February 22, 2012

How to buy a gas sipper for less

Rising gas prices. Energy security. Global climate change. Each one a good reason to work on raising the fuel economy of our vehicles. The CAFE 2025 standard calls for the US fleet of passenger cars and light trucks to achieve an average mileage of 54.5 mpg by 2025, up from 27.5 mpg in 2011.

Just about every news article and blog covering CAFE 2025 states that the new standard will add, on average, $3000 to the purchase price of a car (but the savings at the pump amount to a lot more than that over the car's lifetime).

So far, I have been unable to unearth any documentation that shows where that extra $3000 comes from. But one can detect a certain amount of glee in the reaction of those who manufacture hybrid and electric vehicles - and certainly those are a lot more expensive than their counterparts with conventional internal combustion engines.

In the hype about hybrids and EVs, it is easy to overlook the fact that there are alternatives.

At this point, you might say to yourself that nobody will ever get you (and your children) in a plastic car the size of a Mini. Because going to smaller and lighter cars is another way to increased fuel efficiency.

I get your concern with safety: I'm a mom, and vehicle safety is very important to me. While the crash-readiness of small cars has improved markedly over the last few decades, in a collision the larger car still wins, especially since there is a huge variation in the height of the crumple zones where cars are supposed to absorb the impact. (Mandating that crumple zones of all cars fall in the same height range will go a long way to improving crash safety for smaller cars - but that's for another post).

But you don't have to cough up the premium on the purchase price for a hybrid or an EV. Nor do you have to compromise on car safety. (And no, this is not about using your legs: although walking and biking are the healthiest transportation option for yourself and the planet, the current reality is that most of us still need those four wheels with an engine, at least some of the time).

Time to look outside the box. Or rather, let us stay in the box we know and love, but let us get it equiped with engines that make more sense.


Volvo S60 T5
25mpg avg
from $31,300

Volvo S60 T3
36mpg avg
from $26,000 est.


Here is a concrete example: the Volvo S60, a sedan made by the company that built its reputation on vehicle safety. This holds for both its excellent crash test record over its entire line, as well as its recent voluntary moves toward minimising toxic chemicals in car interiors.

In the US, the S60 is available with a "choice" of two engines: the T5 (2.5L, 250hp) and the T6AWD (3.0L, 304hp). That's it.

Huh. Some choice.

Now try checking out Volvo's Swedish web pages for the S60. Go ahead: it's not English, but then, it's not so different that you can't figure things out. For instance, the Swedish T5 is described as a "fyrcylindrig direktinsprutad turboladdad bensinmotor". Say it out loud, and once you've stopped laughing you realise that you've just said "four-cylinder direct-injection turbo-charged gasoline engine" - in Swedish.

The information on the website is worth the trouble: this is how you find out that Volvo are tossing us the two very gas-hoggiest versions of the S60. In the European market, the lineup includes two other gas engines, T3 and T4, both more frugal, as well as four turbocharged diesel engines, and one flex-fuel one that can run on gasoline or bio-ethanol.


Volvo S60 models for sale in Europe, Russia, China, US

Engine, displacement volume, power, mpg quoted cty/hwy/avg (actual avg)

DRIVe 1.6L, 115 hp, 46/60/55 (44mpg)
D3 2.0L, 163 hp, 37/57/48 (35 mpg)
D5 2.4L, 215 hp, 41/57/50 (35 mpg)
D5 AWD 2.4L, 215 hp, auto, 28/46/37
T3 1.6L, 150 hp, 32/48/41 (36 mpg)
T4 1.6L, 180 hp, 27/44/36
T5 2.0L, 240hp, 21/36/28
    (in US 2.5L, 250hp, 20/30 mpg)
T6AWD, 3.0L, 304 hp, auto, 16/32/24 (18/26 mpg)
Flexifuel (gasoline / bioethanol)
T4F, 1.6L, 180 hp


The sippiest engine in this lineup is the diesel DRIVe option that gets a real-life fuel economy of 44mpg, or fully twice more than the average mileage of the T6AWD version. But then again, all of the diesel engines do better than the current US offerings.

Even among the gasoline engines, the most frugal one (T3, 36mpg) does 63% better than the T6AWD.

Just to rub it in, even the "T5" designation means a larger engine when sold in the US.

Wouldn't it be great if Americans had a real choice? How did we get stuck with the two biggest gas hogs of the whole lineup? Even the Russians and the Chinese get more choice.

Incidentally, the spread of choices suggests a real Swede isn't afraid of a bit of snow, and can negotiate the Scandinavian winter roads just fine without all-wheel drive, thank you very much. Besides, too much power is a disadvantage when driving in snow, anyway.

This is the key: 304hp is too much for a car this size, except for the gratification of a carefully cultivated love of the "vroom-vroom" effect. When I did the cold math, I found that even in a slightly larger car, fully loaded, you need just 76hp to negotiate the US Interstate highway system at 65mph. The 150hp delivered by the T3 engine will allow you to collect plenty of speeding tickets.

