You stop at the gas station, slide the credit card, tap in your zip code and bam -- you’re staring back at a hard, cold reality in brilliant LCD: $80 to fill up your SUV. Such is the state of life in America. And consider this: let’s say you purchased a large SUV two years ago, when the average price for mid-grade unleaded in most metropolitan regions was around $2.26 per gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Assuming your SUV holds around 26 gallons, the total cost at fill up was approximately $53. Now fast forward two years. That same gallon of gasoline runs an average of $3.01. If you fill up weekly, that’s $80 more spent on gasoline per month. You’re basically buying an extra tank every month. If, as most experts expect, $4 per gallon arrives sometime this year, that number accelerates to a whopping $104 per fill up. Imagine: $100 to fill up your car. Add to that the issues of pollution and oil dependency -- the need for us to be more conscious in terms of what we drive -- and the result is a dramatically changing set of priorities for car shoppers.
According to buyers recently polled at Autobytel.com, only 35% percent say their current vehicle gets at least 25 mpg. Yet 71% say that their next vehicle purchase must get at least 25 mpg, while 43% say it will have to get better than 30 mpg – and 15% say it will have to get at least 40 mpg. This reflects a stunning shift in car-buying priorities, to be sure, but equally remarkable are the automakers’ efforts to keep pace. In fact, with new models and technologies hitting showrooms, car shoppers are faced with an array of choices and trade-offs, a head-spinning number of emerging initiatives, changing ratings and advanced technology that may – or may not – improve the efficiency of the vehicles we drive.
Currently, there are four main vehicle options for shoppers with a fuel efficiency mandate:
- Diesel vehicles
- Economy hybrids
- Flex-fuel vehicles
- Small cars
(Check the links on the left for more about each type of vehicle.)
Finding the best deal within these options takes some careful research and a clear understanding of priorities. If you drive in heavy traffic, for example, buying a more expensive fuel-efficient hybrid or downsizing to a subcompact may be a good choice, as the combination of incentives and fuel savings will likely recoup your investment.
If you need more space or performance, and driving in traffic is a rare or occasional occurrence, chances are that buying a Toyota Prius or a Honda Civic Hybrid will offer less-than-ideal savings. If so, you may be happy with a more efficient traditional vehicle, say an SUV or larger car that registers 24 miles-per-gallon or better. Now consider pollution, and the importance of a vehicle’s emissions rating. Some smaller car, and hybrids, emit more pollutants than you may think. The 2007 Honda Fit, for example, gets great fuel mileage but is tagged with a less-than stellar emissions rating of LEV (Low Emissions Vehicle). If the money you save at the pump isn’t as important as buying a car that reduces your dependence on foreign oil, and your aim is to own a vehicle that’s more effective two or more years down the road, consider a flex-fuel vehicle. You pay the same for the option of E85, and set yourself up for the future – maybe. In the here and now, flex fuel, or “E85” vehicles provide little benefit, but, if fuel distribution increases, vehicle availability expands and the method of refining E85 fuel improves, you’d look very, very, smart. Then there’s diesel, a favorite in Europe but a cast-off in the US. With new engines that meet federal emissions guidelines, there’s an onslaught of diesel vehicles coming soon to the US. Diesel vehicles offer better performance and better fuel economy, but suffer from higher emissions ratings than comparable vehicles, and fuel availability is hit and miss.
Now add changing EPA ratings, engine technology such as Active Fuel Management, and gas card incentives used by automakers to foist the same old heavy metal on price-conscious buyers, and wading through even the definitions of what makes for a fuel efficient, low emissions car is as dizzying as a ride on spin-o-matic roller coaster:
- CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy)
- Emissions ratings
- MPG ratings
(Check the links on the left for more about each issue.)
The bottom line is that there are number of issues to consider, and options, for car buyers who desire a dependable and fuel efficient car with a good emissions rating – the kind that reduces our oil consumption. That’s likely to increase, too, as cars and trucks become more efficient and socially responsible. If you doubt the conversion, consider that in the end, what automakers build is based on what people will buy. With headlines screaming about terrorism, hurricanes and global warming, and with $4 per gallon shouting back at people from the scratched and dirty pump readout at the local filling station, you can bet that people just aren’t gonna go for less than 20 miles per gallon.