50 MPG Then – and Now

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Getting 50 MPG out of a gallon of gas has gotten a lot more expensive over the past 20-something years.

Back in 1990, it only cost $5,995 — $10,614 in corrected-for-2012 Fed Funny Money. That sum would buy you a new Geo Metro XFi hatchback, a car capable of 53 city, 58 highway (43 city/52 highway using the EPA”s latest “adjusted” standards).

See here, if you don’t believe me.

Today, the only new car that can match that mileage is a Toyota Prius hybrid — the least expensive version of which — the 2013 Prius C — has a sticker price of $18,950 in current Fed Funny Money. So, you’ll pay nearly twice as much to go about as far on a gallon of gas. (Actually, more than that, because it takes about three times the quantity of Fed Funny Money to buy a gallon today vs. back in 1990.)

If Uncle really gave a damn about us — as opposed to increasing his power over us — don’t you think he’d encourage more cars like the Metro? Wouldn’t they “reduce our dependence on foreign oil”? Wouldn’t they contribute less to “global warming” by dint of converting less gasoline into carbon dioxide?


In fact, Uncle has done everything conceivable to take such cars off the road. To make them an impossibility. He has legislated — and regulated — them out of existence. There is nothing comparable to the Metro available new today, nor has there been for at least a decade. Why? Did affordable economical cars (as distinct from today’s hybrid cars) suddenly become unsaleable? Or did government make them impossible to sell?


For the entire history of the automobile, from the Model T to the modern era, there were always cheap little cars that got great gas mileage (in relative and real terms). In the deco era of the roaring ’20s, Blue Light Special Model Ts mingled with Cords and Auburns. In the ’50s, Power Pack dual quad 283 Bel Airs and monstrous Cadillacs shared the road with Nash Metropolitans. In the ’60s, there were agile little Corvairs among the mighty muscle cars — and by the ’70s, Beetles (and Datsun B210s and Civic CVCCs) were literally everywhere.

As recently as the ’90s, cars like the Metro abounded. There was the Honda Civic CRX — capable of 52 MPG on the highway (47 MPG, adjusted by the EPA to reflect current measuring methods). The 43 MPG Ford Festiva. The 45 MPG Mercury Lynx. There were literally dozens of them, all makes and models.

Now, they’re all gone.

And the only way to save money on gas is to spend a lot of it on a new hybrid.

A hybrid is expensive because it has to be. You’re paying for two powertrains instead of just the one. A normal gas engine to keep the batteries topped off, plus electric motors and all the stuff associated with their operation. Of course this results in a car that is also heavy as well as expensive. The Prius C — lightest of all current hybrids — weighs 2,500 lbs. The 1990 Geo Metro weighed 1,620 lbs. It’s an inescapable law of physics that you need more and more power to move more and more mass. Thus, the “efficient” Prius C is propelled by a 1.5 liter four cylinder engine — while the almost 1,000 lbs. lighter Metro was able to get around (and get around just as quickly) with a three cylinder, 1.0 liter engine.

Now you know why a car built more than 20 years ago — with late 1980s-era technology — was able to deliver fuel economy almost as good as a “state of the art” new hybrid — and do it for about half the cost.

That’s pretty damning. But what’ll really get your juices flowing is to consider what a car like the ’90 Metro could do if it had the benefit of equipment that’s commonly available today — such as a six-speed manual (or better yet, for gas mileage purposes) continuously variable (CVT) transmission. That old Metro approached the MPGs of a new Prius C with a three-speed automatic. When equipped with the five-speed manual, it matched or exceeded the Prius’ numbers.

The implication — the fact — is that it would be simple to build and sell a low-cost compact or subcompact car capable of averaging 50 MPG — and probably tickling 70 on the highway.

If it weren’t for Uncle.

Because Uncle has decreed that cars like the Metro are “unsafe.” Too light to pass muster with Uncle’s crashworthiness tests. An insufficiency of steel — and of air bags. And so, verboten.

That’s why they’re all gone — and why we’re paying through the nose for “efficient” cars that take six years of $400 a month payments to pay off.

Thanks, Uncle.



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