If you manage to ditch the compulsion for too much power under the hood (for the idea that you "need" that power has been sold to us by the relentless advertising machine), then you find yourself free to go with a smaller engine.

Small is beautiful: a smaller engine has a smaller carbon footprint, a win for the planet. It also has a smaller price tag: a win for your pocket book. Check out the pricing in the table below (Swedish Krona conversion as of February 2012).


Volvo S60, Prices for gasoline models in Sweden and US

T3 1.6L, 150 hp, 32/48/41 (36 mpg)

Skr 226,900
($ 34,150)

T4 1.6L, 180 hp, 27/44/36
Skr 249,000
($ 37,400)
T5 2.0L, 240hp, 21/36/28
    (in US 2.5L, 250hp, 20/30 mpg)
Skr 274,000
($ 41,150)
$ 31,300
T6 AWD, 3.0L, 304 hp, auto,
16/32/24 (18/26 mpg epa)
Skr 399,000
($ 59,900)
$ 38,450


This serves to remind you that cars are cheap in the US: the Volvo S60 T5 costs nearly $10,000 less in the US than in the Swedish home market (despite the slightly larger engine in the US version), because of much higher vehicle sale taxes charged in Sweden.

But let's compare apples to apples: in Sweden, the T3 is Skr 47,100 (or 17%) less expensive than the T5. I don't know nearly enough Swedish to grapple with the vehicle tax code, but probably some of that difference comes from a lower tax rate for the sippier T3. So if it were made available in the US, I guesstimate that the T3 would probably cost around $ 27,000. That's $4,300 less than the T5. I find this smaller price tag rather beautiful.

Further: the T5 gets an average 25 mpg, so assuming you keep it for its 150,000 mile lifetime (average in the US), you'll need to feed it 6000 gallons of gas. To cover that same distance the T3 would need only 4200 gallons. Difference: 1800 gallons. At the current price, $3.50 / gallon, you save $6300 for gas over the lifetime of the car. (At European gas prices, currently close to $9/gallon, you save a dizzying $16,200).

Bottom line: between the lower purchase price and the lower gas expense, you can save more than $10,000 by choosing the smaller-engined T3 over the T5. That's assuming gas stays at $3.50. Because $9 a gallon gas couldn't happen here - or could it?

An added bonus: a mechanical engineer working for a German truck manufacturer told me that smaller engines are comparatively more robust than larger ones, which means you can expect a lower repair rate.

One way you can do even better than this is by switching to a diesel engine: those are now actually cleaner than a comparable gasoline engine, and more frugal. Take the T5 engine (240hp, 25mpg avg.); the diesel-fuelled D5 engine puts out 10% less power, 215hp, but at 40% better fuel efficiency: 35mpg. Cutting the power further and installing Stop/Start technology like in the DRIVe model gets you to 44mpg. And it's not even a hybrid.

But if you want hybrid, Volvo can give you hybrid. The Volvo V60, the wagon version of the S60, will be available in a plug-in hybrid version with a fuel economy quoted at 124mpg. Another one that's coming soon to a dealer not near you.

(Why take it lying down? Ask your friendly dealer for the more gas-frugal versions of the car of your choice. As the consumer, don't we have the final word?)


Shared at Dude, Sustainable! Blog Hop



You may also like:
1. What's so clean about diesel?
2. Why Discrimination is as Senseless for Cars as it is for Humans
3. How Much Horsepower Do You Need?
4. The Power of Names



  1. What a terrific article ... and I especially like the last lines. If we don't ask, how will manufacturers ever know what we want. Typically people have thought about it in the opposite way ... they look at what is on the lot and choose. In reality, if we vote with our dollar, we can get exactly what we want. Manufacturers want to sell ... if we refuse to buy until we get reasonably priced, fuel efficient, Eco-friendly vehicles ... well, they'll respond. Thanks for pointing out the alternatives. :-)

    1. Thanks Small Footprints! I have a word of warning: it will not happen overnight. I've had plenty of dealers staring me in the face, clearly thinking that I'm crazy for asking for something they can't sell me right away. I've had them try to tell me that what I want isn't made (you need to inform yourself against that sort of thing, and it will make some dealers a little mad). But I figure that, if enough of us ask, eventually they have to come around. CAFE2025 helps a great deal; already sippier models are starting to come to the US. But it could use some nudging.

  2. This is a fantastic article. Where did you find all these stats? It's a great example of how we can reduce our footprint and save some cash at the same time. In my experience, the greener option is usually the cheaper option!

    1. The miracle of the internet! There are no more secrets: we can simply look up and see which cars the carmakers feed to which people. With Google Translate, even Chinese websites are no problem. NO car dealer can ever say to me "Ma'am, we don't make that gas sipper version," unless they really don't. :-)

      And I agree with you: Green = Frugal.


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