How CAFE Killed Compact Trucks And Station Wagons

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler

Close your eyes and imagine it’s 1979. A first-term Democratic president struggles with unemployment, malaise, high energy prices, and embassy trouble. The landscape of today looks like the landscape of then, but there’s one important thing missing: The compact pickup. Where did they go? The small pickup was an indelible symbol of America’s lowered expectations in the Seventies and Eighties. Now that crappy times are here again, where are the paper-thin truck beds and wheezy-but-indestructible four-cylinders to pull them?

As car guys, we tend to view things through a certain lens; the design and performance characteristics of a car are what’s considered important. The proliferation of cars and trucks that are antithetical to these characteristics, like crossovers and larger, heavier passenger cars, are something that we’ve collectively lamented for some time. But to understand why this has happened, we need to view product decisions through the lens of CAFE and its incentives. The choices of American consumers are a factor; we like to buy pickups and SUVs, no doubt. But what if the government’s decisions played a part in moving the market, and the very laws set up to ostensibly promote more fuel efficient vehicles ended up doing the opposite?

CAFE for Decaf drinkers

CAFE (industry short hand for Corporate Average Fuel Economy) came as a result of the 1973 oil embargo, as a means to mandate fuel economy targets for cars and light trucks. Over the last four decades, the standards have evolved, with the latest iteration being the targets set for fuel economy in the year 2025. The 2025 targets were released this summer, and comprise a 1,944 page tome full of arcane language and legalese that, while essential for understanding CAFE, are totally inaccessible to the general public. No wonder, as our Editor Emeritus Ed Niedermeyer wrote

“…only a handful of experts truly understand the details of CAFE compliance, with its complex system of footprint-based categories, formula and credits.”

One of CAFEs biggest impacts in recent times has manifested itself in how auto makers classify products. Under CAFE, vehicles can be labeled “passenger cars” or “light trucks”, with the latter category required to meet less stringent standards for fuel economy and CO2 emissions. A decade ago, the Chrysler PT Cruiser was the most egregious example of this.

( N.B. CAFE uses the EPA’s unadjusted fuel economy standard, so the mpg values discussed in relation to CAFE bear little resemblance to the real world values used on Monroney stickers and common discourse on fuel economy. For our purposes, we’ll refer to the fuel economy numbers we are familiar with as “In Real Life” (IRL) to distinguish them from the CAFE numbers. )

Despite being based on a Neon platform and retaining the dimensions of a compact car, it was classified as a light truck by NHTSA. The PT Cruiser was designed to meet NHTSA standards for classification as a light truck, for the express purpose of raising Chrysler’s light truck average fuel economy. At the time, the minimum fleet average for passenger cars was 27.5 mpg CAFE, while for light trucks it was 20.7 mpg CAFE. A small, four-cylinder vehicle like the PT Cruiser was effectively a “ringer” for Chrysler’s fleet average. The year 2000 CAFE targets discussed above translate to 21 mpg IRL for passenger cars and 15 mpg IRL for light trucks. A “light truck” like the PT would obviously have no trouble surpassing these standards.

In 2006, CAFE altered the formula for its 2011 fuel economy targets, by calculating a vehicle’s “footprint”, which is the vehicle’s wheelbase multiplied by its wheel track. The footprint is expressed in square feet, and calculating this value is probably the most transparent part of the regulations. Fuel economy targets are a function of a vehicle’s footprint; the smaller the footprint, the tougher the standards are. A car such as the Honda Fit, with its footprint of 40 square feet, has to achieve 61 mpg CAFE, or 43 mpg IRL by 2025 to comply with regulations. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a full-size truck like the Ford F-150, with a footprint of 75 square feet, only needs to hit 30 mpg CAFE, or 23 mpg IRL, by the same timeframe.

