WASHINGTON — American consumers are getting a double treat on the fuel cost front as the price of gasoline remains relatively low and the average fuel economy of new cars and light trucks continues to rise — hitting a new record of 24.1 mpg for the 2013 model year.
That's a 0.5 mpg increase over the 2012 model-year passenger fleet and means automakers outperformed federal fuel economy and greenhouse gas goals — the so-called CAFE standards — for the second year in a row.
It is "important and good news" that "automakers are finding a way" to meet and even exceed the national fuel economy and emissions rules, acting Assistant EPA Administrator Janet McCabe said Thursday in announcing the findings of the agency's annual review of automakers' performance under the complex Corporate Average Fuel Economy and greenhouse gas rules, sometimes called the National Program.
For consumers, the findings show that cars and trucks of all sizes are getting more efficient, resulting in savings in fuel costs but sometimes resulting in higher initial purchase prices.
The EPA study does not address the cost of 2013 model-year vehicles versus their 2012 counterparts, but maintains that the fuel savings for a new 2025 model that meets the CAFE goals would put $8,000 into owners' pockets over the life of the vehicle.
A separate fuel trends report from the agency shows that average passenger vehicle fuel economy has risen by 5 mpg since the 2004 model year, has increased in eight of the last nine years and that SUV fuel efficiency is increasing at a faster pace than for any other type of vehicle.
The report says automakers now offer three times as many cars with EPA highway fuel economy ratings of 30 mpg or more than they did five years ago.
Improvements in exhaust treatment systems, engine and transmission efficiency and aerodynamics, along with increased weight reduction efforts and improvements in air-conditioner systems accounted for most of the 2013 model-year boost in fuel efficiency and drop in emissions, said Chris Grundler, director of the EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality.
A "small portion" of the over-compliance came from credits awarded to automakers for sales of flex-fuel vehicles, he said.
The majority of automakers — whose combined sales accounted for 99 percent of the 2013 models sold in the U.S. — have met or exceeded standards for both the 2012 and 2013 model years, the EPA reports. Those that haven't are small-volume companies and have several more years to come into compliance.
The present fuel economy rules, which run through the 2020 model year, set an annual goal that is subject to actual sales and can be modified (up or down) depending on whether Americans are buying large, less-efficient vehicles or smaller, lighter and more-efficient vehicles. The EPA's requirements for average greenhouse gas emissions boost the fuel economy goals slightly.
Federal regulators say the 2013 results are a strong signal that the auto industry will be able to comply with the goals in coming years — all the way to the 54.5 mpg goal tentatively set for the 2025 model year but subject to a midcourse review that will take place next year.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers trade group, however, said in a statement issued Thursday that "keeping up this pace of increasing fuel economy will be challenging, especially since our compliance is based on sales, not what we put on showroom floors, and consumer purchases of fuel-efficient vehicles still go up and down with the price of gasoline."
Edmunds says: Looks like there's a fight brewing over automakers' ability to keep ratcheting up fuel economy. In the meantime, new-car buyers are benefitting from annual efficiency increases.