UPDATED: 5/28/14 12:05 pm ET -- adds details
Hyundai Motor Co., which has championed smaller engines, dethroned Honda Motor Co. as the greenest automaker in the United States, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The nonprofit scientific research group ranked Hyundai first and Honda second in its sixth evaluation of the environmental performance of the eight top-selling automakers in the United States.
Honda had ranked on top since the report was first published in 2000.
Toyota Motor Corp. placed third, followed by Nissan Motor Corp. and Volkswagen AG. Detroit’s three automakers -- Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Chrysler Group -- placed at the bottom of the survey. The Detroit 3, which are more heavily dependent on light trucks with larger engines, also each scored below the industry average.
With the introduction of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata hybrid and the 2011 Kia Optima hybrid, the Hyundai-Kia group significantly improved its fuel efficiency since the last report.
“Honda continues to lead the way in many vehicle classes, but it’s started to lag the industry average in its midsize fleet -- which includes its best-selling Accord, and accounts for a quarter of the company’s sales,” Dave Cooke, the author of the report, said in a statement. “As Hyundai-Kia works to further improve fuel economy and electrify its fleet, Honda will need to step up its game if it wants to take back the crown.”
Hyundai-Kia’s top ranking was aided by the fact that, other than Volkswagen, it is the only automaker on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ ranking that doesn’t sell fuel-thirsty pickup trucks in the U.S. market.
Hyundai-Kia topped the list even after being forced by the EPA in 2012 to scale back overstated fuel economy ratings for several models that accounted for some 900,000 vehicles sold from the 2011-2013 model years. The companies said the ratings were mistakenly inflated, apologized and reimbursed customers for extra gas they purchased.
Hyundai has also benefited from a decision to drop a six-cylinder version of the Sonata mid-sized sedan in favor of smaller engines, while Honda and Toyota still offer V-6 engines in the Accord and Camry.
“[The report] acknowledges our continued work and commitment to reducing emissions in our efforts to create a better environment for all,” Hyundai spokesman Jim Trainor said.
He added that while the company does not focus solely on such accolades, it will continue r&d efforts to reduce emissions and boost fuel efficiency.
The eight companies ranked in the study account for about 90 percent of light vehicles sold in the United States.
Automakers with smaller U.S. sales, such as Tesla Motors Inc., were not included in the study.
The study measures the average carbon and smog-forming emissions of each automaker’s 2013 model-year fleet.
In the 2014 study, for the first time, global-warming emissions fell at all eight automakers.
As a result of major gains over the past five years, the group said emissions linked to global warming have dropped 20 percent since 1998 and smog-forming tailpipe emissions have plunged 87 percent since 2000.
“In the 2000s, fuel economy worsened amid an era of cheap gas, the growing popularity of truck-based sport utility vehicles, stagnating fuel economy standards, and a lack of investment by automakers in improving the fuel economy of their vehicles,” the report said.
The overall improvement in emissions is attributed to increasingly rigid standards imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The limits, proposed by President Barack Obama, require automakers to double the average fuel efficiency of their fleets to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
The aggressive mpg targets have led to the rollout of electric cars, hybrids, diesel engines and gasoline engines with advanced technology. Additionally, global warming emissions are now being directly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“As more stringent emissions standards continue to take effect, we expect even further drops in both global warming and smog-forming emissions from the U.S. fleet,” the report stated.
The group sees further gains ahead with the adoption of more technology, such as turbochargers and start/stop, plus lightweight materials including aluminum. Hydrogen fuel cells will also play an important role, it said.
Vehicle pollution will be reduced more immediately with the EPA’s Tier 3 standards -- published in March -- which target tailpipe and evaporative emissions. The standards will go into effect in 2017 and will lower the sulfur content of gasoline.
Ford made the biggest gains among the Detroit 3 by embracing turbochargers, downsized engines, and new gasoline-electric hybrids.
“A concerted effort to boost the efficiency of both its smallest vehicles -- the Fiesta and Focus -- and its best-selling and largest vehicles, the F-series pickups, has helped bring its fleet performance to within a few percent of the national average,” the group said of Ford.
General Motors, which markets the plug-in electric hybrid Chevrolet Volt, hasn’t kept pace with the industry even though it has improved efficiency in its small cars, the group said. The company needs to improve the fuel efficiency of its light trucks and SUVS to gain on rivals, the scientists said.
Chrysler Group, which is heavily dependent on SUVs and pickups, continued to hold the “dirtiest tailpipe” title with the least improvement in energy efficiency among the eight automakers, the report said.
Ryan Beene contributed to this report.