Is 56 MPG a Bridge Too Far?

By Bill Moore

Posted: 21 Jul 2011

One thing is pretty clear after reading Bob Lutz's "Car Guys vs Bean Counters," he absolutely detests CAFE fuel economy standards. He views their imposition in the early 1970s as a politically expedient act of cowardice by a Congress without the guts to impose a gradually-escalating federal fuel tax. His preferred option is a 25¢ tax that increased annually until it reaches a level comparable to those in Europe. Had we done that back then, U.S. cars would already be as efficient as those in Europe, where such taxes were imposed over the decades and consumers responded by buying, he argues, more fuel saving vehicles.

Of course, there's little point in debating the merits of his view since there's zip chance the ideologically gridlocked American Congress will impose such a tax anytime in the foreseeable future, not with the fanatical Tea Party caucus calling the shots on the Republican side of the House of Representatives.

So, we are, in all likelihood for better or worse, locked into our present Corporate Average Fuel Economy regime with the current political fissure divided over a proposed 56.2 miles per gallon standard by 2025.

Much of the argument is focused not so much on the technological feasibility of creating a 56.2 mpg fleet, but will they be affordable and will consumers want to buy them. While those seem to be two separate issues, but they are clearly inter-related. A $35,000 to $40,000 sedan or SUV -- hybrid or not -- is a big investment any way you look at it for a significant part of the American car buying public. But if you buy into Lutz's view that people will pay for vehicles that excite them, sticker prices in this range may not be that much of a stretch.

But beyond sculpting viscerally stimulating (lustful, Lutz would say) automobiles with equally appealing interiors, the clincher has to be its performance, and that includes not only "shove-you-back-in-the-seat" acceleration, but, I would argue, the ability to do what no other "average" car can do: make those weekly trips to the filling station far fewer or completely unnecessary.

A recent USA Today editorial expressed their editorial staff's opinion that "56 mpg could be a bridge too far," arguing that with hybrids costing $4000 more "you'll have to drive about 80,000 miles at current gas prices before the purchase starts saving you money."

But as I have observed in the past, that's largely an irrelevant argument because you easily can pay $4000 for extra options like GPS, alloy wheels, sound systems, paint finishes, moon roofs, leather interiors, etc., etc. on the same model car. What "economic" value do any of these offer? What's their payback other than comfort and aesthetics?

Let me assure you that driving a car that right now, today, gets 60, 70, 80, 90 and more miles per gallon is hugely satisfying. Case in point, we've had a blistering heat wave here in the American Midwest with temperatures in the 98-104 F range with stifling humidities that last week alone tragically took the lives of 20 people. It was so warm overnight that we couldn't recharge the battery in our Plug-In Conversion Corporation converted Prius, its safety systems simply preventing it in order to keep the cells from overheating and being damaged. Then we had to make trips to the hospital and to wedding cake shops with the air conditioning running full out; and yet with all this, our 2009 plug-in Prius still showed it was delivering better than 68 mpg for the 250 miles since our last fill-up.

Ask yourself, how would you feel owning a car capable to doing that or better? And bear in mind that our car might be considered a beta version of a plug-in hybrid. Its EV-mode range is around 15 miles, a bit better than Toyota's own Prius PHEV.

The first year we operated our Prius as a plug-in we kept careful records and discovered that even with its beta PHEV system, we still averaged better than 70 mpg over those 12 months. This isn't some super expensive prototype. Essentially we're talking about your average Prius with a bit larger battery pack (61.kWh NiMH) -- plus some really brilliant software code hacking. Still, we're seeing 70 mpg TODAY in 2011, not in 2025. So, I would defiantly argue that 56 mpg is NOT a bridge too far, some of us just think too near.

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