Average fuel economy improves, despite proliferation of SUVs

March 4, 2020

The average fuel economy of new vehicles in the U.S. increased to 25.1 mpg, which represents a record high in fuel economy and a record low in carbon dioxide emissions, according to an annual report released Monday by the EPA. 

While the annual increase for model year 2018 vehicles is marginal at best—the average fuel economy for 2017 vehicles was 24.9 mpg–significant progress has been made to improve fuel economy and reduce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions since 2004, when the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) was 19.3 mpg.

"The automotive industry has made strong progress towards lower tailpipe CO2 emissions and higher fuel economy in recent years," the EPA report states, then added that the value of such reporting is to "document long-term trends." 

The EPA expects these trends to continue, with a forecast of 25.5 mpg for all new 2019 vehicles. The increase is also notable as the market continues to shift to less efficient crossover SUVs, which are typically larger and less aerodynamic than cars. SUVs captured 46% of the market for 2019.

Nearly all of the 14 major automakers have increased average fuel economy over the five year span from 2013 to 2018. Of the automakers that produced at least 150,000 vehicles for the 2018 model year, electric vehicle maker Tesla had the lowest CO2 emissions and the highest fuel economy of an equivalent of 113.7 mpg. 

Of the remaining automakers that manufacture traditional internal combustion engines and a mix of hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electrics, Honda had the highest fuel economy gains of 2.8 mpg to an average of 30 mpg.  

The only two automakers who bucked the trend by increasing emissions and decreasing fuel economy were Volkswagen (1.8 mpg lower down to 24.6 mpg) and Hyundai (dropped .4 mpg down to 28.6 mpg). Even with a broader mix of SUVs, those companies were more efficient than FCA, who was once again at the bottom of the pack, at 21.7 mpg. Blame the many iterations of Dodge muscle cars, Ram trucks, and aging Jeep SUVs. Yet, FCA also had the largest CO2 reduction. 

Truck and SUV-heavy American brands finished in the bottom three spots, which shows how tricky it will be to sate Americans' thirst for trucks while meeting increasing fuel economy standards.  

Here's a look at the 2018 averages, with the change from 2017 noted in parenthesis. 

Tesla: 113.7 mpge (+23)

Honda: 30 mpg (+2.8)

Subaru: 28.7 mpg (+2.2)

Mazda: 28.7 mpg (+.9)

Hyundai: 28.6 mpg (-.4)

Kia: 27.8 mpg (+.6)

Nissan: 27.1 mpg (+.6)

BMW: 26 mpg (+1.7)

Toyota: 25.5 mpg (+.5)

VW: 24.6 mpg (-.1.3)

Mercedes: 23.5 mpg (+1.3)

GM: 23 mpg (+1)

Ford: 22.4 mpg (+.2)

FCA: 21.7 mpg (+.8)

2020 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody

2020 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody

There is still a long way to go for automakers to reach the 40 mpg adjusted CAFE target by 2025, which is often misreported as 54.5 mpg unadjusted for technological innovation credits and legacy testing. The 40 mpg target is the one we as drivers observe in real world driving and is quoted on Monroney vehicle stickers, as well as what is listed above. The unadjusted target is for automaker compliance based on the antiquated two-cycle test leftover from an earlier iteration of CAFE regulations, which began in 1975 in the wake of the oil embargo crisis.

Despite lightweighting and other innovations, average vehicle weight is up 2% since 1975, and pickups in particular have gotten the fattest, rising 30% over the same time frame. Also over the same time frame, the average horsepower has gone up 75% across all vehicles.

In short, consumers are choosing more power, more weight, and increased fuel economy in their vehicles. 

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