Citroen C2
Citroën C2. Smaller European and Japanese cars may be on their way to the US. Photo by swgn

President Obama has introduced a new schedule for auto-industry mileage standards, the so-called CAFE system (I mentioned this previously here). The CAFE standard is the sales-weighted harmonic mean of a auto-company’s fleet of cars. Currently the CAFE standard for cars is 28.5 mpg and for light trucks and SUVs it’s 22.3 mpg. Under Obama’s plan, by 2016 the standard for cars would reach 39 mpg – it was previously scheduled to reach 31 mpg – and for pickups and SUVs it’s scheduled to reach 30 mpg instead of just 24 mpg under the old plan. All in all, this is a good – and long overdue -move on America’s oil dependence and climate change.

I still think it’s a mistake to treat SUVs differently than cars, especially since they are nearly the same thing at the more larger end of the car range and the smaller end of the SUV range. We know that SUVs are used primarily as passenger vehicles, and we shouldn’t continue to pretend they are somehow different. So-called “crossover SUVs” are essentially just large cars moved into the SUV category precisely to avoid CAFE standards and as SUVs are forced to move into the 30+ mpg range to meet with CAFE standards, they are going to look even more like large cars do today. I’ve been in the market for a larger car for some time now, and while a Subaru Outback or a Mazda 5 fit into the car category today, at 39 mpg they may not, and the 2016 version of Andrew Smith may end up buying an SUV because SUVs might be the only larger cars available at that size. If today’s large car purchases (at 28 mpg average) are tomorrow’s SUV purchases (at 30 mpg average), the effect of the new standards could be less than it appears at first glance.

Having said that, it’s still a huge step forward. With even automakers excited by the prospect, I think it shows that Barack Obama is startlingly good at bringing divergent views together on difficult issues. How about the tackling the gas tax next, Mr President?

26 Replies to “New Fuel Standards”

  1. Honestly, if my 1988 Volvo staion wagon is getting 32mpg, American manufs and auto engineers are doing something wrong. Yes, theres only so much energy in a gallon of gas, but when so much of it is being lost due to heat, mechanical friction, and gear reductions, its time to rethink the car. Gas-generator with electric motors in each wheel?

    Maybe they should stop being so concerned with increasing HP and maintaining fuel efficency. I recall Boeing and Airbus making the choice between speed or efficency, and Boeing chose right. (Granted, they were too optimistic with their scheduling and offshoring all the work but thats another problem.) There needs to be a mindset change as well. People don’t need big huge vehicles. We, for the sake of killing ourselves off, have to chose efficency.

    That all aside, stupid SUV loophole. The day I see a Chevy Suburban at a trail head in the Cascades is the day I eat my left hiking boot.

    1. Automakers definitely focused in the last 20 years on getting more power out of engines rather than fuel economy. That pendulum is shifting back now, as today’s passenger cars offer V6s that would outmuscle most muscle cars from the ’60s.

      I would say that one challenge with matching the mileage of 1980s models like your Volvo is that today’s cars have so much more equipment, such as half a dozen airbags, crumple zones, power accessories for everything, that add a lot of weight to cars.

      1. Consider that Volvo 200 series is still one of the safest cars on the road and only has crumple zones. Manufactures seem to forget one key ingredient: steel and lots of it. It has 119hp and weighs 3400lbs. Oh god yes its sluggish. Zero to 60 in 11.5 seconds!

        My friends 09 Ford Focus coupe has all that fancy safety stuff, 2 million electronic gadgets, and an inline 4 engine. It has 140 horsepower and weighs in at 2500lbs. BUT it still gets average of 32mpg (according to the computer).

        -Both cars get 32mpg average.
        -Volvo weighs 900lbs more
        -Volvo has 21 less hp
        -Volvo is just as safe as the Focus even w/o all those things
        -Volvo is larger and can haul more crap
        -The Volvo also has added the benefit of having boxy, Swedish sex appeal. You just don’t get that same boxyness from a Focus
        -I can personally fix most problems with the Volvo

        Seems like Americans [maybe everyone in general?] is a bit behind when a 1988 car can provide more benefits than a 2009 car. Electric vehicles, anyone?

