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.
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 Carmakers also have withdrawn many of their older, full-size vehicles and replaced them with newer models that are significantly more fuel efficient.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.