By on November 2, 2016

pumping fuel

The auto industry’s average fuel economy for new vehicles sputtered upwards by 0.5 miles per gallon last year, according to recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency. While that may sound like cause for celebration, let’s not lose perspective. A statistical record high may be noteworthy, but not necessarily indicative of a new upward trend.

First, let’s try to figure out what happened last year to drive the industry average out of a period of mpg stagnation.

Many vehicles went on a diet last year, shedding weight and improving fuel economy even in cases where the drivetrain remained the same. This was especially true for trucks, which traditionally carry the label of “gas-guzzling pig machines.” Ford’s F-150 lost hundreds of pounds when its body went aluminum.

Weight wasn’t the only factor. Technology did a lot to improve the overall average. Gasoline direct injection appeared on more vehicles, along with turbocharging, more electric hybridization and more efficient transmissions — usually in the form of extra or continuously variable cogs. Mazda, which uses direct injection on all of its engines and has exactly zero hybrid or electric vehicles in its lineup, had one of the highest overall ratings — a 29.6 mpg average.

As great as all of that is, it’s not the whole story. Using data from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute to track sales-weighted fuel economy ratings from last year, we can see that 2015 was actually pretty flat. Actually, this year has been level, too. In fact, the U of M sales-adjusted data shows a persistent stagnation in fuel economy since 2014.

For the sake of comparison, average new vehicle fuel economy jumped up 2 mpg between 2011 and 2013.

Sept 2016 average fuel economy

The obvious explanation is that fuel economy is improving, but people aren’t buying the most economical vehicles available. Light trucks, SUVs, and car-based crossovers may be popular, but they won’t match the fuel economy of a small hatchback. General Motors and Toyota found this out the hard way as both had lower fuel economy in 2015 due to increased truck production.

The bad news for the environment is that with gas prices staying so low, there’s less incentive to buy an exceptionally economical car. Still, the EPA numbers show that even the worst fuel offenders have become more efficient.

“Car buyers can go to the showroom knowing that no matter what kind of vehicle they buy, it will be better for the climate — and their wallets — than ever before,” said the EPA’s Director of Transportation and Air Quality Chris Grundler in a release. “This report highlights that the industry is providing vehicles that customers want, while reaching new levels of environmental performance.”

That’s a healthy enough attitude. Though you’d expect the EPA to be a lot less supportive of the automotive industry and the general public gradually turning their backs on more fuel efficient offerings in favor of the “vehicles that customers want.”

[Image: University of Michigan]

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12 Comments on “The EPA Seems Overly Excited About People Buying SUVs Again...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “…there’s less incentive to buy an exceptionally economical car”

    Not necessarily. I bought a hybrid two years ago because Kia discounted it 25% off MSRP. So I got a thrifty Optima for the price of a Forte.

    IMO, it’s a great time to buy an economical car.

  • avatar

    “Though you’d expect the EPA to be a lot more dismissive of the automotive industry and the general public gradually turning their backs on more fuel efficient offerings in favor of the “vehicles that customers want.”

    Or, perhaps, the EPA consists of pragmatic human beings and is not the bureaucracy stuffed with fanatics that TTAC often makes it out to be.

  • avatar

    The average MPG in our Mazda CX-3 GT has been 30.5 MPG over the past 2,000 miles of mixed city and highway driving. That’s not bad for an AWD vehicle which utilizes a six speed automatic transmission, especially considering my driving style and my kid’s driving style. Mazda, per my experience, was on-the-money with their MPG estimates for the CX-3.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m impressed. I’m only averaging 24.0 mpg in my 2016 Mazda3 2.5L 6MT (official figure is 29 mpg combined).

      I’m having fun, though.

      • 0 avatar

        WTF, my 6MT GTI does 40 (at the pump), lowly 5MT Golf TSI did even better (43+) and 02 focus (5MT, obviously) averages between 35 and 40.
        BTW, EPA should be concerned as the efficiency plot shows regression since June 14. I guess they’ve got overtly busy eliminating TDI (while letting brodozers roll the coal).

      • 0 avatar

        …i get about twenty-four miles per gallon in our mazda2, too – but i’m also having a lot of fun…

        …meanwhile, my wife sees about thirty-two miles per gallon behind the wheel: it’s not the car, it’s how one drives it…

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    Long story short: people are trading-in 25 mpg sedans for 25 mpg crossovers.

  • avatar

    Did I read too fast this morning?

    I don’t see anything in the article that supports the headline.

    No fan AT ALL of many EPA shenanigans, but just asking……

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