If We Really Wanted To Save Gas…

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

There’s an old saying about going around the block to cross the street that applies to our current problem with escalating fuel prices. We could be saving a lot more fuel — easily and relatively cheaply. But we choose not to.

How so?

We could have 60 mpg commuter cars tomorrow, if we wanted them — and without expensive/elaborate hybrid technology or alternative fuels.

All we’d have to do is alter or get rid of existing federal regulations that have made it all but impossible to build light weight/high-efficiency economy cars. These regulations range from bumper-impact standards to requirements that all new cars be fitted with things like dual front seat air bags.

New economy cars are definitely more crashworthy — and safer — than the economy cars of the past. But they are also much heavier than the economy cars of the recent past, because of all the additional equipment they carry — as well as the structural reinforcements that are necessary to comply with the endless litany of federal requirements now in effect.

How much heavier? Several hundred pounds, on average. The typical ’08 model compact car weighs closer to 3,000 lbs. than 2,000 lbs. — and there are no 2008 model economy cars that are under 2,000 lbs.

A 1979 Renault LeCar weighed about 2,100 lbs. A 2008 Honda Civic weighs 2,586 lbs. Guess which car got 38-49 mpg?

In fact, it’s not even close. The ’08 Civic only manages 26 mpg in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway. In other words, the ’08 Civic’s highway economy is less than the ’79 LeCar’s city economy.

It’s sad.

And it’s not an isolated example. Here are some more stats form the past to chew on:

  • 1980 Plymouth Champ: 34 city, 46 highway
  • 1981 Pontiac Phoenix: 41 city, 51 highway

It goes on like that.

Meanwhile, today, there are no “economy” cars on the market (in the U.S.) capable of tickling 50 mpg without hybrid drivetrains. The vast majority of today’s “economy” cars are solidly in the mid-high 30s on the highway; a few get close to 40 mpg. That’s it.  And that’s with the benefit of almost 30 years of engineering advances — everything from electronic fuel injection to variable valve/cam timing to overdrive transmissions and low-rolling resistance tires.

If the advances of the past several decades could be applied to cars such as the ’78 LeCar, the ’80 Champ and others of its type, we’d have 50 mpg economy cars, easy — and without batteries or electric motors and all the expense and complexity that comes with them.

Just cutting the weight by several hundred pounds would allow today’s econo-cars to by propelled by smaller, less powerful (and thus, thirsty) engines — with equivalent performance.

Add diesel to the equation and we could have 60 mpg cars. Even 70 mpg cars.

Doubt it? Volkswagen currently sells just such a car — the Lupo. But not to us. Our government and its endless red tape have made it virtually impossible for VW to export the Lupo (and diesel passenger cars generally) to the United States.

And not just economy cars.

Mercedes and BMW sell (and have sold, for years) diesel versions of their mid-sized, rear-drive luxury-sport sedans that deliver 40 mpg on the highway — vs. under 30 mpg for another wise similar but gasoline burning mid-sized, rear-drive luxury-sport sedan. But only in Europe and other “export” markets.

We’ll be getting such cars later this year. Finally. But why did it take the prospect of $4 per gallon to make it happen?

Similarly, why do we tolerate government requirements that force us to drive uneconomical economy cars that are 10-20 percent less efficient than the economy cars of the ’70s and ’80s? — and probably 20-30 percent less efficient than they might be, otherwise?

Certainly, safety is important. But so, after all, is fuel efficiency. Or so we pretend, at any rate.

Given the debacle of $40 fill-ups at $4 per gallon, maybe the balance should tilt a bit toward economy vs. safety-at-any-cost. Is a higher theoretical risk of increased injury in a potential accident that may never happen worth more than the actuality of 50 mpg, every time we drive?

The truth is we could have high-mileage cars — we just prefer not to have them. Or rather, we want to have our cake and eat it, too.

We want “economy” compacts that are as crashworthy as mid-sized cars (and thus, as heavy as mid-sized cars), as opulently equipped as luxury cars once were (GPS, climate control AC, power everything) and as quick as sports cars once were (“acceptable” economy car zero to 60 mph times are now in the 7-8 second range — about what a 1978 Trans Am with a 6.6 liter V-8 delivered — vs. the 10-15 second times that were typical of cars like the Renault Le Car, Plymouth Champ and so on).

This is untenable — and undoable.

But we’ll continue to insist on the impossible — and complain about high gas prices while we’re doing it.


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