Drivers ponder lousy mileage

Drivers ponder lousy mileage http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070604/AUTO01/706040309/1148
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 highway.
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 Civic CRX.
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 roof panels.
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.
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I rented a Smart ForFour in Italy a month or so ago and I got 42 mpg over the 1400 miles I put on it. I did pay $6.45US per gallon though. Smart (in Europe) also has a diesel that get better mileage.
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