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