2007 Energy Bill CAFE Standards and a fuel economy history lesson

Congress managed to get higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards into the 2007 Energy bill. If everything goes as planned, auto manufacturers product range will have to average 35 mpg by 2020.

As with any threat by politicians to “improve” vehicles, the Big Three came back with “it will drive the cost of cars up”. As always, the cited cost by many industry reps was roughly 30-percent of the current average price of a new car, or $10,000.

Interestingly, however, after the CAFE Standards made it into the bill and seemed to look like it would pass, automakers have put on a better PR face. Ford and Chevy have put out statements indicating they are up to the challenge, showing the market is probably behind the politicians.

This is good news for auto consumers, because current average mpg for each and every company is nothing short of a joke.

I made the comment at Thanksgiving dinner to family and friends that real-world average fuel economy hasn’t improved much (and to some extent, not at all) in the last three to five decades. After getting read the Riot Act by my father, citing the 12 mpg he got on his 1956 Buick, I pulled out road test after road test from Road and Track, Motor Trend, Car and Driver, as well as other publications of the day, and cited fuel economy results from real road tests.

Plain and simple, our view of real-world mpg from the past is simply not accurate. For instance, the hottest 1956 Chevy V8 (the 265-ci equipped with the “Power Pack” for 205 hp) actually delivered 17 city and 21 highway mpg. In contrast the 2006 Impala SS, the only available with a V8, had EPA ratings 18 city/ 28 highway, but Car and Driver saw only 16 mpg actual throughout their test. Just for chuckles, a 1988 Chevy Corsica carried EPA ratings of 19/29, but a C+D test found 21 mpg overall.

In the 1970s fuel economy was chic, and Road and Track found in 1976 that the Honda Accord delivered an average of 32 mpg, which was no different than the VW Beetle’s 30/35 results from over twenty years earlier. In the 1980s, domestic econoboxes looked like the 39 mpg Ford Festiva or 37mpg Chevy Sprint Turbo. Now we get 21 city/ 31 highway Honda Accords and ultra-fuel-efficient 34/30 Ford Escape Hybrid sport ute!

Even sports cars haven’t come a long way, baby. Alfa Romeo’s ’56 Giuletta Spyder gave 27/33 mpg. Porsche’s 356 Coupes were tested at an overall average of 35.2 mpg. And while Triumph TR3 advertisements boasted “up to 30 mpg”, actual testing showed 26 city and 32 highway. Thirty years later, the 1986 Honda CRX was rated at 29/36 and Toyota’s MR2 stickered with 26/32. In 2006, Consumer Guide found a Honda S2000 could only muster 24 mpg, despite clocking 70-percent highway miles on their test regiment.

The first reason for the mileage issue is weight. Cars today weigh more than cars from yesteryear. We all love airbags, stability control, twenty speaker sound systems, and power-adjustable/climate-controlled seats to keep our asses comfy, but all this equipment requires fuel to move down the road.

Secondly, cars now are more powerful than nitro-methane. When Toyota sedans pack 265 horses, you know the power horse race is in full swing.

Nowhere is the weight/power issue more evident than in BMW’s 3 Series Convertible. In 1988, the 325i weighed 2982 pounds and did 0-60 mph in 7.7 seconds, courtesy of 168 hp. In 2008, the 335i Convertible (with its folding hardtop) tips the scale at over 3985 pounds, but runs to 60 mph at 5.3 seconds due to 300 hp. The 335i’s direct-injected twin-turbo 3 liter engine is a case study in performance efficiency, but the 18 city mpg is identical to 325’s. C+D’s observed 21 mpg for its 325i was actually better than CNet’s 335i 19.1 test average.

Nobody with any legitimate expertise could argue that cars of the past were better than today’s comfortable road rockets. It’s evident, though, that the market has placed all of its weight in performance, luxury, convenience, and of late on safety. Too little has been placed on fuel economy. Consequently, technological revolution has not benefited those interested in high mpg as much as those wanting to go 0-60 in under 4.5 seconds while coddled in luxury.

Political and business experts can debate until they are blue in the face that whether it is the market’s or government’s position to demand fuel economy, but one thing is for certain, the manufacturers haven’t given the market many good fuel efficient options. Those high mpg options have been mostly saddled with market-perceived downsides of tiny, tinny econoboxes, or smelly, expensive and hard-to-acquire diesel, or unproven, hard to work-on gas/battery hybrid systems. (Again, this is the market perception, not my feeling, so please do not call me anti-diesel or anti-hybrid.)

So maybe it is time that someone in a position of power tells companies that they need to focus on fuel economy? The market can then work out which technologies and products deliver it the best.

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