Dear Umbra,

I’m in need of a new car. I’d love to get a Prius, but I often need more passenger seats than the Prius has. What is the most environmentally friendly and responsible choice for a driver who needs a larger car? It seems like the bigger hybrids (i.e., the Toyota Highlander) are expensive and don’t get very impressive gas mileage compared to the Prius. Are there any industry plans to make SUVs that get more miles per gallon? What do I do in the meantime? Where is the minivan hybrid for us carpooling moms?

Julie E.
Los Angeles, Calif.

Dearest Julie,

This has been a perennial question for the Gristies, and I wish the automakers knew what they were missing. You and I both know that a high-mileage, high-capacity, affordable car would sell like — well, like organic milk. Eco-moms are a huge market. Americans are clamoring for a comfy seven-seat vehicle that gets 40 mpg — and has the safety record of a minivan instead of a death-taunting SUV.

The Toyota Estima. Sorry, you can’t have one.

Such a vehicle does exist — in Japan. Toyota makes a hybrid minivan called the Estima that gets 35-plus mpg. The Estima — and a hybrid version of the Toyota Sienna minivan — have been eagerly awaited in the U.S. but ne’er seen. Last spring, the Union of Concerned Scientists launched a petition to bring a Toyota hybrid minivan here, and nearly 18,000 people reportedly signed it. Still we wait. According to the UCS, one reason Toyota (and perhaps other car manufacturers) delay bringing such hot items to the U.S. is the fear that doing so will hurt the sales of their other, less eco-friendly models. So your minivan, Julie, is still in Japan.

The UCS Hybrid Car Center has a nice little timeline about the anticipated release dates of all future hybrids, and the list does include some retooled SUVs, which will get more miles to the gallon than the current crop. In the meantime, you’re right: The Prius smacks down every competitor but the Honda Civic hybrid. The Prius is estimated to get gas mileage in the mid-40s. Miles per gallon for midsized hybrids hovers in the high 20s or low 30s, falls to the mid-20s for the hybrid (and pricey) Highlander, and drops to the (ouch) teens for non-hybrid minivans.

Greenercars.org offers a 2008 Best Vehicles by Class listing, and that’s where I would start car shopping if I were you. Everyone has different auto preferences, and while I can give you the standard briefing on buying the smallest car possible that meets your needs, etc., it sounds like you’ve already thought through all those steps. Now you just need to build a list of potential cars in the desired size range and go over all the emissions, mileage, and performance details. Start at Greenercars. Then follow up on sites such as Consumer Reports (if you have an account there), Car Talk (I just used their Auto Advisor on your behalf), the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Hybridcenter, and the federal government. That’s right, our federal government — at fueleconomy.gov — is standing by to let you know the air pollution score, the annual petroleum consumption, the cost of a fill-up, and the new mpg score of your cars of choice.

All that said, standard-issue minivans remain pretty poor on the mileage front. There’s a higher-mileage SUV to consider: The Ford Escape hybrid apparently gets about 32 mpg, but it’s basically a five-seater, and I don’t know if that’s enough capacity for you. I kinda think the Highlander hybrid may be the answer if you regularly need lots of room. But you’re the only one who can figure out how to wrap your bank account, space requirements, and environmentalism into one less-than-perfect car. It might be time to consider a used Highlander or maybe even a regular minivan (for that eco-friendly carpooling you’re doing). We can all hope that in another five years there will be an easier answer to this question.

Avoidantly,
Umbra