September 15, 2011

Why the new CAFE standard is just my cup of tea

The CAFE standard introduced in July 2011 calls for passenger cars in the US to reach an average fuel economy of 54.5mpg by 2025. Good news that appeals to CelloMom's green side, as well as her frugal side. Even better news is that carmakers already have models today that will help them meet the new standard.

Until 2010, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard required of each car manufacturer that the average mileage of the cars it sells in the US be 27.5 mpg. The new standard will raise that average by a few percentage points each year between now and 2025 when it reaches 54.5 mpg.

Setting aside the contentious issue of carbon emissions, let's see what this means for your wallet. Suppose you drive "the average car", and you drive it the average distance of 10,000 miles each year. If your car's mileage remained at 27.5 mpg, you would need 364 gallons of gas for that year, but with a mileage of 54.5 mpg, you would need only 183 gallons, an annual savings of 181 gallons.

Even at this summer's gas prices of $4 per gallon, that would amount to saving $724 a year. Should the price of gas continue their upward march, and reach European levels around $10 / gal, you would be saving $1810 every year on your fuel costs. Dude, after just a few years of saving like that, you could buy a really nice cello; no more student rentals.

You might hear that it will take years, and that it will cost you thousands of dollars extra to buy a car that gas-frugal. CelloMom doesn't buy that argument. The spokespeople of the car manufacturers who make those statements don't say that their companies already make cars that are much more fuel efficient, and that millions of satisfied customers have been driving their frugal cars for years - just not on US roads.

For the next few years, all car manufacturers would have to do in order to meet the CAFE standard, is to start selling their more fuel-efficient models in the US.

They will often be cheaper to buy. These are not only models that are smaller and lighter than the ones now for sale in the US. They could also be the same models that are available here now, but with a smaller engine, perhaps augmented with a turbocharger to boost the power (and make it clearner-burning), perhaps coupled to a clever, high-efficiency transmission, or stop&go technology that saves gas in city driving. One car that is both smaller and packed with new technology is the Volkswagen Polo, which is the size of a Honda Fit: its 1.2L TDI Bluemotion version has a real-life mileage, as recorded by actual users, of 57 mpg. And it's not even a hybrid. It beats the CAFE standard for the year 2025 right now: 14 years before the deadline.

So if you are in the market for a new car in the coming few years, try looking outside the box marked "USA", and consider a car that you can't buy here (yet). Do some research - CelloMom offers reviews, as well as tools to help you look for gas-frugal cars on the internet yourself. Find a model you like, ask your dealer to make it available to you, and add your individual challenge to the broader pressure from the CAFE standard. It's quite possible that you will end up driving the energy-frugal car of your choice, and that you will have broadened the choice for all US drivers.


  1. The only concern is that car prices may increase as a result of CAFE. The cost of the development of these efficient cars will most likely passed on to consumers.

  2. Not necessarily: consider this example of pre-tax list price in Holland. VW Golf 2.0TDI (40mpg) Comfortline, € 19,785; Golf 1.6TDI (50mpg) Comfortline € 18,575; Golf 1.6TDI (50mpg) Trendline € 17,415 (the 2.0TDI is not available in Trendline trim).
    So the 50mpg version can be € 2,370 CHEAPER than the 40mpg version. To the mellow driver, it's a no-brainer.

  3. I am also puzzled why car manufacturers don't offer fuel efficient models in the US (but do so in other countries). Given how much more expensive gas is outside the US, I can understand why they would offer these models outside the US. However, once they've already designed and built these fuel efficient models *somewhere* why not simply bring them to the US?

    I did a bit of research into this, and one article suggested that the reason is that the US has a much wider range of climate conditions than other countries, ranging from extreme desert heat to extreme arctic cold. The same car that might be sold in, say, Germany, would have to be tweaked differently, and perhaps even require a different, more limited set of engine choices when imported to the US. I wonder to what extent this is actually true.

    1. Also, the European version of CAFE has much stricter emissions requirements: 95 g CO2 / km (57mpg) by 2020; there are proposals to tighten that to 70g/km by 2025. http://www.cellomomcars.com/2012/06/fuel-economy-of-new-cars-may-2012.html. This last proposal is welcomed by consumer groups, who see significant savings in gas expenses.

      There are a lot of myths about why cars are so large in the US. I have great respect for automotive engineers, and am confident that they have no trouble implementing any required "tweaks". The most cynical interpretation is that large cars with large engines have large profit margins, and carmakers will sell the largest thing allowed.

  4. government mandates and reduced consumer choices ... hurray !!! life is good

    1. To me, it's the other way around: right now I can't buy the small-engined gas sipper I would LOVE to drive, just because I live in the United States. We tend to have very little choice. As in: less choise than the Chinese and the Russians in some cases. See my post about that: http://www.cellomomcars.com/2012/02/how-to-buy-gas-sipper-for-less.html


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