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US Fuel Economy Hits All-Time Record

But declining fuel prices could buck trend.

by on Jan.07, 2013

GM claims being first to sell 1 million cars getting over 30 mpg, such as the Chevy Sonic.

American motorists are getting more out of their new vehicles as the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks sold increased 6% and set an all-time high in 2012 as consumers responded to higher gas prices and the increased availability of attractive high-mileage products, according to a study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, or UMTRI.

UMTRI’s Eco-Driving Index indicated the average fuel economy of new vehicles purchased in 2012 rose to a record 23.8 mpg, up 1.3 mpg from 2011 and up 2.9 mpg from 2008.

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But whether that trend will continue, especially with the economy recovering and fuel prices falling – at least for the moment – remains to be seen.  The University study found the fuel economy of vehicles purchased in December was 23.9 mpg, down 0.2 mpg from November, likely reflecting the recent reduction in the price of gasoline.

General Motors is the first U.S. automaker to sell more than 1 million vehicles in its home market in a single year that get an EPA-estimated 30 mpg or better on the highway test cycle.

Industry observers note that a variety of factors have been reshaping the U.S. auto market.  While consumers have begun to downsize vehicles, the bigger trend is to switch to smaller and more fuel-efficient powertrains, including hybrids and turbocharged alternatives.

“Our investments in advanced powertrains are clearly paying off, and our smaller vehicles are resonating with customers,” said Mark Reuss, president of GM North America. “In 2013, we’ll introduce new diesel, eAssist and plug-in vehicles in the United States and expand the availability of turbocharged four-cylinder engines.  This will give us the most technologically diverse range of fuel-efficient cars and crossovers in the industry.”

Thirteen GM vehicles have at least one high-volume model that achieves 30 mpg highway or more, and the maker noted it was the first to sell at least 1 million vehicles getting over 30 mpg in a single year in 2012.

Sales of Ford’s small cars were up 29% in 2012, with 316,006 vehicles sold. Focus sales gained 40% during the year, and the all-new C-MAX continues its strong selling rate. In the first four months of sales, 13,309 C-MAX vehicles were sold, making it the fastest sales start of any hybrid vehicle in the industry.

The shift, however, goes beyond the steady growth of smaller vehicles, which is also being driven by pricing. Carmakers also have withdrawn many of their older, full-size vehicles and replaced them with newer models that are significantly more fuel efficient. The completely redesigned 2013 Toyota Avalon gets 31 miles per gallon on the highway.

Even Chrysler, which often lags behind rivals in fuel economy, now boasts its Ram pick-up truck is the most fuel efficient full-size pickup on the market today, getting 25 mpg, while the overall fuel economy of all pick-up trucks has steadily improved in recent years.

The pickup segment offers a good example of how the U.S. market is shifting.  All three of the Detroit makers are emphasizing mileage with new, downsized powertrains. Ford, in particular, has seen about half of its F-Series buyers shift to V-6 offerings over the past year, including the V-6 EcoBoost that can still match the towing and payload capacity of the Ford truck’s classic V-8s.

Nonetheless, Americans were expected to spend a record amount on gasoline in 2012 after spending $490 billion in 2011 – that figure itself about $100 billion more than in 2010. Last’s year tally is expected to come in around $500 billion.

While fuel prices nationwide approached record levels last spring – and actually exceeded the all-time high in California later in the year due to supply problems — gasoline prices have fallen sharply in recent weeks.

They currently are averaging $3.30 a gallon, according to the Energy Information Agency, down from $3.45 a month ago. Gas prices are now the same as they were a year ago.

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5 Responses to “US Fuel Economy Hits All-Time Record”

  1. Jorge M. says:

    The insane 54.5 mpg Obama/EPA mandated mileage requirement will force car makers to sell impractical, tax payer and auto consumer subsidized EVs as there is no technological means to develop current gasoline engines that deliver 54.5 mpg CAFE. Obama and the EPA have done everything they can to discourage the sale of clean Diesels which are used in high volume by the rest of the world.

    In the U.S. our government works against the people instead of for the people. EV’s are a bad economic and energy policy.

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

      Hi, Jorge,

      I disagree with you, albeit recognizing that it is far from certain EVs will be the answer. Historically, it should be pointed out, the government HAS supported new transportation technologies, whether canals, railroads, air or automobiles. The interstates were a massive investment in the auto industry…and suburban real estate development. Will EVs come through? Perhaps not, but I think it is foolish for us to not invest in the technology at this point. Historically, should China or Germany or S.Korea, say, wind up with the breakthroughs that make this work — all using massive govt. subsidies — we’d look back and say, “Why didn’t we…?”

      As to energy policy and the 54.5 mpg standards, I think they’re going to be difficult but not impossible to reach and even then without really requiring a massive tear-up of infrastructure or a wholesale shift to products consumers don’t want.

      I have heard similar complaints since the very first standards were enacted a third of a century ago. Always: “It isn’t possible…” and “It will cost too much…” And, frankly, if anything, consumers are now demanding as much or more than federal and California regulators. I AM glad there are review mechanisms that would allow for a slowdown or reversal of the 54.5 mpg figure should it, indeed, prove too difficult to meet. Oh, and for those not fully aware of how the standards actually work…what motorists will actually see will be a moderate bit lower than 54.5 mpg because of credits, adjustments, etc. In reality, last year’s record mpg cited in this story was significantly higher by the measurements used for CAFE purposes.

      Paul A. Eisenstein

  2. Jorge M. says:

    It’s one thing to invest in technology, it’s another thing to make every car buy and tax payer pay for someone else’s pipe dreams. The interstates were actually built for national security reasons to move military equipment and troops, not to enable individuals to travel freely or stimulate housing growth.

    I’m all for reasonable and prudent inprovements in lowering air emissions and improving CAFE, but pulling a 54.5 CAFE number out of their orifice is not only insanity, it’s ignorant, impossible to meet and insulting to car buyers who will pay thousands more for every car they buy over the next 20 years. Government officials should prove the technology exists and that it can be cost effectively implemented – if they are going to make these absurd CAFE standards.

    Germany is one of the “greenest” countries in the word and ~60% of autos and ~80 of trucks/buses use clean Diesel power. Obama and the EPA in their quest to promote EV’s has institutued the most stringent Diesel emission standrads in the WORLD, far exceeding other countries including Germany, where clean Diesels are in fact very clean. The U.S. Diesel emission standards are intended to discourage consumers from purchasing Diesel powered vehicles due to the increased sticker price required to meet U.S. Diesel emissions, which differ with all other countries and are extreme, just like the 54.5 mpg CAFE standard that is being forced on car makers. Car makers thus have no choice but to offer EVs and hybrids even though consumers are moving away from troublesome EVs and only buying hybrids in low volume. The U.S. auto emission policy is pure insanity driven by technical ignorance and political favors.

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

      I am not sure I agree with you entirely on emissions policies.

      First, the review clause in the new CAFE rules will give industry and backers the opportunity to have the 54.5 mpg standard halted or modified downward.

      As to diesel, you’re a regular reader and know I favor it, Jorge, but whether it can make the next big jump is uncertain. Even in Europe regulators AND makers are now pushing electrification. And there ARE reasons to be concerned about even low levels of particulates based on the latest medical studies.

      Paul A. Eisenstein

  3. [...] climbing to 22.5 mpg in 2011. The year 2012 marked a further increase in fuel economy, to a record 23.8 mpg, as more drivers are responding to the increasing fuel prices as well as the availability of so [...]