We’ve all been there: January 1st nears, excitement builds, and you set a lofty goal for yourself. Eat healthier. Hit the gym 5 days a week. Engage friends and family in conversations that are not exclusively about cars. You know, your typical New Year’s resolution. In the following weeks, Whole Foods will record record sales and gym memberships will spike. But by mid-February or so, we’ll return to our old habits, and my loved ones will still be trying to remember which seemingly random collection of letters and numbers is made by Cadillac and which by Mercedes-Benz. Our resolutions—promises we made and agreed to stand behind—have become more akin to suggestions. They’re now goals to strive for and be congratulated on, not requirements by which to live. Don’t feel too bad: as it turns out, the auto industry isn’t too different.
There has been a lot of news this week regarding the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration issuing new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The reports seem to suggest the government has gone lax on the issue of fuel economy because most Americans don’t seem to care about it.
One analyst, however, suggests the opposite may be true. Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst at IHS Automotive, read the entire 1217-page midterm report that discussed the standards (something probably 99 percent of journalists didn’t do, including me).
She wrote in Forbes, “The (CAFE) standard and NHTSA projected figures for the 2025 model year targets, however, have now been revealed as a projection rather than a legal requirement. The report is supportive of the progress and direction of the existing standards. The agencies believe automakers can meet the challenge, and that consumers want it.”
Down in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, there’s a little outpost of late 20th-century automotive culture. Accepting only cash, Hatoff’s gas and service station is known around the city for consistently providing some of the cheapest gasoline you can find. It’s hard to imagine impatient New Englanders willing to walk away from their car, ask the man behind bulletproof glass for “$20 on pump 4,” and watch as the numbers on an ancient pump slowly climb—but without fail, Stan Hatoff’s station is one of the busiest in Boston.
There’s an interesting battle going on to be the most fuel-efficient pickup truck in America. It’s interesting not so much for the fact that the 2016 Chevrolet Colorado 2-wheel drive with the Duramax turbodiesel engine is the winner.
Nope, what makes it intriguing is it turns out Americans do care about fuel efficiency, even with falling fuel prices. We don’t care so much how a vehicle gets fuel savings. We just want it to happen.
That’s according to a survey by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. It discovered in June that “[a] little more than half (52 percent) of respondents said it didn’t matter to them how a vehicle saves fuel and reduces emissions,” according to an article at the news site Phys.org.
In 1990, a car was available that had a 1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine that took regular gasoline and had a 5-speed manual transmission. It wasn’t anything special to look at, but delivered economical travel. Today, the car carries EPA ratings of 38 mpg city, 45 on the highway and 41 combined.
Used versions of that car are still around today and typically cost between one and two thousand dollars.
Today, as we approach 2014, there’s a car available with a 1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine that takes regular gasoline and has a 5-speed manual transmission. It’s rated at 32 mpg city, 45 on the highway and 37 combined.
What a difference 24 years makes, huh?
The 2000 Chevrolet Corvette is not a spectacular supercar. The base model uses a 5.7-liter V8 to deliver 345 hp, which the EPA rates at 15 mpg city/25 highway.
Fun, yes. Super, no.
The Corvette has always been the value-priced sports car playing in the land of supercars. For buyers looking for cheap horsepower, the ‘Vette fits the bill. It’s never been the most refined or comfortable or elegant, but that’s not what Corvette buyers of the past ever expected. Just raw, straight-line power.
The used market has lots of Corvettes from the last 6 generations for sale. The 2000 model I referenced generally is listed at around $10,000, which makes for an incredibly cheap sports-car experience.
It begins with loud music, fully stocked coffee cups and snack bags, and the excitement of leaving town and heading to a favorite destination for a few days of fun and relaxation.
Ahh… the road trip.
Soon enough, though, the miles pile on, the music gets turned down, the empty coffee cups mean full bladders and empty snack bags litter the car. The final destination doesn’t seem any nearer than when the trip started, and the urge to get there faster translates to a few nudges up in speed on the cruise control.
But what does speeding up from 70 mph to 80 mph mean for fuel consumption? Is getting there a little earlier worth the extra cost of fuel?
In all truth, at least from my perspective, yes.
Fuel economy, at least temporarily, has become the single most important factor to new-car buyers.
I say “temporarily” because we all know it won’t last.
Americans have a tendency to overreact to things. Remember in 2008, when gas prices jumped and folks traded in their SUVs en masse for more fuel efficient rides? Remember, later that year, when prices dipped below $2/gallon and many of those same buyers flocked back to their big rigs?
Now it’s 2012, and prices are hovering near $4 again. No surprise that fuel economy is an important factor for buyers, but *the* most important? This world has gone crazy.
Stepping onto a dealer’s lot five years ago and asking for a small SUV that was comfortable, had decent power and returned over 30 mpg would have resulted in a blank stare.
Today, buyers at Chevrolet, Honda, Mazda and Ford dealers can ask that question and will happily be shown the Equinox, CR-V, CX-5 and Escape. Amazingly enough, none of those reach the magic number with the help of a hybrid powertrain.
As of right now, it’s the Ford Escape that has the distinction of being able to say it offers the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the small crossover segment. At least when it comes to vehicles equipped with automatic transmissions.
Why does fuel efficiency have to come with a price premium? Hybrids, diesels and EVs all cost much more compared to their fossil-fuel-powered brethren.
It’s been well documented that it can take years of saving fuel costs to make up for the extra cost of the vehicle. In some cases, the car will have been sold or traded in before any savings are realized. What we need are low-cost, high-efficiency engines, but so far our lust for power, too, has only resulted in expensive turbos and help from electric motors.
Is it possible to create a non-turbo gas engine that is cheap and returns the fuel efficiency of a hybrid while not sacrificing power? If it were possible, someone would have it by now, right?