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Will Fuel Efficient Cars Keep Sprawl Going?

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Chevrolet Sprint 1986

This article was written in the Fall of 2009, the data was current as of the time it was published, thank you for reading.

With the popularity of hybrid vehicles and increased availability of those silly little roller skates called Smart Cars, fuel efficient cars are as abundant as they were in the 1980′s.  What is so troubling is the fact that even though today’s vehicles as a whole are more fuel efficient than their counterparts were even 10 years ago overall models that capable of 40+MPG Highway have decreased.  There are seven models in 2009/2010 that get more than 40+ MPG highway; they are the Prius, Civic Hybrid, Insight, Smart, Audi A3 Diesel, VW Golf Diesel, & VW Jetta Diesel.  For comparison in 1986 there were 14 models of cars capable of 40+ MPG Highway. The Chevrolet Sprint led the way that year with a still jaw dropping 54MPG. Today the Toyota Prius leads the way at 48MPG.  The chart, compiled by myself, from data available at www.fueleconomydb.com and with 2009/2010 specs from www.fueleconomy.gov, shows the amount of vehicle models sold which got 40+ Miles Per Gallon (MPG), the amount which got 50+ if any, and the leading model for that year and its MPG.  As you can see the amount of 40+ MPG fuel efficient vehicles fluctuates yearly with the most being 1985 and a string of double digit models in the early 2000′s.  But what is most concerning to me is the steady decline in top end MPG, except for the Honda Insight, which too has been steadily declining.  Even today’s hybrid Prius’ can’t match the efficiency of the Geo Metro gas only cars of 20 years ago.  Where is our technological progress?

MPG Table


As you probably know, suburban sprawl has been fueled by the personal automobile and funded by the Federal Government.  As Lewis Mumford noted, “Far from supplementing public transit, the private motor car became largely a clumsy substitute for it.”  Using some quick math, the cost  of ownership excluding car payments but including fuel, regular maintenance, and insurance is around $2,500 – $3,000 per year per vehicle owned.  Keeping the costs in 2009 dollars, the cost of operating a top end fuel efficient vehicle from 1985 – now is about 50% higher.

Suburban sprawl is fueled by the automobile use and affordable, dare I say cheap, gasoline.  The cost of gasoline is the variable in the equation.  If gasoline rises by a given amount the total cost of operating a vehicle and cost per mile driven will naturally increase.  I believe it would be a fair assessment to say that if the cost of commuting and driving to a suburban home increases the attractiveness of a home closer to work and amenities increases as well. However, with the increase in fuel efficiency, and I’m not saying it is a bad thing, the cost per mile (barring a sudden spike in fuel costs as was seen the summer of 2008) should remain at the current low level.

Fuel efficient cars are important, I believe there is much more we can do and I do NOT believe the answer is hybrids or electric cars.  How did cars in the 1980′s with 1970′s technology go 50+ MPG but today we can only squeeze out 36MPG from a Toyota Yaris, the highest rated non hybrid in 2007?  I know every car now comes equipped with AC and power everything, but you cannot convince me that the gasoline technology hasn’t advanced in 25 years!?!

As for suburban sprawl, hybrids and fuel efficient cars are not advertised to shrink the suburbs but I fear an unintended consequence of increased fuel efficiency is the business as usual approach to green field subdivision construction and a lack of concentration on infill and compact downtown development which is also needed.  Again, I think increased fuel efficiency is great, and is a step in the right direction to reduce our consumption of foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions, but the impact from an economic point of view on our landscape can be devastating unless we encourage compact development centered around public transit or places of employment to reduce our miles per vehicle as a whole.