Where has all the mileage gone?
Today's autos don't seem to be as fuel-efficient as those of yesteryear. But it just seems that way. Here's why.
Automakers and consumers have been, shall we say, inconsistent in their quest for better fuel economy. When gas prices spike, fuel efficiency becomes a national priority. Politicians make speeches, carmakers trumpet their vehicles' mpg ratings instead of horsepower output and consumers flock to fuel-sipping compacts rather than gas-guzzling SUVs. But when gas gets cheap again, many people go back to their gluttonous ways. It's a vicious cycle.
There is a silver lining, though. The spikes in gas prices seem to bring about genuine bursts of innovation when it comes to fuel efficiency. As gas prices rose throughout the 2000s and then skyrocketed in 2007-2008, fuel-sippers such as the Toyota Prius went from marginal to mainstream, and automakers quickly shifted from developing one SUV after another to creating more efficient smaller cars, crossovers and hybrid vehicles.
As a result, today there is a wide selection of vehicles that deliver stellar mileage figures, ranging from the all-electric Nissan LEAF to the dual-mode hybrid Chevy Volt to the Chevy Cruze Eco, which has no hybrid system at all but manages to squeeze 42 mpg highway from a normal gasoline engine, thanks to some creative turbocharging. And even more of these misers are in the pipeline.
But before we give automakers a pat on the back for their efforts to deliver the most out of every drop of fuel their vehicles consume, it is worth looking back at the history of automobiles and asking ourselves, "Are today's cars really more fuel-efficient than they used to be?" The answer is more complicated than you might think.
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Back in the Day: A Comparison
Looking over fuel-economy statistics from the past 30 years, you'd think automakers were asleep at the wheel when it comes to fuel efficiency. For instance, a 1980 Toyota Corolla with a 1.8-liter engine had an average fuel economy of 28 mpg. A modern 2011 Corolla with a 1.8-liter engine has an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 31 mpg city and highway combined — a modest improvement of only 3 mpg.
The comparison gets even more disturbing when you consider the 1980 Dodge Colt, a 1.4-liter 4-cylinder hatchback that got up to 37 mpg combined. The closest thing Dodge sells to that today is the 2011 Caliber, a 2.0-liter hatchback that gets only 27 mpg combined.
But if you really want a humbling comparison, look at the numbers for a modern Honda CR-Z versus a 1983 Honda CR-X HF. The 2011 CR-Z has an obvious heritage that points to the CR-X. Both are 2-seat coupes with sporty handling and snazzy looks. But the modern CR-Z has two things that its predecessor did not: a continually variable transmission and a gasoline-electric hybrid engine. Those drivetrain innovations get the CR-Z a combined 37 mpg. Impressive, for sure, but still not as impressive as the 1983 CR-X HF, which posted an average fuel-economy rating of 46 mpg, with a standard 5-speed transmission and a normally aspirated 1.5-liter engine. Even if you adjust for today's EPA testing procedures, the old CR-X still got significantly more mileage out of a gallon of fuel than its modern counterpart.
Why Haven't Cars Become More Fuel-Efficient?
The most obvious reason for stagnation in fuel efficiency is economic. Low gas prices throughout the late 1980s and 1990s gave consumers little incentive to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, and thus for automakers to build them. In fact, cheap gas led to an explosion in sales of large SUVs that lasted well into the 2000s. For those who love statistics: Light trucks went from 1.2 million out of 11.9 million vehicles sold in 1979, or about 10 percent of the fleet, to a peak of 8.3 million out of 15.7 million vehicles sold in 2004 — more than 50 percent of the fleet.
Another reason is pure heft. Vehicles, even the economy cars that you'd expect to be leading the efficiency charge, are now considerably heavier than they used to be, which is in part because of attempts to make vehicles safer and more reliable. The 1980s Honda CR-X, for example, was 750 pounds lighter than the modern CR-Z.
But most experts say that the lion's share of the blame for lackluster progress in the overall fuel efficiency of an automaker's fleet of vehicles has to fall on politicians for creating weak and inconsistent Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations.
The joint Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department CAFE standards program was first set in place as part of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, after the OPEC oil embargo sparked countrywide fuel shortages and drove gas prices through the roof. The program's mandate was to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. Congress stipulated that average fleet fuel efficiency should be targeted to the "maximum feasible level," and starting in 1978 at 18 mpg the level was supposed to rise every year. And for the first four years, it did; fleet fuel efficiency improved more than 5 mpg from 1978 to 1982.
