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Published: Monday, 7/24/2006

Reverse gear on mileage

In an oil-addicted nation where $4 a gallon gasoline may soon become the new reality, why is it that the auto industry can't build cars that get better mileage?

But that's a rhetorical question, isn't it? The answer is obvious: It's not that the industry can't build fuel-efficient vehicles, it apparently doesn't want to.

This observation is prompted by news from the federal Environmental Protection Agency that 2006 model vehicles sold in the U.S. average a tepid 21 miles per gallon, the same as in 2005.

Even Japanese nameplates, which typically lead the fuel-economy sweepstakes, are slipping. Honda was the top manufacturer with a fleet average of 24.2 mpg, followed by Toyota with 23.8, but both were down from the previous year.

General Motors improved slightly to 20.5 mpg, with Ford at 19.7, while DaimlerChrysler, with its retinue of muscle cars, brought up the rear at 19.1.

And here's the shocker: for all the fuss about increased energy costs and Middle East turmoil, the 2006 fleet average for all makers is 5 percent below the peak of 22.1 mpg all the way back in 1987-88. That's right: After nearly two decades of a worsening energy picture, fuel economy seems to be locked in reverse.

The reason for this dismal showing lies in the murky crosscurrents of consumer preference and advertising hype.

The auto makers claim that consumers want heavier and faster cars, so that's what they sell. And, since it's easier and more exciting to market the vrooom-vrooom sex appeal of Hemi engines as opposed to economy, it's not surprising that buyers opt for the sizzle instead of the plain steak.

The result: Half of all vehicles sold today fall into the "light truck" category, composed of sport utility vehicles, pickups, and vans, versus 28 percent in 1987. Average vehicle weight has ballooned from 3,220 pounds to 4,142, and zero-to-60 performance has improved from 13.1 seconds to 9.7.

Never mind that the technology exists to build vehicles with considerably better mileage. The manufacturers are hiding behind the same, tired, and ultimately irresponsible, slogan of 30 years ago: Buyers don't want economy.

We submit that they would, if better mpg came packaged in a modicum of comfort and styling, with less emphasis on macho, wheel-smoking performance.

Motorists, meanwhile, need to adjust their expectations. When fuel hits $4 at the pump, what difference will it make that you can beat everyone to the next stoplight if you run out of gas before you get there?



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