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54.5 MPG? Automakers Are on Track Says Consumer Federation

Just the Facts:
  • Of 29 all-new for 2014 vehicles, 18 meet or exceed 2015 standards and three of those already meet 2020 fuel efficiency standards, according to a Consumer Federation of American study.
  • Only one major automaker — Volvo — has no models meeting 2014 standards, a legacy of its commitment to safety which has tended to make Volvo vehicles heavier and thus less fuel-efficient.
  • Average new-car fuel economy has risen 20 percent since 2008.

WASHINGTON — Automakers and their allies gripe mightily about strenuous federal fuel economy regulations. But as push comes to shove, the combination of those standards and consumer demand for ever-better fuel efficiency is pushing the industry to comply.

A new study by the Consumer Federation of America shows that almost all major automakers were able to build one or more models this year that comply with federal standards for 2014.

The top four, Tesla, Mazda, Subaru and Honda, meet or exceed 2014 standards — an average of 35.2 mpg for passenger cars and 26.2 mpg for trucks — with more than 50 percent of their models (Tesla, which produces only one vehicle, the all-electric Model S, was 100 percent compliant).

Three new vehicles — the Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan Rogue crossover and Toyota Highlander SUV — already meet 2020 standards for their respective classes, the study found.

The only major automaker not to meet the 2014 standards with any models was Volvo — whose traditional push to lead the industry in safety has tended to make its cars heavier than average. The advent of new lightweight materials including carbon-reinforced plastics and strong-but-light metal alloys will help Volvo maintain its safety leadership and boost its fuel economy in the future, said Mark Cooper, the consumer group's research director.

Not only are many automakers showing they are quite capable of meeting today's stringent federal fuel efficiency rules, "some are well on the way to meeting future standards," said Jack Gillis, the consumer lobbying group's public affairs director.

The average fuel economy for the more than 250 new car and light truck models introduced for 2014 is 25.6 mpg, up 20 percent from 21 mpg in 2008.

Federal rules, called the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards, require automakers' combined passenger vehicle fleets to average 54.5 mpg by 2025 — although that's a regulatory number that includes credits for various technologies that won't translate into real-world fuel efficiency. If not changed in a scheduled 2017 review, the regulatory goal should translate to a new-car sticker average fuel economy rating of about 49 mpg by 2025.

The CAFE standards are a complex set of rules for a sales-weighted averaging of fuel economy across all manufacturers and models. Not every model, not even every automaker, has to meet a given year's goals as long as the average over the entire industry does. And automakers are allowed to buy and sell credits and to carry them forward and backward so that the excesses from models that beat the standards in any year can be applied to models that didn't meet them in other years.

That kind of flexibility is good for automakers, said Cooper, because they are not penalized for failing to meet the goals with all of their models so long as they are moving ahead.

And the gains — those recorded so far and those expected in the future — are a big plus for consumers, Cooper said.

Although gasoline is slightly more expensive now than in 2008, the fuel economy improvement since then means today's average new-car buyer will save $300 or more on fuel each year compared to drivers of the typical 2008 model, Cooper said. Moving to an average fuel economy of 30 mpg from today's 25.6 mpg will add an additional $300 in annual savings at the present price of gasoline, he said.

As part of its study, CFA conducted another of its regular surveys of consumer attitudes toward fuel efficiency and found that a majority — based on a survey of 1,000 adult Americans — expect their next car to deliver at least 30 mpg fuel economy, Cooper said.

The survey found that 83 percent of respondents support the present CAFE standards calling for a 54.5-mpg average by 2025. That support, says Cooper, cuts across political lines with Democrats, Republicans and independents all in favor by margins of 75 percent or more.

Edmunds says:  Who doesn't want better fuel efficiency? Let's hope that automakers can continue as standards get tougher to give consumers cars that are both efficient and enjoyable to drive.

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