Bigger, Faster Cars or Better Gas Mileage: What Do Drivers Really Want?

For those who always suspected that the automakers could produce a more fuel-efficient car if they wanted, well, you’re right, and the proof is going on sale this year. We’re not talking about electrics, although they’ve been getting all the attention in green circles lately. We’re talking about old-fashioned internal combustion engines in perfectly conventional cars that are getting 40 or even 50 miles per gallon, like the Chevy Eco-Cruze.

So where have these cars been all our lives?

A lot of environmentalists seem to have the impression that the internal combustion engine that’s been powering cars for a century has gone as far as it can. But that’s actually not true. In fact, the last two decades have been a period of great engineering advances, some of which you’ve heard of, and most you probably haven’t.  Once automakers started putting on-board computers into cars to fine-tune engine performance, a whole host of advances became possible, like technologies that turn off engine cylinders that aren’t needed or variable valve timing. All of them add up to more power with less fuel.

But once you’ve made the engine more efficient, the question is what do you do with that efficiency? And the answer we’ve chosen over the past three decades is to pour that gain into making vehicles bigger and faster. We didn’t use it for better mileage.

Government statistics show the average light duty vehicle built in 2009 (that covers cars, vans, pickups and SUVs) weighed in at just over 4,000 lbs., nearly 800 lbs. heavier than in 1987. Over the same period, horsepower nearly doubled, from 118 to 220, and the average vehicle goes from zero to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds, three and half seconds faster. But miles per gallon have barely moved, from 22 mpg in 1987 to 22.5 mpg in 2009 .

And yes, the drop in the average mpg statistics is mostly about SUVs.  Some people who drive big cars actually do have to carry a lot of stuff, and some people with four-wheel drives  do  live in an area with lots of snow.  But sales of pickup trucks, which are mostly used for real work, have hardly changed since 1975 . SUV sales, by contrast, grew from 1.8 percent of sales in 1975 and 6.3 percent in 1988 to nearly 29 percent in 2007. Proportionally, cars fell from 71 percent of all sales in 1975 to 45 percent in 2007 .  SUVs were chic with consumers, and Detroit loved them because the profit margins were huge, more than $9,000 a unit by some estimates.

But that was then, and this is now. Is this the moment when public tastes really change? A lot of people are asking this about cars like the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, which despite their hype have had tiny sales so far. But buying an electric isn’t just buying a car, it’s making a lifestyle change that the rest of the world may or may not support. Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of infrastructure out there for electric cars right now.

But you don’t have to change your life with a high-mileage conventional car (or for that matter, hybrids, which on average still outperform conventional vehicles). You just need to think about what you really want, and of course, have the wherewithal to buy a new car. And with gas prices edging up thanks to turmoil in the Mideast and the economy finally pulling out the doldrums, more Americans may be ready to think that over.

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet