Gas Mileage and Oil Dependence from 1970s to Now In the Land of Plenty; What Happened?

honda civicA print advertisement in the March 1976 National Geographic Magazine shows two 1976 Honda Civics, hatchbacks of somewhat putrid brown and goldish tones.

The headline of the ad says, “Highest mileage or lowest price. The 1976 Honda Civics.”

A chart in the ad says that the average sedan or hatchback with a manual 4- or 5-speed transmission (costing only $2,729) reached EPA estimates of 43 miles per gallon on the highway, 32 in the city and 36 mpg combined.

And where are we today? What has happened in 32 years of American “progress,” “advancements in technology” and “economic growth” (well, until these last several years)?

Comparing Today’s Honda with Yesterday’s

I have a 2008 Honda Civic, and its mileage ratings when I bought it earlier this year were: 36 highway, 25 city and 29 combined.

To be fair in making comparisons, the EPA has relatively recently shifted its procedures for establishing mileage estimates. They are now supposed to be set by taking into account realistic day-to-day driving habits — e.g. air conditioner turned on, imperfect conditions, etc.

As the Honda salesman told us when we bought our Civic, today’s estimates are absolutely achievable and even surpassable, depending on how the driver handles the car. (As I blogged about previously — St. Louis to Chicago: Putting a 55-MPH Drive to the Weekend Road Trip Test — it turned out he was right.)

In the past, perhaps when the 1976 Civics came out, those numbers of 43-32-36 were a bit out of reach. I couldn’t say. I was a bit shy of driving age at the time.

In the September 1977 National Geographic Magazine, a Toyota Trucks ad boasted half-ton pickups getting 34 mpg on the highway and 24 in the city. And it even followed the claim with a bit of candid humility:

“These mileage figures are estimates. The actual mileage you get will vary depending on your driving habits and your truck’s condition and equipment.”

It seems refreshing to read such honesty in advertising.

But it shouldn’t seem shocking or dismaying to read that 30-plus years ago, auto manufacturers were further ahead in providing quality and economy to consumers than where they — and we — are today.

Gas Hole Lays Out the Whys and Why Nots of Oil Dependence

gasholeIf Gas Hole — an independent documentary film that is touring the U.S. under the wing of two avowed Republicans who show the history of oil dependence has been manipulated — is correct, then there has been much collusion between the U.S. government, the oil industry and the auto industry to keep fuel economy stagnated.

Triple-digit gas mileage has been achievable for decades. Not only do auto manufacturers surely know this, but the occasional mechanic in nowhere corners of the U.S. has figured it out and proved it on a number of occasions.

In the so-called mightiest and freedom-lovingest and most-advanced nation on Earth, why does my brand new Honda Civic get lower gas mileage than the Honda Civic that was created more than 30 years ago?

I’ve got my hunches. What are yours?

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11 Comments

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  1. I’ve thought the same thing, then found out what a really big reason is: our cars are much heavier than they used to be due to safety features. The structure of the frame itself, seatbelts, airbags, etc. all contribute to a much higher weight. Ditto on “features.” Every extra bit of trim, handles, power windows, all add weight. Your Honda of 30 years ago was much lighter and thus much more fuel efficient than your Honda of today. But your Honda today is much more likely to help you survive a serious accident.

  2. David,

    I agree that that seems very logical. And, as I’m not an expert in engineering, I can only point to Gas Hole, the documentary film I’ve blogged about here at sustainablog.

    In that film, they consulted people and history, etc. and have disproven the weight comparison as a myth, or at the least, an assumption we continue to make.

    The steel of yesteryear that comprised those cars, rather than the fiberglass and whatnot that makes up the body of today’s cars, would have weighed more. And still they could achieve triple-digit mileage.

    The technology is there and is no mystery to those who are in charge of developing it, but it has always been in the interest of the oil and auto industries to suppress the technology.

    See Gas Hole and then let me know if it affects your thinking. It sure made me curious.

  3. why has our mpg gone down since the 70s? great question, and, of course, it is based on a myriad of things (and not just one magic cause).

    here’s my feelings:

    ~Buy American! became the patriotic duty, yet that also meant buying a gas guzzler–and not the much more fuel efficient import (toyota and datsun come to mind).

    ~Cheap Oil. there was no incentive to create more fuel efficient cars because up until 2000, gas was still 99 cents in some places. also, global warming was still considered a crackpot hoax, so we didnt give heed the connection between fuel efficiency and climate change.

    ~Greed. this is pure hunch, but i am sure that the oil companies and the american car companies were in collusion.

    ~there is also some connection between the suburban sprawl of the eighties/ninties. we now live 30 miles from work. not a big deal when gas was 99 cents. huge impact when its $4.39.

    ~BIG POINT: there is no reason that our cars today arent getting drastically better mpg. it is erroneous, i believe, to think we could make all these improvements in terms of technology and safety and whatnot, but that those same technologies would be immune from improving fuel efficiency.

    …those are my just my thoughts, but i am no gearhead or scientist.

  4. There are cars and small trucks that still get that kind of mileage unfortunately, not here in the United States with one exception the Smart Fortwo which get’s 33 city / 41 highway. Safety wise the Smart Fortwo, though smaller, is likely a lot safer than the 1976 Honda Civic. Interesting that β€œwe” asked for more safety features though fuel economy was never on the radar.

    The days of festering Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are over. They have been tossed about for a few decades now without ever seeing increases applied because of industry meddling.

    In the next year or two, diesels will be offered that will get 30’s city / 40’s highway. These new engines are clean and relatively quite. Again, unfortunately, diesel is priced higher than gasoline.

    Hybrid technology will lead us to full electric in the next decade. The question that you should be asking is, β€œare we ready to flood the electrical grid with the demands of electric vehicles being charged at home and work?”

  5. Thanks for the reply, Adam. I will try to see the documentary when I have time, but I must point out for now that what you are saying is patently false.

    “Vehicle weight and performance are two of the most important engineering parameters that determine a vehicle’s fuel economy. All other factors being equal, higher vehicle weight (which supports new options and features) and faster acceleration performance (e.g., lower 0-to-60 mile-per-hour acceleration time), both decrease a vehicle’s fuel economy. Average vehicle weight and performance had increased steadily from the mid-1980s through 2004.” – http://www.epa.gov/oms/cert/mpg/fetrends/420s07001.htm

    I think it’s great that you’re blogging about this issue and (obviously) getting some visibility for it, please don’t make stuff up. Your observation about fiberglass vs. steel sounds logical, but without the facts, you’re being irresponsible.

  6. david…whoa. easy tiger.

    as i said, i’m no engineer. and just based on logic i fully agree that the heavier the car the more mileage is affected.

    in “Gas Hole” they were talking about cars dating back to around the 40s, saying that those cars, despite their heavy weights got far better gas mileage than the ones we use today.

    i do accept responsibility for a mild miscommunication when the blog post clearly referred to the 1970s, and in my comment i didn’t clarify what era of cars Gas Hole was referring to. my mistake.

    all i’m saying is that technology exists that means despite the weight of today’s cars, they could be getting better mileage. that information/technology has been suppressed — and to the detriment of the public.

    thanks, david, for inserting the epa evidence. we all need such specifics when discussing things.

    as for sniping at me for being irresponsible and making stuff up? tsk, tsk, tsk. i would have felt bad for overreaching, had you not just done the same, assuming my error was intentional. πŸ™‚

    onward…with the learning and discussing process.

  7. Sorry – I didn’t think it was sniping to hold you to a higher standard of reporting. I think the work that you do, diving deep into discussions that directly affect our future and the future of this plane, is very important, and I respect you for it. And that’s exactly why I think it’s irresponsible to jump to a conclusion “cars are getting lighter” when you’re quite possibly a resource for other people.

    I totally agree with your premise. In fact there is a new Ford Fiesta that gets 65MPG that will not be marketed in the US because it’s supposedly not cost-effective for Ford. (It’s diesel which is unpopular and expensive and pricey to import to the US.) I’d really love to dive deep into that!

    And that’s why this is a complex issue. Ford has a “winner” that is doomed to fail in the US (they think) because of incorrect public assumptions: diesel is smelly (not anymore); it’s expensive (not when you’re getting that kind of fuel efficiency); it’s only for trucks (nope). So taking false assumptions and incorrect information off the table allows us to hopefully steer the conversation to ways that we can influence “the system” (automakers) and the public–after all, any widely available, kick-ass, fuel-efficient car will fail if no one buys it.

  8. I almost bought one of these in 1976. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but this was a really tiny car. Very plain, no frills, and not too comfortable. Not much power either, but that was OK. The big issue, though was that it didn’t seem substantial enough to survive a crash with a bigger car (no airbags back then). So, having just gotten out of a 4 month hospital stay after a head on between my Volkswagen and a drunk’s Plymouth, I got a big, safe car.

    This car never got popular in the US, probably with good reason. I don’t think many would buy it today either.

    BTW, on the diesel comment, a major consideration is that (I have been told) diesel cars have been verboten in California for over a decade. Since CA represents such a large slice of the domestic automobile market, that’s a substantial disincentive for manufacturers.

  9. The “safety” excuse for heavier cars is bullshit. The cars are PHYSICALLY FAR LARGER AND HEAVIER than they ever had to be for today’s technology. Modern materials are more than capable of provided surprising light weight and great strength to todays automobiles, instead they are much larger, heavier, and more powerful than they need to be. The illusion of most compact cars today is that they are “compact”. I would be very correct to say that the average “compact” car weighs just around 3000 pounds even. My 1984 bonneville which would have been considered a “compact STANDARD size car” all the way back in 78′ which this version of an even older design dates, only weighs just north of 3000 lbs. Something is definately off with todays cars BIG TIME.

  10. Did it ever occur to anyone that possibly the reason why gas mileage has gone down, is because… oh I don’t know… maybe that’s what people really wanted? I recently purchased a Grand Marquis. The reason I purchased a Grand Marquis… is because I wanted one?

    Instead of debating some hypothetical grand conspiracy, how about you just read customer reviews. I wanted a car that could fit all my stuff, and fit me, and be comfortable, and be fast and powerful. I didn’t want a slug. I didn’t want a tiny lunch box. I didn’t want something so small, that a couldn’t barely fit my groceries in.

    Is it possible the rest of the country isn’t like a dozen posters here, and the article writer? Is it possible people want a vehicle that fits 5 people, the family dog, and all their luggage so they can go on a family vacation?

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