What Fuels These Mortals Be

by Carolyn Chase


The Environmental Protection Agenda has released 1999's annual miles-per-gallon (mpg) rankings for all vehicles sold in the United States. These mpg ratings appear on window stickers for all new cars and light trucks prior to sale. The fuel economy estimates are generated in conjunction with EPA's vehicle emission testing program.

The fuel economy estimates for the 2000 model-year vehicles rank the new Honda Insight as the most fuel efficient car, at 61 mpg for city driving and 70 mpg on the highway. The Ferrari 550 Maranello has the lowest fuel economy rating of all vehicles, with a city rating at eight mpg and 13 mpg highway.

The advanced hybrid technology used for the new Honda Insight combines a gasoline engine with a small, self-charging electric motor/generator. In addition to achieving high fuel economy, the new technology also enables the Insight to meet the Agency's low-emission standards.

The most fuel-efficient vehicles in the various classes include: the Mazda 626, a mid-size sedan; the Chevrolet Tracker and Suzuki Vitara sport utility vehicles; the Chevrolet S10, GMC Sonoma and Isuzu Hombre small pickup trucks; the Ford Ranger and Mazda 2500 standard pickup trucks; and the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans. Miles-per-gallon for these vehicles vary from 26 city/32 highway to 20 city/26 highway.

In a joint effort between EPA and the Department of Energy, the federal government is, for the first time making fuel economy information available on an easy-to-use web site. Also, for the first time, printed copies of the guide will be available for reference in every public library in the country, in addition to all automobile dealerships.

The website www.fueleconomy.gov allows users to compare side-by-side: fuel economy, greenhouse gas emissions and estimated annual fuel costs. You can even customize your selections by setting your local costs for gas and the percentage of local vs. highway driving and the number of annual miles you drive.

At the same website, you can find why we should care about fuel economy: protect the environment, conserve resources for future generations, reduce oil imports, save money. But evidently most of us are not making those connections.

EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner points out that "choosing the most fuel-efficient vehicle within a class can save drivers at least $1500 in fuel costs and avoid more than 15 tons of greenhouse gas pollution over the life of the vehicle, as well as help reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil." But most industry and consumers are supremely disinterested.

There are no sport-utility vehicles, minivans or gasoline-powered trucks on the EPA's list that get more than 25 mpg. Gasoline vehicles rated above 30 mpg are only found in the compact and sub-compact categories. The average fuel efficiency of 1999 model cars is only 23.8 miles per gallon - the lowest rating since 1980.

The 1999 model year average represents the steepest annual decline in fuel economy since 1975, falling .6 mpg from 1998 to 1999. All of the fuel economy gains from technological improvements over the last twelve years have been more than offset by the proliferation of larger, heavier, gas-guzzling vehicles on the roads.

Analysts at J.D. Power and Associates, a global market research firm, say the least fuel efficient models - pickups, minivans and especially sport-utility vehicles - account for almost 50 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States. The most fuel-efficient cars don't even rate one percent of the U.S. market. While the technology progresses as forward-thinking (mostly Japanese and European) carmakers are experimenting with more efficient models, the Congress passed and President Clinton signed another year's freeze of fuel efficiency standards for SUVs and light trucks.

How quickly we forget. In the past, overdependence on oil has cost our economy dearly. Oil price shocks and price manipulation by the OPEC cartel from 1979 to 1991 cost the U.S. economy about $4 trillion, almost as much as we spent on national defense over the same time period and more than the interest payments on the national debt.

Today, half of the oil we use is imported. This level of dependence on imports is the highest in our history. Ninety-five percent of the energy for transportation in the United States comes from oil. Two-thirds of the oil we consume powers transportation vehicles, and half goes to passenger cars and light trucks.

As for the environment, there's no single decision that a consumer can make that has a bigger impact on environmental quality than the choice of a vehicle. The problem is that it's not so easy to convince people because we don't feel it into our guts and we are enveloped by a system that incentivizes waste and consumption.

Dr. Warren Leon, author of the Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, put it this way at a recent presentation in San Diego: "When I get the Sunday newspaper, and hold it, it's substantial, it just feels wrong to put it into the trash. That's one of the reason that recycling has worked. We have a connection to the stuff in our lives.

"But when you go to the gas station, you don't feel the gas going into your tank in the same way and you don't see it being burned in the same way. What I would like to do is - at the beginning of the year - have dropped off at people's homes their annual gasoline usage, which averages 1,050 gallons of gasoline. Then, if you had that big tank in your yard, you'd have a different relationship with what you were using."

Being a fuel-economy conscious consumer doesn't mean buying a car you don't want. It means shopping around to find a vehicle that gives you all the features you want with the best fuel economy available. In every class of cars, there's at least a 40% difference between the best one and the worst one. That adds up to significant savings in both money and environmental quality.

Ultimately, the solutions to oil overdependence lie in many different areas: technological, political and consumer progress. But by taking an interest in fuel economy, anyone can help reduce U.S. petroleum dependence today and create incentives for carmakers to produce cleaner, more energy efficient vehicles in the future.