Dear Umbra,

In 1981, I bought my first car, a Honda Civic. It was a great car, and despite what certain congressional leaders say about car size and safety, an excellent vehicle for handling winter snow and ice in mountain driving in Steamboat Springs, Colo. The problem is that now, living in Pennsylvania, my husband and I and our three children are looking for a car that will be able to carry the five of us for the next 10 years without destroying the planet. We had to buy a used van when the kids were younger because, try as I might in five different dealerships, I couldn’t find a sedan or station wagon with a back seat big enough for three car seats. So, what do you think? What is the most environmentally friendly car that will carry five passengers? And, if you can predict the future, do you think there will be something better in the next few years that we should wait around for?

A Reluctant Mini-Van Mom

Dearest Reluctant Mini-Van Mom,

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

It’s hard to see the future from down here in these musty stacks. However, I do occasionally get old copies of newspapers, so I happen to know that when Ford unveils its hybrid collection later this year, it might (emphasis on might) include a gas-electric minivan or sport utility vehicle. Worth holding out for? That’s up to you.

As I frequently mention in this column, the decision to purchase a car, and which car you purchase, is one of the most significant environmental choices you will ever make. So, Mom, let’s go shopping.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

We’ll start by getting a general idea of which cars are in the running. We want the smallest, most efficient car that can meet your needs. And please consider buying a used car again; the car manufacturing process pollutes the environment, and a two-year-old car is just one with the bugs worked out. To narrow down the list, we could check out The Green Book: The Environmental Guide to Cars and Trucks from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, which ranks cars on an environmental index. It’ll tell you which new and newish cars in your size class are most efficient.

With that list of possibilities in hand, we’ll pay a visit to Consumer Reports, which evaluates vehicles for reliability, safety, and performance. No lemons for us. Then, to compare the tailpipe emissions of your current car against any cars you may consider buying, we’ve got the Tailpipe Tally over at Environmental Defense. We can plug in our car options and see which do best on the nasty-compounds test. (Those of you in the studio audience can join us for this part; it’s quick, easy, free, and sobering.)

By now you should have a better idea about the emissions of your top choices. From here, I suspect cost may be your guide.

Finally, I think I’m contractually obligated to point out the merits of easy, accessible, affordable, family-friendly public transit. If such a thing doesn’t exist in your area, perhaps that’s what you should really be holding out for.

Your reluctant shopping companion,