Why 30 Isn't the New 40

By Paul Seredynski February 28, 2011

Not the 40 mpg version.jpg

Honda joined the chorus last week, announcing that the upcoming 2012 Civic will deliver more than 40 miles per gallon (mpg). Oddly, this set some of the media into a tizzy: Like almost every other manufacturer, only particular versions of the Civic (there are, like... 70) will exceed an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 40 mpg.

For the new Civic, it's the Hybrid and HF versions, which are respectively pegged to earn EPA ratings of 45 mpg  (city/hwy combined) and 41 mpg (hwy). The run-of-the-mill Civic is expected to net just a ho-hum 39-mpg highway rating, a disastrous figure given America's love of round figures (see Prius, below).

What's happened to us? Only a couple years ago, anyone who showed up at the local tennis club in a 23-mpg Honda CR-V, nosing in among the Tahoe and Expedition pachyderms was mocked as an alarmist. How dare one avoid long-amortized body-on-frame tooling and an extra 1,000 pounds of road-hugging weight? For local errand running, these domestic-automaker cash machines were lucky to break 14 mpg.

This will no longer do. Somehow amidst all the bankruptcies and spiking gasoline prices, a new watermark has crept up on us, to be heralded in Cruze Eco Superbowl ads: 40 mpg is where the misleading hype begins. Cars that fail this freeway-only efficiency benchmark might as well be sacrificed as an ignition source to set rain-forest oil fields afire.

Note these days that automakers pick willy-nilly out of the EPA mpg hat to promote the best fuel economy number - likely prompted by the mpg wormhole hybrids opened up - shattering our comfortable notion that hwy mpg is always best. “Why,” many continue to ask, “do hybrids get better mileage in the city than at highway speeds?” Since arithmetic rarely is an editorial forte, fellow non-engineers might imagine the car getting “less tired” around town (picture the calories you’d save if you jogged at 25 mph instead of 55).

So while special non-hybrid editions of the Honda Civic (HF), Ford Focus (SFE) and Chevy Cruze (Eco) can tout 40-plus highway mpg figures, unless your driveway is an interstate off-ramp, few owners will regularly achieve those numbers. Whether it’s any version of the new Hyundai Elantra (relax, Krafcik), the eco-rubber-shod Focus SFE/Cruze Eco or aero-kitted Civic HF, the likely real-world, day-to-day mpg is going to be just shy of 30 mpg.

This is fantastic gas mileage, and compared to the actual 15 mpg - or less - most folk were earning with their last SUV, cartwheels may be in order.

But we're suckers for nice round figures. Even your grandmother knows the Prius gets 50 miles per gallon. Meanwhile, what’s the hybrid Honda Insight get for mileage? I had to look it up, too: 41 mpg combined. Fifty mpg is the kind of efficiency that makes owners of other cars change the subject - and explains why the Prius continues as the fuel-economy icon while Honda can’t give away its 42-mpg Civic Hybrid.

Given all the tweaks manufactures can make to earn small bumps in mpg (most of which will make you want to drive your car less – the ultimate in fuel savings), Honda engineers and marketers must be disappointed in narrowly missing the 40-mpg hurdle for their volume seller. Credit manufacturers for getting out ahead of the story - before the official EPA numbers are released - where it will likely turn out that all these models net a 30-ish combined mpg rating. Impressive, but 30 isn’t the new 40.

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guy1974 says: 12:58 PM, 03.02.11

Excellent article and about time soneone said this - I am tired of those who hype certain cars (like the Elantra) as being somehow vastly superior to say a Ford Focus when the highway mpg is 40 vs 38. First it is highway only, second it is the EPA estimate and most people don`t get that and third in the real world those 2mpg will cost you prehaps $100 a year. Big deal.

So lets focus on the entire car and not just one small aspect (I would say city mpg is more important but that is a different matter).

Great article.


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