Gas Cars Achieve Higher MPG, But EV Efficiency Still Way Ahead

By · December 16, 2013

Chevrolet Spark

For just over $12,000, I can buy a Chevy Spark and get 38 mpg on the highway. (GM photo)

First the good news, announced last week by the Environmental Protection Agency: America’s 2012 automobile fleet was five percent more fuel efficient than the previous year, increasing 1.2 mpg to 23.6 mpg. And that’s both an all-time high and the second biggest annual gain in three decades.

The improved performance is not wholly due to consumer preferences, though that’s part of it. Rather, 2012 was the first year affected by the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which will require automakers to achieve 54.5 mpg fleet average by 2025. “We’ve taken the biggest single step of any nation to fight global warming,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign. “Now we see that the auto companies are meeting those standards—and making money selling cleaner cars.”

EVs Part of the Cleaner Mix

Obviously, that mix of cleaner cars includes the sharply escalating number of electric and plug-in hybrid cars now selling at dealers across the country. Zero-emission EVs can take a bow here.

But fossil fuel is making a contribution. Some 28 percent of 2013 U.S. model cars are actually meeting the CAFE standards for 2016. By using smaller-displacement engines (often with turbocharging), lightweighting (aluminum, carbon fiber, high-strength steel), start-stop systems and cylinder displacement, gas cars are more fuel efficient than they’ve ever been.

But here, depending on how you look at it, is the negative part. EVs are given ratings in MPGe, and if gas cars can get somewhere near those same numbers—with fuel prices either stable or dropping—some of the big advantages of buying a plug-in car disappears. CAFE was set up in part to encourage EV sales, but it doesn't mandate them. Unlike California's standards, which require zero emission sales, automakers can meet the rules any way they want.

Chevrolet Spark EV

For twice the money of the gas version (before rebates and tax incentives, of course), I'd get a Spark EV, achieve 109 MPGe on the highway, and pay $27,495. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Cost/Value Equation

I can, for example, buy a 2013 Chevrolet Spark for $12,185 and get 34 mpg combined (38 on the highway). I can also get that same Spark as an EV, and pay $27,495--more than double--and get 109 MPGe on the highway (119 combined).

And there are, at prices ranging from $16,000 to $25,000, a rack of cars that reach 40 mpg on the highway, including the Chevrolet Cruze Eco, the Ford Focus Super Fuel Economy (SFE), the Hyundai Elantra GLS, the Mazda 3 Skyactiv and the VW Golf TDI (a diesel). A Nissan LEAF, for $28,800, delivers an impressive 115 MPGe combined (102 MPGe on the highway).

Weighing the Arguments

Yes, there’s still a yawning gap between those highway figures of 102 MPGe and 40 mpg, but its getting narrower as gas cars clean up their act. In the EV’s favor still are the rebates and tax incentives available to EV buyers, plus the perks that include HOV access in California. If those advantages disappear, the prospects for a plugged-in America get tougher.

Arguing for the gas car are range, familiarity and low purchase price. And, of course, there’s always the compromise of the hybrid car, with 50 mpg on the highway within grasp at a price in the mid-$20s. How many LEAF owners thought long and hard of buying a Prius instead (or vice versa)? The Prius is as popular as it is for a good reason.

For buyers more concerned about the environment than saving money, the electric car—even with fossil fuel as an electricity source—is still going to win out, and that’s why 100,000 of them will be sold this year. But the industry is working hard at improving the entry-level gasoline-powered automobile, and expect to see 60 or 70 highway mpg cars on the road in the next few years.

The EV will improve by leaps and bounds, too, but the competition will be far more fierce than if Detroit was just fielding its usual gas guzzlers.


· · 17 weeks ago

I thought I had you guys trained not to mix CAFE and EPA sticker MPG values. Looks like I was wrong. Please change the "54.5 mpg" to "about 40 MPG (54.5 CAFE MPG)". If you are going to keep listing the CAFE values, be consistent and list the Ford Fiesta SFE 1.0 at 42 MPG city and 65 MPG highway (50 combined).

Also please delete this post after you fix your story.

· · 17 weeks ago

Good article!

Many people continue to underestimate the improvements in the gasoline internal combustion engine, powertrain, aerodynamics, weight, and parasitic losses (friction).

I just keep questioning that big, heavy chemical batteries are really the future. There is so little energy density, just turning on the heater may mean being stranded. I don't see 50 years from now, batteries as we know them being used.

· · 17 weeks ago

@Michael (and Ben who, I'll bet, will show up here shortly): the problems with 'pure' EVs go beyond the energy density of their batteries. Even if that one were solved, you would still face significant infrastructure expenses upgrading the grid to provide the necessary ubiquitous quick-chargers. And that 'quick charge' time will have to be significantly reduced below what it is now.

Fortunately, none of those problems are show-stoppers - because most people don't drive the 200 miles a day they could drive right now if they could afford a Tesla. Electrified transportation is the wave of the future (if a species with the questionable intelligence of our own is to have one!). If we keep drawing down our supplies of finite energy sources, eventually they are going to run out. It doesn't make any difference how efficient the process is.

Another resource that appears to be in short supply among the world's 'chosen people' is compromise. For those who believe they have THE ANSWER, people who propose it are often more reviled than those who come to diametrically opposite conclusions. Michael, for example, suggests The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is biased in a comment on another posting.

I wanted to be 'pure' when I leased a LEAF a couple of years ago. I considered a Volt at the time but suspected GM of building in the extra expense and after-sales service costs of a complicated drive train with a 'range extender'. But after 14 months of a once a week trip pushing the range limits of the LEAF I discovered I needed one.

In all candor, I probably didn't because, like the population USC described as suitable EV candidates, I acquired a second car I could use to make that trip (and haul around a recumbent bicycle that makes a really poor traveling companion for everyday driving - takes a lot of the pleasure right out of driving an EV!)

As things turned out I could probably have kept my LEAF for a long, long time - even here in Arizona - before its pure electric range degraded to the best my Volt will ever be able to achieve.

The point here is that an EV - especially a 'Voltswagen' - is serious money for most of us common folk. To expect someone of modest means to take the plunge - not only with range anxiety but with 'future' anxiety (i.e. not knowing what their future transportation requirements might be) is perhaps expecting too much.

Fortunately, with a range-extended EV, they don't have to. The economics must ultimately come out right and that may rule out people who 'need' to trade cars every 3 years - as well as vendors who sell products that only last that long (time will tell, GM. Time will tell.)

· · 17 weeks ago

Sorry. This should have read: "For those who believe they have THE ANSWER, people who propose some immediately workable variation are often more reviled than those who come to diametrically opposite conclusions.

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