Consumers Opting for Better Fuel Economy This Year

Source: By MATTHEW L. WALD, New York Times • Posted: Friday, July 27, 2012

A customer filling up last month in Mill Valley, Calif.

Getty Images. A customer filling up last month in Mill Valley, Calif

An analysis indicates that the fuel efficiency of vehicles purchased by consumers in the United States set a new record in the first half of this year. It attributed the shift to automakers’ offering a wider variety of models with good fuel performance, and to shoppers’ reacting to higher gasoline prices by choosing smaller models.

The study was conducted for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that favors stricter gas mileage standards.

The analysis, by Baum & Associates of West Bloomfield, Mich., calculated that fuel economy reached 23.8 miles per gallon, up 1.1 mile from the first six months of 2011. The study relied on fuel economy data from the University of Michigan and sales data from Ward’s Automotive.

Gasoline prices rose steadily from December through April, peaking at $3.93 a gallon, according to a survey by A.A.A. Alan L. Baum, the principal of Baum & Associates, said that auto sales usually decline when fuel prices go up but that this year they had risen.

Mr. Baum said that from the figures that are available now, it was not possible to determine just how the mileage improvement was achieved, but that it appeared that most of the 1.1-mile-per-gallon gain resulted from better technology, and some from buyers purchasing of smaller vehicles. If small cars traveled two miles more per gallon, other cars 1.5 miles more and light trucks gained 0.5 miles more, that would account for the rise, he said.

Cars sold in the first half of this year were mostly 2012 model year vehicles, with some 2013’s. In the first half of last year, it was mostly 2011’s with some 2012’s.

The government calculates fuel economy in a variety of different ways, including values obtained through laboratory treadmill tests and those meant to approximate real-world performance.

Mr. Baum said that midsize cars had gained 1.2 percentage points of market share in the first six months and that small cars and crossovers gained 0.4 percent. He said he had not analyzed the precise extent to which the gain in fuel economy came from buyers moving to those vehicles instead of others that used more fuel per mile.

But some new models get substantially better mileage that older ones, he said; for example, the 2013 Nissan Altima is rated at 31 miles per gallon, he said, compared with 27 miles per gallon for the 2012 model.

“We really shouldn’t be surprised by this,” Mr. Baum said. “Automakers have signed on to increases in fuel economy requirements not because they’re nice guys. It’s because they’re good for business. ”

The Ford F150 “EcoBoost” model, a a six-cylinder vehicle that he said had the performance of an eight-cylinder, is so popular that sales are constrained only by availability, he said. The EcoBoost has a combined city/highway rating of 18 miles per gallon, according to Ford; the standard eight-cylinder engine is rated at 17.

Mr. Baum said that 60 nameplates among the 2012 or 2013 models had a high fuel economy, up from 28 nameplates three years ago. He defined high fuel economy as greater than 30 miles per gallon for compacts and subcompacts, greater than 25 miles per gallon for midsize cars and more than 20 miles per gallon for crossovers.

Luke Tonachel, the senior vehicles analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, suggested that higher-efficiency vehicles might cost slightly more but were worth it for the purchaser and for the country as a whole. “We’ll be investing in the Midwest instead of sending money to the Middle East,” he said.

Both Mr. Baum and Mr. Tonachel said they expected the government to issue final rules next month for fuel economy for the 2017 to 2025 model years. The fleet average is supposed to rise to 54.5 miles per gallon in the final year.