what killed…

the fuel-efficient car?

i was listening to Rush Limbaugh earlier this week, and the question came up. a listener who drives a Geo Metro called in, pointing out that the Metro and the Honda CR-X (specifically the HF model, though he didn’t point this out) were no longer available from new in the US market.

the Metro can get over 40 mpg in city driving, and the CR-X is almost as frugal. both could acheive seemingly absurd highway fuel economies, with reports of well over 50 mpg common.

but the only way to get close to these numbers with a new car today is with a vehicle like the Toyota Prius (or other hybrids).

and the caller wanted to know why.

El Rushbo, with his right-wing slant, proposed the idea that it was government regulation – specifically CAFE standards affecting fleet buying habits – that killed these cheap, frugal cars.

and, in a way, he was right. though completely wrong in the details.

it was government regulations that killed the cheap, fuel efficient car. but not fuel economy regulations – safety regulations. the nanny state, in its infinite, benificent wisdom, decided our cars were dangerous. too many people were dying or being injured in crashes. so, instead of looking to the horrendous state of driver education, they decided it was the cars.

passive restraint systems, airbags, revised crumple zones, you name it: all of these were added or expanded in the twenty or so years since the CR-X HF came on the scene. and all of these things add something other than safety: weight.

the closest surviving “relative” to the Honda CR-X is the Honda Civic. the CR-X was, essentially, a 2-seat Civic coupé. the 1988 Civic hatchback weighed less than 2000 pounds; a 2009 Civic coupé weighs 600 pounds more. over a ten percent increase in weight – thanks primarily to increased safety equipment – can have nothing but a negative effect on fuel economy. combine that with the demand from the buying public for ever better performance – leading to ever larger engines – and you’re going to have a significant fall in fuel economy.

there are conventional modern cars with similar fuel economies to the old Metro and CR-X; Tata’s Nano gets over 45 mpg, and the US-spec smart fortwo gets over 40 mpg highway. but neither of these cars is acceptable to the mass consumer in the USA; the smart is too pricy and too tiny, while the Nano wouldn’t likely pass US safety or emissions regulations, much less be driveable on our roads (14 seconds to 43 mph probably wouldn’t fly here). and it’s tiny.

but cars get heavier over time anyway (as much as i hate that fact). the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air tipped the scales at 3140 pounds; the current Corvette Z06 weighs 3180. but the Bel Air is a “mid-size” (today, it would be a full-size) car, a smidge over 16 feet long, loaded with pretty much all the “luxury” appointments of the day. the Corvette is a “lightweight” or “stripper” model, with creature comforts omitted for performance reasons (although it’s far from Spartan). the ‘Vette is also about a foot and a half shorter than the ’55, with a body made from plastic (sorry, “composite and carbon fiber“). the ’55? steel frame, steel chassis. steel just about everything, really. the 1955 engine is cast iron, too (while the Corvette’s is all-aluminium).

but the Corvette, for all its absurdist 198 mph top speed and plastic body, is the safer car. thanks to all the fancy safety systems that help make it porkier than its elderly relative.

it’s up to you whether this is a good or bad thing, as it’s the way that cars have gone since Herr Benz built his Patent Motorwagen in the 19th century. personally, i’m not a fan – i prefer light, small cars. but they’re pretty much dead and gone in affordable price ranges.

and the government’s why.

quote of the day:

“Simplify and add lightness.” – Colin Chapman


9 Responses to “what killed…”

  1. Agricola Says:

    I’m struggling here….not having much luck coming up with an example of where a federal program of the last 30 years has done much good for the citizenry.

  2. Perakath Says:

    You’re not seriously stating that technological improvements in car safety are uncalled for, and all that’s required is higher standards of driver training?

    Accidents can happen to even the most skilled of drivers, as any racer or stunt driver will attest. And when they do technology can save lives.

  3. jhota Says:

    i don’t have any problems with improvements in vehicular safety.

    i have problems with the government deciding on them.

    the problem with using stunt drivers as an example is that they are essentially crashing cars on purpose.

    race drivers, not so much.

    but even in racing, most accidents can be directly attributed to someone doing something dumb, or at least not well thought-out.

    cars don’t crash on their own, somebody has to screw up first. and i’ve crashed enough cars that i should know.