However, after a couple of years, the exceptions started. Wary of a backlash from farmers and builders who were the traditional buyers of relatively inefficient pickups, politicians separated light trucks into a separate category, subject to weaker standards.
Then in 1986, as gas prices returned to their lowest level since the oil embargo, automakers complained there was a lack of consumer demand for fuel-efficient vehicles. That's when the standards for passenger cars were relaxed from 27.5 to 26 mpg.
And for 25 years, it remained basically unchanged. But in 2009, the Obama administration updated the CAFE program, introducing new, stricter fuel-efficiency standards and tying fuel-efficiency targets to greenhouse-gas emissions for the first time. The new rules require the fleet average fuel economy to increase to 29.7 mpg (33.3 mpg for passenger cars; 25.4 mpg for light trucks) by 2012 and 34.1 mpg (37.8 mpg for passenger cars; 28.8 mpg for trucks) by 2016. This was considered a positive step toward freeing ourselves from the grip of foreign oil and protecting the environment.
Like before, however, when big business complained, the politicians caved. Initially, fuel-economy requirements were to be based on a "footprint" sliding scale that matched the mpg target to the size of the vehicle, but that was tossed out by the courts as arbitrary and capricious.
Though the system is flawed, many of the experts we spoke with say the CAFE standards are an important spur to the automotive industry to increase fuel efficiency. But the most powerful force is still the threat of rising fuel prices. And that threat is very real these days. Until recently, and with the obvious exception of the oil spike of 2008, U.S. gas prices have been low by historical and international standards, and cheap gas causes inefficient consumer and driver behavior. So the easiest way regulators could influence automotive fuel economy would be a simple, but politically poisonous, gas tax.
But in the past year, fuel prices have been on the rise. According to AAA, in late April 2011, the cost of regular fuel nationwide had increased by more than $1 over a year, 30 cents in a month and almost 4 cents in a week to $3.87 per gallon. And those increases aren't expected to let up any time soon.
Strides Have Been Made
That's not to say there haven't been improvements in engine efficiency in the past 30 years. In fact, modern engines are far more efficient than they were in the 1980s. The aforementioned 1980 Toyota Corolla had a 1.8-liter engine that produced 75 horsepower. The modern Corolla also has a 1.8-liter engine, but it produces 132 horses. Yet the focus on horsepower over fuel economy makes the problem worse, says Lee Schipper, a project scientist at University of California Berkeley Global Metropolitan Studies: "We put all that technology into new cars to make them heavier and more powerful at constant fuel economy rather than saving more and more fuel at roughly constant performance. And it's hard to get buyers to downsize their expectations."
Because we have become used to driving roomier, more feature-laden and more powerful cars, we haven't realized the potential fuel-economy gains we could have gotten from engine improvements. "There is a difference between fuel economy and fuel efficiency," says Veerender Kaul, the director of automotive and transportation research at the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan: "It may be the case that a larger vehicle is more fuel-efficient, but it isn't necessarily more economical. The quickest way to improve fuel economy is to downsize the vehicle and downsize the engine, and you'll get better fuel economy."
What's the Solution?
A change in consumer demands and expectations is needed to make cars more fuel-efficient. The "build it and they will come" philosophy currently in use to market more efficient cars isn't the best approach to the problem.
A gas tax would help make that happen, but it might not be necessary to influence the market at this time. As gas starts to nudge the $4-per-gallon barrier for the second time in three years, consumers still reeling from a nasty recession will be more likely to pay attention to fuel economy when shopping for cars. Unlike the recent oil shocks, this rise in fuel prices doesn't seem to be a mere spike. In the end, automakers are now focusing their engineering efforts on fuel economy not just because the government wants them to, but because it sells.
Sam Foley is a Connecticut-based automotive journalist who has written for GQ, Forbes, USA Today,theNew York Post and various other publications.
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All the emissions on the cars, and the alcohol in the gas is killing our mileage. When they started adding all the alcohol my car started getting 7 miles less per gallon.
Funny the author fails to mention something so obvious.
