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Gas Mileage Climbing, But Does America Care?

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Average fuel economy of U.S. vehicles sold through March 2014 (via UMTRI)

Average fuel economy of U.S. vehicles sold through March 2014 (via UMTRI)

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Last month, the average fuel economy of new cars sold in the U.S. hit another all-time high, reaching 25.4 mpg. But do Americans really care?

The fuel-economy data comes from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. As you'll see from the chart above, UMTRI has been tracking the fuel consumption of new cars since October 2007, when the national average was just above 20 mpg.

Corporate Average Fuel Economy also reached record levels in March, hitting 31.0 mpg. (Remember: CAFE is always higher than real-world fuel economy. Here's why.) That's a 5.5 mpg increase over October 2007.

And for the green-minded, you'll be happy to know that auto emissions still hover near record lows. There was a small uptick from February's all-time-low stats, but on the other hand, the distance Americans drove crept up slightly in March, so it's not surprising that emissions ticked up, too. (For what it's worth, Americans still drive about three percent less than they did in October 2007.)

The real questions here are (1) why is fuel economy increasing, and (2) who cares?

The answer to item #1 is simple: science, competition, and federal regulations.

Technology is giving consumers the ability to go further on a gallon of gas. Smarter engines, hybrid powertrains, and lighter vehicles mean that cars like the Toyota Prius easily earn 50 mpg. As gas prices continue to rise, offering cars with higher fuel economy gives automakers a competitive edge. And of course, let's not forget the very important fact that the EPA will require those automakers to have a fleet-wide CAFE of 54.5 mpg by the year 2025.

The answer to item #2 is also fairly straightforward: "very few people, that's who".

Americans (and other car buyers around the world) obviously take note of gas prices, and there's data to suggest that fuel economy remains the top criteria for new-car shoppers. However, while that may affect consumers' choices within a certain segment -- say, jumping from a Honda crossover to one made by Ford -- that doesn't mean that they're going to move to a completely new style of vehicle -- say, from an SUV to a compact. A 2012 study revealed that 42 percent of shoppers would refuse to change the type of vehicle they drive, even if gas were to hit $10 per gallon.

That headstrong attitude, paired with the current construction surge, helps to explain why pickup and SUV sales are booming, even though the national average for a gallon of regular unleaded is now $3.57. Sales figures would probably relent a bit if gas edged above $4, but the cynics among us have a hunch that the slump wouldn't last long. 

For more on fuel economy and new cars, check out this informative article at Green Car Reports.

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