January 22, 2014
Cars and trucks are more fuel efficient than ever, with Honda leading the way.
This is happening at a time when consumers continue to say fuel economy is a top consideration, but their feelings on the subject are less intense than a few years ago when gasoline prices were more volatile.
Today, drivers “just realize that higher gasoline prices are a part of life,” said Larry Dixon, senior auto analyst for NADA Used Car Guide.
Average fuel economy for 2012 vehicles was 23.6 mpg, a record that was 1.2 mpg more than the previous year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s annual report on the subject, issued last month.
Honda’s average fuel economy in 2012 was 27.2 mpg, which was the highest of any company that sells both cars and light trucks.
The runner-up was Volkswagen with 26.9 mpg, followed by Toyota with 25.7 mpg. The top U.S.-based brand was Ford with 22.9 mpg, which was seventh overall.
“We’re making leaps and bounds of progress for all automakers and all segments of cars,” said Eric Evarts, senior associate auto editor at Consumer Reports. “We’re seeing midsize SUVs that are getting the mileage that family sedans were getting a few years ago.”
Companies have improved their performance by making vehicles lighter and more aerodynamic. This has included engines that are smaller but use turbochargers to maintain a steady level of performance, and transmissions that use a pulley-based “continuously variable” system instead of gears.
The current design of the Ohio-made Honda Accord is a notable example of a continuously variable transmission being used in a top-selling model. A 2013 Accord gets an average of 30 mpg, up from 26 mpg for the 2011 model.
The Accord’s fuel economy is striking when you look at it side by side with other midsize cars, such as the Mazda 6, Evarts said.
“When you park the two side by side, you will see that the Accord is significantly larger than the Mazda,” he said. The Mazda 6 and Accord both get 30 mpg.
Automakers are raising their fuel economy because of customer demand and the need to meet rising government mandates. Last year, the Obama administration finalized a rule that says car companies must get the equivalent of 54.5 mpg by 2025. This was in addition to a previous mandate that called for 35.5 mpg by 2016.
While the standards continue to rise, customers are not as focused on fuel economy as they were a few years ago, according to auto dealers. In the summer of 2008, gasoline prices rose to more than $4 per gallon, which was followed by a surge in demand for compact, subcompact and hybrid vehicles.
At that time, $3 per gallon was an unusually high price and $4 was a shock to the system. Since then, prices have settled into a more-predictable range, often between $3.20 and $3.60, which would have been high a decade ago but now is normal.
“Four dollars is sort of the point when people will change their driving habits and maybe (change) the next car they purchase,” said Tom Carpenter, co-owner of three central Ohio auto franchises: Nissan North and Mitsubishi North, both on the Far North Side, and Mitsubishi West.
Last year, 14 percent of respondents to an NADAGuides.com survey said fuel economy was a top consideration when buying a new car, second only to dependability, which was the top consideration for 23 percent. That was a shift from the previous year when fuel economy was ahead of all other factors.
Dixon, the NADA Used Car Guide analyst, said the change is “because consumers have become increasingly accustomed to higher fuel prices.”
And, with the improvements in fuel economy, expensive gasoline doesn’t sting as much.