Drivers ponder lousy mileage
With summer driving season on the horizon, more consumers are taking a
closer look at the fuel efficiency of their cars and wondering why they
get such lousy mileage.
After all, many drivers recall cars built in the 1970s and 1980s that
went a long way on a gallon of gasoline. Using engine technology that
seems crude today, some cars -- like the Honda CRX, the Ford Fiesta and
the Chevrolet Chevette -- could log 50 miles per gallon or more on the
Yet despite huge advances in auto technology -- bringing everything from
satellite navigation and crash-avoidance radar to computer-controlled
engines that rarely need tune-ups -- passenger vehicles' fuel economy
hasn't improved appreciably in the past 20 or even 30 years.
The fuel-efficiency issue is particularly acute right now, as gasoline
prices soar above $3 a gallon in many regions. Some SUV and pickup-truck
owners will cringe when it takes $100 to fill their tanks, but even car
drivers will feel the sting of the rising cost as a fill-up that set
them back $35 a few months ago now registers upward of $50.
The apparent lack of progress in improving fuel economy is tied to a
host of trends in the auto industry and U.S. consumer culture. A
long-running focus on vehicle safety has resulted in cars growing
heavier over time as manufacturers used more metal to strengthen
structures and added heavy safety gear, including antilock brakes,
airbags and electronic traction-control systems.
Cars also are larger overall, and models that started out as subcompacts
have grown to become more like midsize models. Honda Motor Co.'s Civic
CRX, a mid-1980s two-seater of 20 years ago, was 12 feet long and
weighed about 1,700 pounds. Today's Civic sedan is nearly three feet
longer and weighs about 900 pounds more. Even the smaller Honda Fit,
considered almost impossibly small today, is larger than the mid-1980s
The considerable advances in auto technology in recent decades have
benefited engines, structure and passenger comfort. Most of the effort
in improving engine performance, however, has gone toward increasing
horsepower instead of improving fuel economy. So while cars of all types
are generally faster than the sports cars of 25 years ago, their fuel
economy seems relatively poor, thanks largely to the energy required to
move their added weight. Even the Environmental Protection Agency
advises drivers to save fuel by cutting their cars' weight. Avoid
cluttering the car with unnecessary items, it recommends, especially
heavy ones. An extra 100 pounds in a vehicle may reduce your miles per
gallon by as much as 2 percent.
Development of German carmaker BMW AG's long-running 3-Series model has
led to the 2007 model weighing more than 3,300 pounds, compared with
about 2,900 pounds 20 years ago. In 1972 the 3-Series predecessor,
called the 2002, weighed about 2,200 pounds. Of course today's model is
faster, roomier, more luxurious and easier to drive than earlier
versions. Its horsepower has also roughly doubled since 1972.
The company says it uses ever lighter components to keep weight under
control on several models, including plastic fenders and carbon fiber
While the trend toward bigger, heavier cars is well-established, long
development cycles in the auto industry can still make it difficult for
car makers to judge shifts in consumer preferences. Indeed, some
vehicles arriving in dealerships now seem particularly ill-timed. Toyota
Motor Corp.'s Scion compact car unit is rolling out the second
generation of its boxy xB. When the company developed its strategy for
the new xB more than two years ago, it focused on making the car bigger,
more powerful and safer, instead of improving fuel economy. As a result,
the 2008 xB's mileage ratings are 22 miles per gallon in the city, 28
mpg highway -- not so impressive when compared with current small cars
like the Chevrolet HHR (23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway), the Honda Fit (31
city, 38 highway), or the old Scion xB (30 mpg city, 34 mpg highway).
Toyota's Prius has the highest fuel-economy rating among production
vehicles on the market in the United States. Conventional
gasoline-powered models like the Honda Civic, Honda Fit, Chevrolet Aveo
and Toyota Yaris log about 40 mpg on the highway.
Government regulations have done little to push car makers to make more
efficient vehicles. While corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE,
standards call for cars to average 27.5 miles per gallon, light trucks
are held to a lower standard of 22.2 mpg. In his recent State of the
Union address, President Bush proposed improving fuel-efficiency
standards for cars and light trucks by 4 percent a year through 2017.
Under current federal rules, automakers' passenger-car fleets have to
reach an average of 27.5 miles per gallon -- an unchanged standard since
1985. SUVs and other light trucks must meet a 22.2 mpg standard.
One sign of change is the apparent high buyer interest in the Smart
fortwo, a tiny two-seat car from DaimlerChrysler AG set to go on sale in
the United States next year. But despite its small size, the fortwo gets
only about 40 miles a gallon, hardly a fuel-efficiency breakthrough.