      2. That’s nothing. My Audi weighs 4300 lbs! Safest car ever. That’s why I won’t get rid of it, even though the mileage sucks.

  2. I think the Mazda5 actually is classified as a “truck” because it is marketed as a small minivan, which is what it is. It is, however, based off of a car platform like many other so-called SUVs in the US market now.

    But I agree that the premise that there should be some distinction between “cars” and “trucks” is obsolete as most new “light truck” models are car-based now and bought as alternatives to station wagons and passenger cars. Case in point: What is the Ford Flex? Is that an SUV? A station wagon?

    1. That Mazda five is pretty small though, it’s the same size as a focus wagon, just with a higher ceiling.

  3. Sure maintaining a separate category for pickups & Suvs could encourage people to buy 30 mpg Suvs rather than cars, but it has the effect of completely eliminating the 11 mpg Suvs.

    If you combine the Suvs and cars, you can off-set very high mileage cars with every low mileage Suvs. Very high mileage Suvs aren’t really possible, so there can be no offset since they are in their own category.

    1. I hadn’t thought of that, if you eliminate the largest SUVs, you also open the door for smaller cars since they are the ones that are least safe agains those monster SUVs.

  4. I am personally waiting to see if Toyota will actually bring over the iQ as direct competition to the Smart ForTwo. I’ll be in line waiting if they do, especially if they have the rumored diesel version that gets 66mpg =)

    Meanwhile, I’ll continue drooling over the Triumph Speed Triple

  5. i tend to think that higher fuel taxes would be a better way to increase demand for efficient vehicles. But if this works and people are behind it, that’s great.

    1. It makes more sense as policy, but lawmakers are afraid that if they use the magic word “taxes” then they will be voted out of office.

      1. Yeah, I think you’re right. Another thing is that we already have these CAFE laws in effect but it varies by State. Esentially CA declares their own tighter standards. One reason that the car companies came out in favor of this is this will create a unified national standard. I actually heard one car company exec come out in favor of a much higher gas tax so that people would be motivated to buy new cars.

        I doubt there is going to be much if any benefit to the domestic auto industry. For one thing there is a huge excess of new, used and lease vehicles already flooding the market. The new technology is going to come at a price; I heard ~$1,600 per vehicle. All of this is going to prop up the value of used cars for some time. Especially if the economy remains soft and fuel prices low. Second, the foreign manufacturers, already selling into a high cost of fuel market will beat the US makers to the showroom floor and since they have a larger market and far less retooling and development they will be lower priced. Look for Fiat to make a killing. The news had a piece on a plug-in electric by BYD (Chinese) that’s ready to roll, gets well over 200 miles per charge and will sell for ~20k.

      2. That might not be the case for Ford. It owns a controlling share of Mazda and has a strong fleet of fuel efficient compact cars that it sells in Europe, Asia and South America that it can bring to the US. Ford’s CEO Alan Mulally already has started preparing to bring smaller cars like the Fiesta to the US market.

        It’s actually kind of ironic. Toyota, the maker of the Prius, was probably caught the most unaware by the shift in the US market to smaller cars. It just built a new plant in Texas for its ginormous Tundra trucks that are less fuel efficient than Ford and Chevy competitors, and has the biggest number of models of SUVs of any brand in the US.

      3. Ford’s been using Mazda platforms in the US for some time. It started with the Probe and now they even build a Lincoln on a Mazda platform. The Fiesta name has such a bad connotation from the last time Ford tried the “world car” approach I’m not sure that’s going to fly. They really haven’t done well in Europe and have cut loose Volvo and Jaguar. They almost let Mazda die when they couldn’t hold their own in Japan. Still, Ford, unlike GM (Government Motors?) will be still be run by car people.

        One thing that differentiates the US from the rest of the world is our refusal to embrace diesel which gets better milage, produces less CO2 and with the right emissions standards can deliver without the NOx and particulates which has given it a bad rap. It will take years to change over our refinery system.

        I wouldn’t call the Tundra ginormous. Compared to say an F350 SuperDuty it’s barely a real truck. It may be hard to imagine in Seattle but there really are people in America that buy work trucks for work. A Hummer on the other hand has virtually NO civilian use.