How the fix is in

On the surface, the footprint requirements can be viewed as logical; a compact, fuel-efficient car like the Honda Fit, should be able to hit tougher targets, by virtue of its small size, aerodynamic profile and powertrain choices. Without any advanced technology like direct-injection, lightweight steel or aluminum construction or even low-rolling resistance tires, it manages a respectable 28/35 mpg IRL, while offering a practical, fun-to-drive package. The Ford F-150 has a very different mission; it must be large, durable, powerful and able to meet the needs of a full-size pickup, and will naturally be less conducive to achieving the kind of fuel economy that a Fit can.

Unfortunately, the footprint method has the opposite effect; rather than encouraging auto makers to strive for unprecedented fuel economy in their passenger car offerings, it has incentivized auto makers to build larger cars, in particular, more car-based crossovers that can be classified as “trucks” as used to skew fleet average figures, much the same way the PT Cruiser did. Full-size trucks have become a “protected class”, safe from the most aggressive targets, while compact trucks have become nearly extinct as a result.

Real world examples

Before we can delve into the demise of compact trucks, we need to examine how the footprint formula works, and how it allowed the car-based crossover to usurp the station wagon as America’s family hauler of choice.

The footprint is expressed graphically via the “curve”, which plots a vehicle’s footprint on the X axis and CAFE mpg on the Y axis. There are different graphs for cars and light trucks, and as we’ll see below, a car and a light truck with identical footprints are subject to very different standards. (N.B. the full document is available here, with the full-size curve graphs on page 29 and 30)

A concrete example of this phenomenon is Volvo’s decision to do away with the traditional wagon at the start of this decade. Wagons are what put Volvo on the map in North America. The rear-drive 200, 700 and 900 wagons held universal appeal for their durability and sportiness, while the 850 and V70 cemented their place in the mainstream, as a car for those who were upper-middle class, or aspiring to be.

Volvo’s current lineup offers two SUVs, the XC60 and XC90 and one pseudo-wagon, the XC70. The XC70 is virtually identical to the V70, Volvo’s stalwart station wagon, save for some extra ground clearance and lower body cladding. But while the V70 was classified as a passenger car, the XC70 joins its siblings as a “sports utility vehicle” according to the EPA. The fuel economy of the entire XC lineup is far from stellar. The best XC models, the front drive variants of the XC60 and XC70 with the naturally aspirated 3.2L inline-six engine, return 19/25 mpg IRL. The V70, in 2010 (its final year of sale for North America) returned 18/27 mpg IRL. All three vehicles have footprints of 48 square feet. The key difference is that while the V70 is a passenger car, the XC models are light trucks, and of course, given an easier time regarding CAFE compliance.

Mazda is another company that must also play against the stacked deck of CAFE. The Mazda6 wagon was offered here for a few years, and axed after it sold poorly. For 2014, Mazda is launching a third-generation Mazda6, including a gorgeous station wagon (and yes, a diesel engine), but it won’t be coming here. Enthusiast blogs have been harping on Mazda’s decision to withhold the car from the U.S. market, but a simple analysis using CAFE methodology reveals why. The wagon, with its footprint of 48 square feet, is subject to the same standards as the Volvo V70. On the other hand, the Mazda CX-5, with a footprint of 45.6 square feet, is smaller, and again, subject to light truck fuel economy standards. For a model that must be sold over 5-6 years (as previous generations were), the Mazda6 wagon starts out having to achieve a CAFE mpg figure in the high 30s.

Assuming the model lasts until 2020, the Mazda6 would have to achieve fuel economy figures in the high 40 mpg CAFE range. Engineering a low volume, niche market wagon for sale in America that would be subject to increasingly tough targets is arguably beyond their means, especially given the small volumes the car would sell in. Instead, Mazda offers the CX-5 crossover. Aside from being classified as a crossover, with all the CAFE advantages built in, the CX-5 is able to sell in economically viable volumes not just in the United States, but across the globe. The realities of CAFE have likely made sales of the third generation Mazda6 wagon impossible in the United States.

