MPG Update: We're Getting Better, Just Not Quickly Enough to Please the Eco Crowd

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Chances are, the vehicle you drove 10 or 20 years ago returned worse fuel economy than the one sitting in your driveway today. Significantly worse fuel economy.

While this may not be true if you went from strapped Corolla owner to affluent Navigator enthusiast over the past decade or so, it’s true for the average vehicle sold today. In a much-cited report on fleet fuel economy and emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency claims new vehicles hit a record in 2017, with a significant MPG bump looking likely for 2018.

In 2017, the last year with complete data, the EPA claims the average fuel economy of a new light-duty vehicle was 24.9 mpg — a 0.2 mpg increase from the previous year. Small potatoes, some might say, but fuel efficiency hit something of a plateau earlier this decade after the engine downsizing that came into vogue after the recession collided with the crossover craze.

Preliminary data from 2018 shows an even greater increase of 0.5 mpg, pushing average fleetwide fuel economy to 25.4 mpg. (Which sounds like a dream to younger Steph, whose 93-horsepower Plymouth suffered from severe circulation and breathing issues.)

The agency’s data shows carbon dioxide emissions fell by 3 grams per mile to 357 g/mi, the lowest per-vehicle emissions on record. That’s a 23 percent decrease from 2004, a year where fuel economy sunk to the lowest point since the late 1980s. Predictably, emissions also rose to a recent-era high point in 2004. The 2017 MPG figure is a 29 percent improvement (+5.6 mpg) from that earlier year.

So everything’s going swimmingly, right? Not exactly. As the Trump administration pushes for an easing of Obama-era corporate average fuel economy requirements, and as automakers find themselves caught in the middle of a Feds vs. California (and allies) fight, the rate of MPG increase isn’t fast enough to meet future targets. That’s the assessment of the EPA, a body whose motivations are now regarded with suspicion.

“Today’s report shows that while the auto industry continues to increase fuel economy, there are legitimate concerns about the ability to cost-effectively achieve the Obama administration’s standards in the near future,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement.

The White House wants new standards to take effect for the 2021 model year, with a lower ceiling for fuel economy going forward from that point. It works out to a CAFE figure of 37 mpg versus the 47 mpg envisioned by the Obama administration back at the dawn of the decade.

That’s a battle that’s yet to reach its conclusion.

In the meantime, we can judge automakers on individual action. As consumers ditched cars for crossovers and SUVs in increasing numbers over the past several years, efficiency gains slowed, held back by weight and aerodynamics. The greater the light truck mix in an automaker’s lineup, the smaller the gains. So it’s no surprise to see that Fiat Chrysler boasts the highest overall fuel economy and emissions of all mainstream automakers.

In the five-year span from 2012 to 2017, FCA’s average real-world fuel economy rose only slightly, from an already rock-bottom 20.1 mpg to 21.2 mpg. General Motors and Ford round out the (big) bottom three, at 22.9 mpg each. Ford’s fleetwide MPG average rose only 0.2 mpg in that time frame.

The only automaker to actually lose ground on the MPG field was Toyota, whose average fuel economy slipped from 25.5 to 25.3 mpg. New crossovers and old trucks can take much of the blame. Other companies made large gains, including top-ranked Honda, which rose from 26.3 mpg in 2012 to 29.4 mpg in 2017. Mazda’s Skyactiv engines helped that automaker place second with 29.0 mpg in 2017. Hyundai holds third place at 28.6 mpg.

The winner for most improved gas mileage goes to Subaru, which saw a 3.5 mpg gain between 2012 and 2017. One wonders what the 2018 addition of the Ascent midsize crossover will do for its results.

Hungry for other stats? Average vehicle horsepower rose 11 percent between 2004 and 2017, and vehicle footprint grew 2 percent between 2008 and 2017. Vehicle weight remained stable during that time.

[Images: Ford, Subaru, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • SPPPP SPPPP on Mar 07, 2019

    "That’s the assessment of the EPA, a body whose motivations *were always* regarded with suspicion *by one side or another*."

  • Doggydave Doggydave on Mar 08, 2019

    While I'm no fan of government over-regulation, I'm even less of a fan of ending human civilization as we know it. We're currently watching a rate of extinction never before seen. Nothing even comes close. We have had overwhelming scientific consensus for 40 years about global warming, yet those that profit from industries that produce greenhouse gases have been able to create doubt and inaction. We have a corporatist president who continues to make America great for the 1%, while maintaining power by appealing religious fundamentalists and populist ideals (just like our friends in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Brazil...). We've more than doubled the number of humans on this planet in my lifetime. This is not eco lefty hype. I truly hope that the likely FOX viewers whose comments appear here will either: A) learn to evaluate information on their own and start thinking for themselves or B) will be alive in 30 years or so to see the shitshow that life has become for the 99%. It will be cold comfort, but comfort nevertheless.

  • Grg I am not sure that this would hold up in snow country. It used to be that people in snow country would not be caught dead in a white car. Now that white cars have become popular in the north, I can't tell you how many times I have seen white cars driving in the snow without lights. Almost all cars are less visible in a snow storm, or for that matter, rain storm, without lights. White ones become nearly invisible.
  • Douglas I have a 2018 BMW 740e PHEV, and love it. It has a modest electric only range compared to newer PHEV's (about 18 miles), but that gets me to the office and back each day. It has a small gas tank to make room for the battery, so only holds about 11 gallons. I easily go 600 or more miles per tank. I love it, and being able to take long road trips without having to plug in (it just operates like a regular Hybrid if you never plug it in). It charges in 75 minutes in my garage from a Level 2 charger I bought on Amazon for $350. Had an electrician add a dryer outlet beside the breaker box. It's the best of both worlds and I would definitely want a PHEV for my next car. 104,000 miles and ZERO problems with the powertrain components (so far).
  • Panther Platform I had a 98 Lincoln Mark VIII so I have a soft spot for this. The Mark VIII styling was not appreciated by all.
  • Grant P Farrell Oh no the dealership kept the car for hours on two occasions before giving me a loaner for two months while they supposedly replaced the ECU. I hate cords so I've only connected it wirelessly. Next I'm gonna try using the usb-c in the center console and leaving the phone plugged in in there, not as convenient but it might lower my blood pressure.
  • Jeff Tiny electrical parts are ruining today's cars! What can they ...