Automakers are selling cars that are less efficient than they were 5 years ago

In 2017, Mazda announced its “Sustainable Zoom Zoom 2030 Vision,” which promises to “perfect an internal combustion engine that produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions.”

Over the next five years, however, the average fuel efficiency of new Mazda cars sold in the United States dropped nearly 7 percent, according to the latest figures data of the Environmental Protection Agency.

And Mazda is not alone. Five other automakers — Honda, Subaru, Volkswagen, BMW and GM — sold cars that were on average less efficient in 2022 than they were in 2017.

This drop in efficiency may seem puzzling at a time when the planet continues to break temperature records and the Biden administration is raising fuel efficiency standards.

Emissions from transport are classified as the largest contributor to climate change in the United States. Over the years, automakers have made great strides in reducing them by making more fuel-efficient gas-powered cars and trucks. They are also introducing an increasingly robust range of hybrids and EVs.

So why are some major automakers becoming less, not more, efficient? A big part of the reason: Neither automakers nor Americans seem able to resist the allure — and profits — of SUVs and pickup trucks.

SUVs and trucks are displacing sedans

Americans have an enduring love for big cars. This relationship worsened when gasoline prices began to soar in the mid-2000s, leading to the introduction of smaller, fuel-efficient cars to the American market such as the Ford Fusion, Chevy Cruze, and Honda Fit. But America’s passion for gas guzzlers has been reignited by the long period of low gas prices between 2015 and 2022.

In response, automakers have shifted production from sedans to SUVs, which tend to be more profitable and less fuel-efficient, according to Mark Schirmer, a spokesman for Cox Automotive, an auto industry research firm.

“The entry [small] cars and the increase in SUVs is definitely detrimental to the overall fuel economy of the industry,” he said.

Americans are buying fewer smaller cars, and automakers have stopped selling some models, including Ford’s Fiesta, Focus, Fusion and Taurus, Chevy’s Impala and Cruze, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Volkswagen Beetle. Last year, most vehicles sold in the United States were SUVs, according to Kelley Blue Book, an increase from just under half in 2018.

“In recent years, Mazda has changed its product lineup to offer more crossover SUVs to align with U.S. customer demand,” Mazda spokeswoman Tamara Mlinarczyk wrote in an email.

Mazda’s best seller, the CX-5 SUV, for example, gets up to 26 mpg compared to 31 mpg for its Mazda 3 sedan, which sold a fifth as many units last year. GM, which has seen the fuel efficiency of its new cars drop 3.5 percent over the past five years, sells four times as many Silverado pickups — which get between 15 and 26 mpg — as Malibu sedans, which get 30 mpg.

These bigger cars burn more gas and cost more to fill up.

Don’t expect gas and diesel cars to become more efficient

Although SUVs have become somewhat more efficient in recent years, the days of steadily improving gas-powered engine efficiency are probably over, according to Schirmer.

The last big jump in the efficiency of internal combustion engines came a decade ago, he said, when automakers switched from V-8 engines to turbocharged four- or six-cylinder engines that deliver a similar amount of power while burning less fuel. But after a century of perfecting car engines, it’s getting harder and harder for carmakers to find new efficiencies.

“The gains that are made in pure gasoline engines are becoming more difficult and more expensive to achieve,” Schirmer said.

The next big leap, he said, will likely come only when automakers electrify those cars and trucks.

Electric cars and hybrids are keeping US fuel efficiency on the rise

That day is coming. Sales of electric vehicles are increasing in the United States. Last year, nearly 10 percent of cars and trucks sold here were electric, according to EPA data. Hybrids make up a similar share of sales.

Rising sales of electric and hybrid vehicles are almost the only thing keeping the average fuel efficiency of American cars and trucks rising.

The EPA rates the fuel economy of EVs and hybrids in “miles per gallon equivalent” units, which measure how far they can go using an amount of electricity that has about the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline. Electric cars and hybrids generally have much higher efficiency ratings than gas-powered cars (with a few exceptions, including the clunky, inefficient Hummer EV).

The efficiency of gas- and diesel-powered cars and trucks began to stagnate in 2016, around the same time that gasoline prices fell. Since then, roughly 90 percent of the improvement in fuel efficiency of new vehicles in the U.S. has come from greater sales of electric vehicles and hybrids.

A tale of two car markets

From now on, the history of fuel efficiency in the United States is likely to be a fairy tale two types of car buyers. A growing share of Americans will buy more efficient electric vehicles and hybrids. But another large group will continue to buy gasoline carriers.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *