Friday, December 10, 2004

Automobiles, Part 1

I've been thinking a lot about the relationships between automobiles and oil and politics.

Let's start with a fact: we own a 1993 Toyota Camry XLE with a V6 engine. Our fuel economy has been consistent over the years at about 25 - 28 mpg (highway driving at the upper end of that range). We've been thinking about getting a newer car - not that the Camry has problems, but it's the urge for something newer. So we've looked around a bit, and, of course, have considered getting a hybrid.

Our thinking in regards to a hybrid vehicle is political and environmental: let's use as little fuel (i.e. foreign oil), and pollute as little as possible. We can afford to buy gasoline, so that's not really the issue. So, being the kind-of compulsive guy I am, I've been doing some research.

Basically, what I've found is that the fuel economy of automobiles has generally not improved since 1993; in fact, in many cases, it's gotten worse. I know that the American, Japanese, German and other automotive engineers are smart people, and they can certainly design automobiles that use less fuel than the 1957 Chevy I owned when I was younger. So the reason fuel economy hasn't improved much has to be political. (There are probably also limits with internal combution engines based on the science of physics and thermodynamics.)

Let's look at some more facts. I visited a government web site ( to look at fuel economy numbers. You should try this yourself, if you really want to be amazed and depressed. (I understand that the listings may not be the same numbers that you or I get from our vehicles, but the relative values are instructive.) The following numbers are for various makes and models (model year indicated), automatic transmission.

Passenger cars (sedans):
Our 1993 Toyota Camry 6 cylinder: 18mpg city/ 24 mpg highway
2004 Toyota Camry 6 cyl.: 21/29
2004 Buick Century 20/30
2004 Cadillac Seville 18/26
2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser 21/26
2004 Ford Taurus 20/27

2004 Chevy Corvette (why not?) 18/25

Trucks and SUVs
2004 Chevy Silverado 2WD 17/20
2004 Suburban 14/18
2004 Hummer H1 16
2004 Hummer H2 9.6
2004 Cadillac Escalade 4WD 13/17
2004 Ford Expidition 14/18
2004 Ford Explorer 15/20
2004 Toyota Tundra 16/19
2004 Toyota Sienna 18/24
2004 Toyota Highlander 21/25
2004 Lexus LX 470 13/17
2004 Land Rover Discovery 12/16

OK, so how about those hybrids?

Interestingly, there are a lot of hybrids coming out in 2005; many of the car companies are introducing these in various product lines.

GM, for example, has some full-size pickup trucks ready for 2005. The Siverado Hybrid is rated at 18mpg city and 20mpg highway. This is interesting, because the non-hybrid for 2004 is listed at 17 and 20. Maybe there is an error?

Ford has a hybrid version of its small SUV, the Escape, on the market for 2005. Let's compare:
2004 Escape 4WD 18/23
2005 Escape Hybrid 4WD 33/29

And then there are the two hybrids that have been on the market for a few years:
2004 Honda Civic hybrid 49/48
2004 Honda Civic (non-hybrid) 29/38

2004 Toyota Prius 60/51

So, what does this all mean? Well, for one, there are some vehicles on the market that get greatly improved fuel economy. But more importantly, I think, fuel economy on regular vehicles has not improved much over the past decade or more. What's more, the larger vehicles, trucks and SUVs, including the "designer" SUVs, get terrible fuel economy.

So, wouldn't you think that as Americans we would tend to buy more vehicles that get better fuel economy? I mean, after all, we don't want to rely on the Arab states, or others, for our oil. We want to protect the environment and the health of our children, right? Well, apparently not.

Just watch television for awhile, and you'll see car and truck and SUV ads that all have the same message - freedom of the road, very fast, high performance machines, machines that can climb mountains, trash deserts and swamps, get all muddy and macho, machines that attract women (or men), maqchines that do spinning ballet in the rain - anything and everything except use less fuel and protect the environment! When was the last time you saw a car or truck ad on TV where the vehicle was in city traffic, the most realistic situation? When was the last time you saw an automobile ad on TV that focused on, or even mentioned, fuel economy and environmental protection? When was the last time you saw an ad on television for a hybrid vehicle? When was the first time? Probaly never.

Where I've seen ads for hybrid cars is in magazines targeting liberal readers: Mother Jones, Atlantic Monthly, etc.

So, take home message: Americans have lots of different cars and trucks and SUVs to choose from, and more every year, but there has been little progress in fuel economy. You can drive a hybrid, if you want to get on a waiting list and pay an inflated price.

How about the politics behind all of this? That will be in a future posting: Automobiles, Part 2.


  1. Why does my older model Toyota Camry 1988 still in 2005 get about 28mpg in city, 30-32 long distance/ used to get even better, 32 in city, and maybe 36 on long open road drives? I think going slower rather than the maximum speed helps, I think using the better grade fuel, but some of it is the car. Sounds like no hybrids except Toyota worth the lots extra $ so far, but dropping the speed limit might help too, and of course, avoiding those monster gobblers. Eileen

  2. A comment!!! Thank you! There is a subtle-not so subtle pressure in our society always to upgrade - got to have the newest software, got to have the latest fashion clothing, and, of course, got to have a cool newer car. The reality, however, is - if it ain't broke, don't fix it. We've deided that putting repair dollars into our 1993 car saves us a lot of money compared to buying a new one - and paying the bank a lot of interest for using their money.

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