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It was not so long ago that the phrases “a green SUV” or “a green MPV” would have seemed a contradiction in terms. Both types of large cars have proved extremely popular since their launch in the 90s, but they have also attracted criticism for their environmental record. The derogatory term “gas-guzzler” has often been applied to SUVs, as their size and body weight initially meant that these cars had a significantly higher gas consumption and resulting effect on pollution levels than others on the market. However, recent trends suggest that the future now looks a lot greener for SUVs and MPVs.

Factors driving the greening of large cars

Consumers’ growing awareness of the effect car usage has on the environment is certainly a strong factor in the development of green SUVs and seven seat car MPVs. Such demands have been brought sharply into focus by the rise in oil prices and growing concerns about the availability of fossil fuels at their current rate of usage. This, in turn, has led governments to offer tax breaks and incentives on the purchase of greener vehicles – in the UK most hybrids are charged less road tax than their conventional equivalents due to their lower emissions of CO2, and they receive a 100% reduction on the capital’s congestion charge. There are also tax benefits for green cars that are used as company cars, and a range of green car deals available on the forecourts.

Car manufacturer responses

Car manufacturers have been developing MPVs and SUVs that offer green credentials while still providing the quality and standard of power, space, size and safety that drivers seek. Many models are already on the market and others are being developed, but one thing is clear: the future is certainly going to be green in terms of the cars available on the market and consumer demand for these cars. Manufacturers’ responses include the following:

Changes to the body type - The traditional truck-based SUV has been supplanted in popularity relatively quickly by the crossover SUV, which uses a car platform as its base, allowing it to carry a lighter weight and achieve greater fuel efficiency. These vehicles are usually no longer designed for off-road usage or towing. Similar improvements have been made to the design of MPVs.

Changes to the engine - The development of turbo or supercharger technology in engines allows vehicles to make use of smaller engines that are “boosted” by this new technology. This allows for good performance but low emissions, thereby offering drivers the power they want with less environmental impact.

The use of hybrid engines - Perhaps the greatest step forward for SUVs and MPVs is in the use of hybrid engines. Initially for just petrol cars but now available for diesel as well, the hybrid engine is part battery-electric and part conventional. The underlying principle of all hybrids is the use of a temporary energy storage device (usually a battery), which enables the main engine to be operated at close to its maximum efficiency.

All regulated emissions are significantly reduced for a hybrid car compared with a conventional one. These include typical reductions in carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and NOx of 70-90%, and a reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25%. This is all great news for the environment, and the hybrid car will further improve its performance as it takes on board developments to conventional engines, and with the roll-out of the Plug-in Hybrid, which will deliver greater efficiencies through more use of the electric battery component.

Development of hydrogen and electric SUVs and MPVs - The launch of hydrogen- and electric-powered SUVs and MPVs has been seen in some territories, and more manufacturers are developing these for future launch. At present, the main obstacles to these vehicles’ uptake have been the opportunities available for refuelling and recharging, and the limited capacity for mileage between recharges for the electric versions. The need to develop alternative ways to power cars is recognised, however, by both governments and car manufacturers, and it is likely that solutions to these issues will be developed.

The future looks green for larger cars

Henry Ford famously promised American consumers in 1909 that they “can have a car painted any colour that they want so long as it is black.” Car manufacturers’ mantra for the future of MPVs and SUVs seems to be that you “can have any large car that you want so long as it runs green.”