I keep listening to all the bs as I drive my 89 Honda Civic Hatchback that I bought new in 89. Added a Calif legal 4 into 2 into1 header, a K & N hi flow air cleaner, A high flow cat and exhaust system, And iridium spark plugs, and Mobile 1 0w or 5w- 20 synthetic oil. I get 40+ mpg in town, 44-52 mpg hwy, and pass calif emission tests with 0 co and way below all average emission results for all cars. Also in 1989 Hondas' CRV FE was rated at 54 mpg, and I still have the booklet showing that listed mpg rating. P S my car has been paid for since 92.........JOHNRIVER
Americans bought more standard transmission cars in the past. They are more efficient than automatic transmissions and they are lighter, cheaper, require less maintenance, and last longer. Automatics have improved considerably in the past decade, but you can still get 10% better gas mileage with a standard. The epa mileage testing procedure doesn't accurately measure standard transmission cars. I don't know why so few Americans (unlike Europeans with their higher gas prices) avoid standard transmissions. Maybe it's because it's so difficult to text and twitter their friends while shifting gears. And people who think manually opening a car window is hard work will never buy a stick shift.
1) Ollie is right about the hybrid. The battery and other wiring that makes a hybrid works adds weight to the car. This is why hybrids don't have great acceleration time. Also, someday, all batteries die. Period. Where are all the batteries going to go where it won't effect the environment? Hybrids are enviromentally a joke.
2) Europe which for many years has had fuel prices double or sometimes triple the US price per gallon figured out the Diesel is the way to go. They make the new Audi A7 in Europe which is their 2nd largest car with a 3.0 diesel that can get 53MPG. All the safety and toys you can imagine and 53MPG. Yet, it's not available in the US. They also make a subcompact A1 with a 1.7L Turbo Diesel. 73 MPG and not available in the US. I asked an Audi Engineer once if they would build a Diesel Hybrid. The engineer's response is that it would never sell in the US. Diesels in Europe have tougher emission standards than we do and yet, no one can get these cars here...Why???
3) Natural gas is a great low-cost option. It does cost half of what unleaded sells for. Here in Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper would love to run the state fleet on Colorado Natural Gas. However, at $10,000 per conversion, it's not realistic. The only manufacturer that makes a car that runs right now on Compressed Natural Gas is Honda. However, the Civic CNG has a sticker of $25,490 with 24mpg city and 36 mpg Highway. What can be done to make that option practical.
4) In 1995, you could buy a Nissan Sentra 5-speed that got 30 mpg city/40 mpg hwy. You could buy a Dodge Neon Competition Sedan that got 28 mpg/39 mpg hwy that had 150 BHP which was plenty for that car. Buick Lesabre's got 30 mpg 15 years ago. A lot of the secret of this is how the car is geared. Today, you have to hunt or pay a premium for an economical car that makes sense.
1) Dry batteries, like wet batteries are recyclable, and the situation is no different than our current situation with car batteries. You simply recycle the batteries when they die. As a matter of fact hybrids are responsible for creating a new battery recycling industry. Dry batteries were typically thrown away unlike wet batteries that were taken back to the Auto Parts store for a refund. Now the same thing is happening with Hybrid batteries.
2) In Europe, diesel is cheaper in Europe than the US and their cars typically get better gas mileage, however trams and buses are plentiful unlike in the US. In the early 1900's Ford and GM bought all of the public transportation lines and shut them down to force people to buy cars. We are still feeling the effect of that today, MPG will not improve in the US as quickly as it will in the rest of the world because the auto industry and oil industry (in the US) wants it that way.
3) Natural gas is a good alternative except there are no natural gas filling stations and it's also a commodity so once it becomes plentiful, it too will carry a high price, just like gasoline.
I live out in the middle of flyover country and I drive one of those monster pickups that get 15 mpg on the highway at 75. I drive that fast because my time is valuable to me. When you are 60 miles from the closest box store or decent supermarket, you day is longer at 55. I drive a big truck because I can load it up with groceries, hay, pipe, machinery or pull a 10,000 lb trailer to carry all that crap on. It also seats 6 comfortably. Why take 2 vehicles when 1 will do? It's 4wd because it snows here, and I would just as soon get where I'm going as not. It is not a hybrid, so if I get in an accident, I don't have to call a hazmat team to clean up the mess.
The whole point of this posting is that I drive what fits my circumstances and that probably goes for the rest of you out there.
I will admit that driving in the city sucks, however, I can hook up the trailer and stack 3 econoboxes on it and get better total mileage that most anyone out there.
For what it's worth, this truck has 300k miles on it. Technology has improved reliability and mileage over the years and for that I am grateful.