nationwide, a requirement of ours. The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E meets our top criteria at a time when the need for zero-tailpipe-emission vehicles appears greater than ever.
In addition to its national availability and range as high as 300 miles, the Mach-E is what American buyers prefer but haven’t been able to find in electric form — a small SUV. While it’s called Mustang, it doesn’t behave like the namesake sports car. It’s better to say that the Mach-E was inspired by the Mustang, as evidenced by its aggressive, sporty looks.
Not that the Mach-E has anything to apologize for with its abilities. A choice of five trim levels are available at launch, with either a standard- or extended-range battery and rear- or all-wheel drive. The standard-range RWD model is no slouch, with an estimated 0-60-mph time of 5.8 seconds, but the upcoming GT model should be worthy of that storied trim, with an estimated 0-60 of 3.5 seconds.
It’s electric-car quiet in the Mach-E, unless you want some artificial engine noise, which you can activate at the flip of a switch. Acceleration is brisk; steering feel is excellent.
The interior is clean and minimalist, as many Tesla owners seem to prefer, but retains Ford’s excellent Sync 4 system functionality for a seamless multimedia experience. Most controls are in the massive vertical touchscreen, but it works well enough. There’s plenty of headroom both front and rear, and while backseat legroom can be a bit tight for a vehicle of this size, it has plenty of cargo room.
We do have complaints about the ride quality — it’s bouncy and unusual. But Mach-E competitors are flawed, as well — more so, in our opinion, when viewed through the eco-friendly lens. In the end, the Mach-E covers more than enough bases to earn our selection as our 2021 Best Eco-Friendly Car of the Year. It has the body style, range, efficiency, charging capacity, design and nationwide availability to give EV sales a jolt like no model before it — and not a moment too soon.
2021 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid: Nominee
Plug-in hybrids haven’t caught on as well as they should in part because too many of them don’t have enough electric-only range. That’s not the case for the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan, which can go an EPA-estimated 32 miles on a charge before its gas engine kicks in, and it delivers an EPA-rated 30 mpg combined in hybrid mode — well above the gas-powered version’s EPA-estimated 22 mpg combined rating with front-wheel drive.
The Pacifica minivan is no stranger to Cars.com awards, having taken home a few since its debut for the 2017 model year. We’re fans of its polished road manners, slick tech and innovative convenience features. Unlike many plug-in hybrids, the Pacifica made few compromises in its transformation to plug-in form unless you count the lack of the Stow ‘n Go captain’s chair option, because the underfloor bins these seats would drop into are occupied by the high-voltage lithium-ion battery pack.
The pack powers an electric motor that works in concert with the 3.6-liter V-6 gas engine when in hybrid mode. Although the hybrid weighs more than the regular model and has a bit less horsepower, it still accelerates briskly from a stop and is strong at highway speeds.
Although you’ll pay more upfront for the Pacifica Hybrid over the gas version, it’s eligible for up to $7,500 in federal tax credits that you could get back after filing your annual tax return.
2021 Hyundai Elantra: Nominee
We’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink over the growing number of mass-market plug-in SUV models, but the simple reality is that for many consumers, prices well above $30,000 remain a nonstarter. Here’s where a time-tested formula — high mpg, low MSRP — still holds true. The car that best meets that maxim for 2021 is the Hyundai Elantra, a redesigned sedan that combines outstanding fuel efficiency with strong value.
Most Elantra sedans pair a small four-cylinder engine with a continuously variable automatic transmission, a combination that proved more responsive in our testing than it might seem. The efficiency is undeniable: The Elantra’s base trim, the SE, earns an EPA-estimated 37 mpg combined, enough to make it the No. 2 most fuel-efficient gas-only car for 2021.
Fuel efficiency need not mean limited features or availability, however. As of this writing, the SE accounts for a workable 1 in 9 new 2021 Elantra sedans listed for sale on Cars.com. And its $20,655 starting price, including destination, includes enough standard convenience and safety features to earn our nod as the best overall value among compact sedans. Climb the trim levels, and fuel efficiency for most Elantras ebbs to a still-good 35 mpg combined; that’s better than most variants of popular rivals like the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.
2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid: Nominee
Plug-in vehicles might be the greenest choice, all other factors being equal, but not everyone has the opportunity to charge at home. For them, hybrids deliver the conventional ownership experience with better mileage than non-hybrids, and the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid does so in the vehicle type Americans love most.
The compact SUV class offers shoppers the taller seating position, greater cargo versatility and available all-wheel drive they want. One of the main trade-offs compared with a compact sedan has been cost — both upon purchase and at the gas pump. The RAV4 Hybrid, however, eliminates the fuel economy trade-off with EPA-estimated gas mileage of 41/38/40 mpg city/highway/combined — a better combined rating than any 2021 gas-powered compact sedan, and it’s also 10 mpg higher than the highest rated gas-only RAV4.
The extra upfront cost for this greater efficiency is less than you might expect.The base RAV4 Hybrid LE has standard all-wheel drive and is priced at $29,825, including the destination charge, which is just $1,100 more than a gas-only RAV4 LE with all-wheel drive. And even the base LE trim of the RAV4 Hybrid is well equipped.
In addition to being efficient, the RAV4 Hybrid’s gas-electric drivetrain is a smooth performer that delivers adequate performance. The SUV rides well, too, and the interior has the same passenger and cargo space as the gas-only RAV4. All in all, the RAV4 Hybrid delivers great fuel economy at an affordable price without sacrificing the attributes that make compact SUVs appealing.