  4. Dan Says:

    Unlike my highly esteemed fellow blogger Agricola, I’m not universally negative on the subject of government regulation and incentive. Neither am I opposed to government safety regulations, even if they wind up costing us in carbon and gasoline. Wouldn’t surprise me if we made up the out-of-pocket difference in our insurance premium.

    My “car” (and I use the word loosely) is a 1999 Ford Escort. It still gets 40+ mpg. One reason? No a/c. And no extra weight from extras like power windows and power steering, either. It’s an efficient box on wheels that cost me $2,500 two years ago and just gets me around.

    So while I don’t doubt that safety features reduce fuel efficiency, it’s pretty obvious to me that what killed fuel efficient cars is at least as much the free market as anything else. Look at the Ford F-150: It used to be a utilitarian workhorse: Today it’s a leviathan ego-booster. Americans like big, fast, sturdy vehicles, and that’s what automakers provided us.

    But here’s the other side: What really killed fuel efficiency was gas price. When gas was $35 a barrel, we put the cash we weren’t spending at the pump into luxury and power. When gas cost $145 a barrel, we all wanted hybrids. Now that gas prices are down again, we’re confused — and driving more.

    The cheaper the fuel, the more people drive. If your fuel efficiency more than makes up for that higher pump price, you drive more again.

    I’m not prescribing a solution, just pointing out the trend. We humans are odd things.

  5. ian Says:

    What you don’t, in my experience, get in the US is cars powered by diesel.

    So why’s that? When Ford make a Focus for europe that returns 52 USMpg on the official combined cycle (a mix of urban and highway driving), why is that not available in the US? Government regulations, or consumer apathy?

  6. jhota Says:

    the lack of diesel cars in the US can be attributed to several factors; some consumer-based, and some regulation-based.

    until relatively recently, US diesel fuel has been crap – particularly in regards to sulfur levels. even now, we’re behind Europe. so until the changeover to low-sulfur fuels is finished (supposedly by 2010), modern automotive diesels wouldn’t work Stateside.

    for example, horrible US fuel was one of the reasons Volkswagen had to recall all of the 2004 Touareg diesels in the US market; the engines couldn’t deal with the fuel here.

    there’s also a anti-diesel side to the consumer, driven by the combined social memory of the horrible diesel cars US builders produced.

    and there isn’t the same price incentive to buy diesel fuel here; diesel is taxed more heavily, and therefore tends to cost more (to a lot more) than petrol.

  7. Perakath Says:

    Oh that’s interesting– I didn’t know diesel was far more expensive than petrol in the States. Here in India it’s heavily subsidised for political purposes– the agriculture and goods transport sectors benefit from cheap diesel. It’s about 25% cheaper than petrol, on average. One spinoff is that diesel passenger vehicles are also hugely popular, partly because the petrol engines offered on many models tend to be underpowered, and partly because of the much lower fuel costs.

  8. jhota Says:

    diesel isn’t that much more expensive than petrol here (in the grand scheme of things, perhaps 8-15 percent more) – but combined with the lackluster performance of diesels made to burn US-spec fuel, there’s been little incentive to buy.

    as for Dan’s observation that market availability is based in customer demand: this is very true, in the larger view. US consumers, in general, like huge cars and trucks. they like creature comforts. they could care less about environmental impact.

    so we have vehicles like the Ford Expedition and Cadillac Escalade.

    but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who would buy cheaper, smaller, more efficient cars. because there are; but, since they’ve been regulated out of the market, those who would like to buy them can’t.

  9. John Butler Says:

    VW has been selling 49mpg diesel Golfs, Beetles and Jettas in the US for at least seven or eight years, with the punier 1.9 liter engines modified to handle our crappy diesel, soon to be less crappy. Diesel VWs are fine. apart from VW’s famously ridiculous maintenance costs. (By the way JJ, welcome to the club. 🙂 Diesel and ethanol are the best long-term fuels for the US (and maybe CNG) so I expect that we will ultimately migrate towards them in the next ten years. Oil will be back up to $140 a barrel much sooner than we think.

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