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Your family sedan may not be a gas-guzzling Hummer, but even a small decrease in weight makes a big difference at the pump. With skyrocketing gas prices, many cost-conscious consumers are making the switch to a smaller vehicle and doing their part to prevent global warming in the process.

How to choose a small car

The small car market is one of the fastest growing sectors in the automobile industry and there are many models from which to choose. Advances in engineering and materials have made small cars safer, and their light weight makes them more responsive and fun to drive.

All the major car manufacturers now offer small models, the smallest of which is the SMART Fortwo (sold in the US by Penske Automotive Group). But Asian automakers lead the small car charge.

  • Toyota offers the Yaris and the youth-oriented Scion.
  • Honda introduced the Fit, which has been very popular outside the US and gets high marks from both Car and Driver and Consumer Reports.
  • Nissan, meanwhile, launched the Versa.
  • Kia has the Rio.
  • Hyundai Accent is yet other small-car choice.

Familiar models which used to be the smallest members of the company product line—such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla—have grown larger over time: these new models offer smaller options that fit below these popular mainstays.

US automakers are also finally getting in the game.

  • Ford offers the European-designed Focus.
  • General Motors has the Chevrolet Aveo and Cobalt.
  • Dodge counters with the Caliber.

Choosing a smaller car used to mean settling for an econo-box, but no longer. Luxury cars, such as the Audi A3 offer top-of-the-line amenities along with gas savings. And small cars now have a certain cachet. If you want to reenact the car chase in The Italian Job, opt for a quirky MINI Cooper.

But what if you occasionally need some extra trunk space? A rooftop carrier will allow you to add capacity when you need it without always carrying around the extra weight that comes with a larger car. Just be sure to take the carrier off when not in use as it adds drags and decreases fuel economy.

Find it! Small cars

Here's just a sampling of what you'll find in the small car arena.

Choosing a smaller car helps you go green because…

  • A smaller car uses less gasoline, producing fewer greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.
  • Transportation is the single largest cause of air pollution in the US: it's responsible for almost two-thirds of the carbon monoxide, a third of the nitrogen oxides, and a quarter of the hydrocarbons in our atmosphere.[1]

In 2004, drivers in the US drove their cars and light trucks 2.6 trillion miles—equivalent to driving back and forth to Pluto over 470 times.[2] American cars and pickup trucks create almost half of all the world's greenhouse gas emissions caused by automobiles, despite the fact that US vehicles account for only 30 percent of the nearly 700 million cars in use worldwide today.[2]

Driving a smaller car cuts down on those emissions by using less gas: for every 10 percent decrease in vehicle weight, you get a 7 percent increase in fuel economy.[3] A small car containing three people is more efficient per passenger mile than most trains.[4] Choosing a small car makes a big difference in saving money and the environment.

Carbon dioxide is the primary cause of global warming. Motor vehicles create nearly a quarter of annual US emissions of carbon dioxide. The three primary factors contributing to CO2 emissions from cars and trucks are: the amount of fuel used, the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air when fuel is consumed, and the number of miles traveled. As the Union of Concerned Scientists states, "Combating global warming requires reducing all of these factors. This necessitates increased fuel efficiency, switching to renewable fuels, and less driving." If you buy a small fuel-efficient car and drive it less, you're addressing two of the three main causes of CO2 vehicle emissions.

Related health issues

Primary pollutants from motor vehicles that affect health include ozone (O3), particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and hazardous air pollutants (toxics). Choose a smaller car that uses less gas and you also help prevent serious health problems caused by the worsening air quality and smog that results from burning fossil fuels.

At ground level, ozone irritates the respiratory system and causes coughing, choking, and reduced lung capacity. Particulate matter (PM) one-tenth the diameter of a human hair is the most serious health threat since it penetrates deep into the lungs. Nitrogen oxides irritate the lungs and weaken the body's ability to fight respiratory infections such as pneumonia and the flu.

Most of the carbon monoxide in our air is emitted from cars and trucks. When you breathe in carbon monoxide, it blocks the flow of oxygen to the brain, heart, and other vital organs. Fetuses, newborn children, and people with chronic illnesses are especially vulnerable to the these effects.

Cars create sulfur dioxide when they burn sulfur-containing gasoline, especially diesel. Most at risk from the effects of sulfur dioxide are young children and asthmatics. Studies link hazardous air pollutants emitted by cars to birth defects, cancer, and other serious illnesses. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), air toxics emitted from cars and trucks account for half of all cancers caused by air pollution.

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