CAFE’s other victim is the compact truck segment. Many consumers don’t need a full-size truck (whether they acknowledge it or not), and the Ford Ranger, along with GM’s own compact pickups, had respectable followings among consumers looking for a smaller fuel-efficient pickup.

But the Ranger happens to fall into the “dead zone” of the CAFE footprint formula. Both curve graphs show a flat line at 55 square feet; in practical terms, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class carries this footprint. The Ranger, even in SuperCab configuration, has a footprint of 50 square feet, just short of the magic number. The best Ranger, fuel economy-wise, was a 4-cylinder manual truck, returning 22/27 mpg IRL; a respectable number, but one only available in a configuration that a minority of buyers would opt for. Equipped with a V6 and an automatic transmission, it would only return 14/18 mpg IRL, a figure that can be equalled by certain version of Ford’s V6 and V8 F-150 full-size pickups. By 2025, a theoretical Ranger with a footprint of 50 square feet would have to achieve fuel economy somewhere approaching 50 mpg CAFE. The 75 square foot F-150 would only have to reach in the high 30s CAFE.

Ford will offer a new Ranger in world markets, but again, it won’t come here. GM, on the other hand, plans to offer their new mid-size Colorado and Canyon trucks here, but the reasons for Ford and GM’s divergence aren’t as cut and dried as they are in the case of Mazda and Volvo. Ford has decided to offer full-size trucks exclusively, with the V6 options as a means of attracting economy-minded buyers, and perhaps taking advantage of CAFE regulations (not to mention, sell more F-Series, which are immensely profitable).

GM’s strategy is to forgo to advanced V6 powertrains that Ford offers, and market their full-size trucks alongside their smaller stable mates. If Ford offered a Ranger, it could theoretically cannibalize sales of the lower end F-150s, while muddling their marketing message. GM will presumably have no such conflict. Chrysler is rumored to be taking a third route; offering advanced V6s in their RAM trucks, while exploring a car-based compact pickup, possibly based off of a Fiat product. A truck like that would be a huge boon as far as CAFE compliance goes, and put a decisive nail in the coffin of the Dakota, which offered a V8 engine in a compact body.

Cui Bono

In the trial of Sextus Roscius, a young Cicero defended him by posing a famously concise question; “Cui Bono?”, or “who benefits?” CAFE merits a similar line of inquiry.

When examined side by side with European emissions standards, the economics of CAFE become more transparent. EU are relatively straight forward by comparison. Tailpipe CO2 emissions are measured and a de facto consumption tax is levied based on a vehicle’s output. There are no footprint formulas or regulatory loopholes that can be manipulated, though there are different standards for diesel and gasoline engines. Either way, the principle is the same; if you want a bigger, more powerful engine, you will have to pay for it via increased taxes. The most tangible examples of these policies in effect are the newly downsized motors being fitted in American-sized cars, like the 1.0L three-cylinder Ford Mondeo (our Fusion).

On the other hand, a consumption tax related to the profligacy of their vehicle would be disastrous to the Big Three. Full-size trucks, rather than cars, are the profit-makers for the Big Three, and no segment has more to lose from tough CAFE standards. The official line is that the big pickups and SUVs have to make up the most ground when it comes to fuel economy, so they are given more leeway with the regulations.

But the reality is that Detroit’s car makers need trucks to be affordable to stay in business. CAFE compliance for full-size trucks is a major topic in the auto industry, with concerns about rising costs being a major bugaboo for the Big Three. Ford is said to be moving to an aluminum body for the next F-150, while various reports have claimed that compliance with CAFE 2025 standards could add as much as $15,000 to the cost of a full-size truck. This kind of financial burden would make pickup trucks unaffordable to a significant portion of its customer base, and erode a massive source of profits for American automakers. As Niedermeyer noted, full size trucks would “ …become a purely professional purchase, bought only by those who use them for work or by the wealthy.” A European-style consumption tax based on emissions of fuel efficiency would be devastating for the full-sized truck market, and it’s hardly a coincidence that CAFE is structured in such a way that best protects these vehicles.