        I also find it interesting that GM is trying to unload Opal and is shutting down Saturn which is all Opal based. They want to eliminate brand overlap but they’re keeping Buick (they’re most profitable brand) which is nothing but a Chevy-wana-be-Cadillac.

      4. I believe Ford still owns Volvo. Fords don’t do that bad in europe, you see a lot of focuses. GM’s opel/vauxhall brand does great over there, and it’s surprising that you don’t see the exact same cars here under the buick brand or something.

      5. But people under 35 or so, which is mainly the target for the new Fiesta, don’t really remember the Fiesta’s 1980s incarnation. I don’t think it will be too tough to overcome.

        Diesels haven’t been popular in the US because our gas has been so cheap that the higher initial cost of the engine, the rougher idle, and the stinky particulate matter emanating have kept people away. I know the newer models aren’t as stinky or noisy, but until fuel costs go up a lot and our refineries produce more diesel it will still be niche market here.

        I know there are people who use trucks for work, but a lot of trucks are (were?) sold in the US for image and as daily drivers. If you’ve ever traveled in other parts of the world you don’t see trucks like the Tundra or F-150. In Japan, for example, people actually buy trucks for work. They are these spartan, little trucks, always white, with the most basic interiors and features. Few people really need a 381 horsepower V8 in their Tundra. It doesn’t haul any more than other trucks.

        I think GM is keeping Buick because the brand has a good image in China, which is actually a bigger market for Buick than the US now.

      6. Diesels made a short burst onto the scene following the 70’s oil fiasco. The diesel Rabbits were pulling in 40mph back then. Up until that point diesel had always been cheaper than gasoline. That changed when cars started to compete with long haul truckers for the fuel.

        European diesels are clean, quiet enough that you hardly notice and the turbo models are even what could be called sporty (Audi has dominated at LeMans with a diesel, albeit not one you can buy for the street). You can get more gallons from a barrel of crude and more miles per gallon. But, changing the refineries and the laws are going to take time. Diesel’s also a lot safer in the event of accidents (I’ve seen two cars blow up and burn in my day, not a pretty sight). Towing capacity, the reason for a big V8 (besides status) is much better with a diesel.

        It’s interesting that Chevy and Buick are popular in China. I guess it’s like Levis. I wouldn’t be shocked to see a Chinese auto maker come in and buy the remnants of GM after the government runs it into the ground.

  6. Opel is looking to the German government to bail them out on the order of the GM bail out here in the US. They sell a lot of cars but don’t make any money! The other suitor is a parts supplier that wants to gut the companies workforce down to the bone. That’s not so great. Volvo and Saab are both praying for the Swedish government to bail them out. I’m sure they will; it’s Sweden after all.

    Ford has done will with the Focus. But again. Almost all the euro powertrains are diesel. Chrysler even sells a diesel 300 over in europe.

    GM has brought the Opels to the US under the Saturn brand. It seemed to be doing well but I guess the dealer network is costly and if they cut loose from Opel then I’m not sure what they’d have left as far as an investment in Saturn.

  7. Andrew, of course you have personal preferences, but why a “large” vehicle? A couple carseats fit easily in a sedan like an Accord. If it’s a safety issue Volvo has the record to beat as Mike B noted, and a newish one a friend of mine has includes built-in booster seats.

    1. Those Volvos are just as big as the Mazda and Subaru, and other than the S40, get better gas mileage. So those volvos are “large” vehicles by my standard.

      I also have to haul several adults, the kid and ton of gear pretty often and the focus can’t cut it at lot of the time.

  8. For those living in rural areas these standards are a disaster. Instead of buying my F150 and F350 I am going to be forced to buy a semi tractor to accomplish the same thing that I do with my other trucks today. I have traveled extensively and this is what they do in Europe and Asia when they need to move farm equipment, cattle, horses, and carry farm related stuff. 50% of the people in this country still live in rural areas, but have lost their political power as Washington has become increasingly powerful and the states less so.

    1. I don’t know about 50%, but they will still sell F150s.

      In Japan there are a lot of farmers who drive smaller pickups, I don’t know why 50% of america would need a whole F350 just because they live in a rural area.

      1. Because there is something patriotic about tapping the gas and hearing the powerful engine roar and knowing that our sons and daughters are battling in the Middle East for that dino-juice.

        U S A! U S A!

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