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America's Greenest Cars of 2009

Here are the 12 vehicles for sale in the U.S. with the least environmental impact.

If you want to drive the most environmentally conscious or so-called greenest vehicle possible, then you need to consider downsizing to a smaller car or one that's equipped with a hybrid powertrain, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). A nonprofit organization, ACEEE is dedicated to advancing energy efficiency as a means of protecting the environment and strengthening the economy.

Four of the top 12 vehicles listed in its "2009 Green Book" are hybrids — vehicles that combine an internal-combustion engine with an electric motor for improved fuel economy and reduced emissions. The Green Book is an annual guide that evaluates the environmental impact of vehicles available in the new model year and then assigns them a Green Score based on that impact (from least to worst, of course).

The Green Score is determined by more factors than just fuel economy. It also takes into consideration tailpipe and other emissions that can cause global warming. The higher the Green Score, the lower the environmental impact.

The Rankings
For the third straight year, the natural-gas-powered Honda Civic GX tops ACEEE's "Greenest Vehicles" list. As the name suggests, the Civic GX operates on compressed natural gas (CNG). While it may not go as far on each gallon of fuel as some other entries, its combination of high efficiency and near-zero emissions makes it the cleanest vehicles on the road today, scoring 57 points from ACEEE.

The second, third and twelfth most eco-conscious vehicles on ACEEE's list are hybrids — the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic and Toyota Camry Hybrid respectively. The only other hybrid to make it into the top 12 happens to be the largest car on the list: the Nissan Altima Hybrid.

Domestic brands have not fared well on ACEEE's list over the past few years, being shut out completely in 2007 and placing only the Ford Focus in 2008. However, American manufacturers have two on the list for 2009, with the Chevrolet Cobalt XFE (and its Pontiac G5 twin) placing eighth and the Chevrolet Aveo/Aveo5 taking the 10th position.

Two European brands made this year's list, the same two as last year. The fun-to-drive MINI Cooper/Clubman lands in the seventh position with a Green Score of 45, while the diminutive smart fortwo captures a fourth-place rank with a score of 49 for the second straight year.

A major green-car development in the last year has been the introduction of a number of clean-diesel vehicles. Diesel was once considered the dirty bird of fossil fuels, but new technology has turned it into one of the cleanest.

"We're finally seeing diesels in the running among environmentally preferable vehicles, thanks to new emissions-control technologies," says ACEEE vehicle analyst Shruti Vaidyanathan. "Now diesels' intrinsic fuel-efficiency advantages can shine." The fuel-efficient Volkswagen Jetta TDI just missed the top 12 list for 2009.

The List
Vehicle ACEEE
1.Honda Civic GX 57 
2.Toyota Prius53
3.Honda Civic Hybrid51
4.Smart fortwo49
5.Toyota Yaris46
6.Nissan Altima Hybrid46
7.MINI Cooper/Clubman45
8.Chevrolet Cobalt XFT/Pontiac G5 XFE        
9.Honda Fit45
10.Chevrolet Cobalt XFT/Pontiac G5 XFE  
11.Toyota Camry Hybrid44
12.Kia Rio44

Source: ACEEE's "Green Book: The Environmental Guide to Cars and Trucks"

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-- MSN Autos Staff