Have SUVs become the greenest cars on the market?

Environmentalists hate SUVs. And for good reason: these tall machines, aerodynamically penalized and heavier than normal cars, use more fuel. According to a study conducted by Jato Dynamics in 2021, it is estimated that an SUV emits around 18% more CO2 than an equivalent sedan. A few years ago, the International Energy Agency (IEA) even believed that the emergence of SUVs in all markets around the world was the cause of the second largest increase in CO2 in the world. In this context, how could we dare to confirm that SUVs make it possible to reduce these CO2 emissions on the old continent?

Not surprisingly, SUVs sold in Europe in 2021 generated more CO2 than other types of cars

To understand this strange claim, we need to study in detail the figures from Jato Dynamics on the development of the automotive industry’s CO2 emissions in Europe. The organization specifies the CO2 emissions by car type. Unsurprisingly, SUVs (now representing 45% of the total car market in Europe!) have the worst average CO2 emissions. SUVs sold in Europe in 2021 would emit an average of 107.9 g/km CO2, compared to 97.7 g/km CO2 for compact cars and 76.9 g/km CO2 for city cars. These SUVs generate on average 13% more CO2 than cars with more traditional bodywork. But Jato experts note another phenomenon: last year, 35 of the 85 100% electric cars available on the European car market were SUVs. These SUVs thus covered 41% of the EV market, compared to 24% in 2019. Add to this the strong development of plug-in hybrid technology in SUVs, which is still strongly favored by the WLTP certification process compared to purely thermal engines, and you get the incredible statistics from the table below: In 2021 new mid-size family SUVs sold in Europe (Audi Q5, BMW X3, Peugeot 5008…) generated on average less CO2 than city cars with 65.4 g/km CO2 against 76.9 g/km for the latter!

Family SUVs that generate less CO2 than city cars, that is what the mass electrification of these models implies.  Mid-range SUVs are at 65.4g/km, with city cars rejecting an average of 76.9g/km
Family SUVs that generate less CO2 than city cars, that is what the mass electrification of these models implies. Mid-range SUVs are at 65.4g/km, with city cars rejecting an average of 76.9g/km

SUVs are forced to electrify

So how to achieve such a result? For a very simple reason: SUVs are the cars that consume and pollute the most. The car manufacturers have therefore had to adapt to the very strict European standards of recent years by massively electrifying these vehicles. Selling more and more expensive on average, these SUVs can in any case afford to start very expensive rechargeable hybrid and 100% electric motors. It was simply the only way to keep selling them to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for SUVs. Although they also electrify, the small models are more likely to keep thermal powertrains at low prices to remain economically attractive. Conversely, the luxury models sold in droves retain large, ultra-powerful piston engines for now, although they also begin to significantly increase their shares of hybrid and electric versions.

Jato finds that SUVs have reduced their CO2 emissions more in 2021 than all other car categories. But that doesn’t make these models any more ecologically virtuous compared to similarly sized vehicles in more traditional body styles (sedans, compacts and station wagons). And remember that Jato only collects CO2 data regarding car emissions while driving. But an electric SUV also generates CO2 and pollution due to the manufacture of its large batteries…

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