Economy Car Catch 22

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

One thing that’s interesting but unnoticed by most is that economy car performance (fuel efficiency wise) was stronger 15-20 years ago.

In the ’80s, for example, there were several models getting 40-plus MPG. I think there may be one (or possibly two) current models that do as well (non-hybrids). Most don’t come close. The typical new/2009 model year economy car gets in the low-mid 30s on the highway and mid-high 20s in city driving. Average real world economy (combined city/highway) for the typical ’09 economy car is probably around 28-30 mpg. So, we’re “down” by roughly 5-10 mpg.


Two main reasons:

First, new/late model economy cars are considerably heavier than their equivalents of the past. For example, an ’09 Honda Fit — one of the smallest new economy cars on the market — has a curb weight (without any people on board) of 2,489 pounds. Compare that to say a 1990 Geo Metro (remember that one?). It weighed 1,620 pounds, or almost 1,000 pounds less. That is an enormous difference.

And it’s why the Geo’s fuel economy stats — 38 city/41 highway — are so vastly superior to the current “state of the art” economy car (the Fit comes in at a so-so 27 highway, 33 highway).

The added weight means modern economy cars require larger, more powerful — and less fuel efficient — engines. While the Geo got by with a 1 liter, 3-cylinder engine rated at 49 hp, the ’09 Fit is powered by substantially larger 1.5 liter four that produces literally more than twice as much horsepower (117).

It has to, of course. You can’t pull a 2,500 pound vehicle with 49 hp. That would be serious mechanical abuse — as well as torment for its owner.

But you can’t expect to get 40 mpg with 117 hp, either.

That’s the econo-car Catch 22 we’re dealing with today.

Part of the blame, if you want to assign it, is due to the government — which mandates an ever-growing roster of weight-adding crashworthiness and safety requirements (air bags, etc.) all of which have (to date) bloated up the curb weight of the typical econ-car from around 1,800-2,000 lbs. to 2,500 lbs. or more.

Improved safety/crashworthiness is a fine thing — but it’s not cost-free. You can have one thing (a safer car) but not the other (optimum/best-possible fuel efficiency). At least, not in the same car. Not without a compromise or cost somewhere along the way.

No free lunches — either at the soup line or in engineering.

Part of the blame is also due consumers — who now expect weight-adding/power-sapping creature comforts like AC, electric windows and sunroofs, etc. They also want a car that can reach 60 mph in under 11 seconds.

In the ’80s and before, economy cars were slow. I mean crippled old man slow. Something like an original Beetle needed as much as 30 seconds to achieve 60 mph and topped out — barely — at 80-ish mph. The Geo Metro cut that down some, but not by much. If memory serves, it needed 15-20 seconds to get to sixty. On the highway, it was dangerously underpowered. It was literally out of its element. Might be ok as an in-city commuter. But you almost had to buy something else if you needed to operate on roads where the traffic flow was above 60 mph.

That kind of performance is consumer unacceptable today. You’ll hear commentators accuse the automakers of suckling the public on the teat of inefficiency, but the plain truth is people — most people — would never buy a car like the ’90 Geo Metro today. Even if it did get 40 mpg.

So, as much as people complain about gas mileage, the truth is they have unrealistic expectations — whether they’re aware of them or not. You could almost certainly engineer a small car that gets 45-50 mpg with today’s technology very easily. But it’s just as true that you’d never get it past federal safety requirements, meet consumer expectations about minimal levels of creature comforts and make it reasonably quick, too — at least, not without either drastically increasing its cost or its weight. Or sacrificing economy, to some extent at least.

Which ought to help you understand why today’s economy cars aren’t quite as economical as their forbears.

The upside is they’re a lot less miserable — and can actually be driven without taking your life in your hands every time you get behind the wheel.

Keeping up with traffic is nice, too. Even if it does cost a few MPGs.

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