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Old car or new car?

Every few years many of us face a big decision: is it time to buy a new car? The trusty vehicle that has carried us so well has gotten too rusty to pass inspection or too old to assure us of its continued reliability. What vehicle choice is best for the environment?

The energy it takes to manufacture a new car is equivalent to about one year of the energy used to power it.  Replacing a “clunker” just because it’s a “clunker” is less important than how long you plan to keep the new car.

If you plan to keep it 5 years, it should get 20% better gas mileage than your old car if you want to approach environmental neutrality. If you will keep a new car 10 years, then you only need to get 10% better mileage.

Hybrid cars advertise impressive fuel efficiency, but their higher price means that unless gas prices rise substantially, you won’t recoup the initial investment in a hybrid for many years.  Buy a hybrid if you don’t mind paying a little more to make a statement for the environment.

The driving range of electric cars has steadily improved—you can go nearly 300 miles in a Tesla before recharging.  And recharge time has dropped dramatically. If you live in an urban or suburban area, an electric car is becoming an increasingly attractive option.

Electric cars are often touted as pollution-free, with no tailpipe emissions. This isn’t entirely true. Electric cars charge up from the grid, which is still dominated by coal-fired power plants. That said, power plant emissions are more easily controlled and captured than tailpipe emissions.  And as more and more electricity is generated from wind and solar power, electric cars will become even cleaner.

If you live near recharging stations, consider an electric car. If you live in the country, buy a high mileage gasoline-powered or hybrid vehicle and plan to keep it 10 years.


–This segment was adapted from an essay by Dr. William H. Schlesinger. You can read the original piece on his blog Citizen Scientist.

Produced in collaboration with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, this podcast originally aired on April 26, 2016. To access a full archive of Earth Wise podcasts, visit:

Photo courtesy of Jeremy via Flickr.

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