In this context, it’s easy to see why the two major dissenters from the 2025 CAFE rules were Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz. Representatives from both companies spoke out candidly about CAFE, with a Volkswagen spokesman stating

“The proposal encourages manufacturers and customers to shift toward larger, less-efficient vehicles, defeating the goal of reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.”

Mercedes-Benz was equally forceful, claiming that CAF E

“clearly favors large SUVs and pickup trucks. Our customers expect a range of vehicles from which to choose so this program creates a very real disconnect between government regulation and customer demand.”

Europe’s own Euro VI standards measure a grand total of 18 pages in PDF format, and are generally regarded as stricter than CAFE. That, combined with the substantially more egalitarian nature of the consumption tax model employed by Euro VI brings the legitimacy of CAFE into question even further.

Ironically, CAFE has much in common with the chicken tax, which is erroneously cited as being the sole impediment to the success of compact pickups in America. Both are horribly protectionist, anti-market laws that restrict consumer choice and give an unfair advantage to homegrown manufacturers. But at least the chicken tax compelled the OEMs to build compact pickups Stateside. Under CAFE, there isn’t just no reason to do so – there is every reason not to do so.

Derek Kreindler
Derek Kreindler

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  • SoCalMikester SoCalMikester on Jul 08, 2013

    Raise the gas taxes to a reasonable level to keep the infrastructure intact, and end CAFE. Let manufacturers sell what they want, as long as it meets safety standards And let the market decide. Id love to see kei cars here (but with upsized engines), and minitrucks, and all sorts of oddness available. Seems to me the ones that get popular are cheap and cheerful. Samurai, Geo variants, minitrucks, gen1 xB...

  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Sep 18, 2021

    This is a good writeup on some bad legislation, with some thoughtful comments❗ Does this site still exist?

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  • Peter Benn There apparently were some K-code 4-dr sedan Fairlanes. Collectible Automobile Apr 2024 has found a '63 500 with HD 3/spd.
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  • Rust-MyEnemy Whoa, what the hell is wrong with Jalop1991 and his condescension? It's as if he's employed by Big Plug-In or something."I've seen plenty of your types on the forums....."Dunno what that means, but I'm not dead keen on being regarded as "A type" by a complete stranger"" I'm guessing you've never actually calculated by hand the miles you've driven against the quantity of gas used--which is your actual miles per gallon."Guess again. Why the hell would you even say that? Yes, I worked it out. Fill-to-fill, based on gas station receipts. And it showed me that a Vauxhall Astra PHEV, starting out with a fully charged PHEV battery, in Hybrid mode, on my long (234-mile) daily motorway daily commute, never, over several months, ever matched or beat the economy of the regular hybrid Honda Civic that I ran for a similar amount of time (circa 5000 miles)."You don't use gasoline at all for 30-40 miles as you use exclusively battery power, then your vehicle is a pure hybrid. Over 234 miles, you will have used whatever gas the engine used for 200 of those miles."At least you're right on that. In hybrid mode, though, the Astra was using battery power when it wasn't at all appropriate. The petrol engine very rarely chimed in when battery power was on tap, and as a result, the EV-mode range quickly disappeared. The regular hybrid Civic, though, deployed its very small electric reserves (which are used up quickly but restore themselves promptly), much more wisely. Such as when on a trailing throttle or on a downward grade, or when in stop-start traffic. As a result, at the end of my 234 miles, the Civic had used less gas than the Astra. Moreover, I hadn't had to pay for the electricity in its battery.I look forward to you arguing that what actually happened isn't what actually happened, but I was there and you were not."Regardless, that you don't understand it appears not to have stopped you from pontificating on it. Please, do us all a favor--don't vote."You really are quite unpleasant, aren't you. But thanks for the advice.
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