Ten years ago, when I bought my last car, it got roughly 35 mpg (highway). Saturn's gas mileage was going up every model year. I got the 1995 SL2 and was quite happy with it. I was spending just $25 per month on gas. Back then, I saw things were improving every year, and I thought, ten years from now, just about every car will get 35 mpg and I'll find a sporty car that gets at least 40.
Little did I know then how bad things would get. The first sign for me was when Saturn dropped their SL2 line (which was getting 38 mpg by then) and introduced the new larger, less sporty, lower gas mileage Ion, getting only 33. Ugh! But that was minor compared to people switching to SUVs. Double Ugh!
Now in 2005 I'm looking for something better than average. It needs to be sporty, have neat technology, and a simple user interface. I'm very annoyed that few cars get 40 mpg, and very few sporty cars get good gas mileage. I ended up choosing the Audi A3, which isn't quite as good as my old Saturn, but it's sportier and safer. It gets the same mileage in the city (despite it being 30% heavier, in part due to all the airbags, antilock brakes, traction control, etc.) and worse on the highway. But it's still over 30 mpg highway, which makes me feel a little better.
But I'm still angry that 30 mpg is not commonplace. And now I see that I'm not the only one who feels this way. I disagree with the author of that article though: I don't blame carmakers or the government for this. Carmakers do what we tell them to do with our money. If consumers choose gas mileage over size, carmakers will make cars with better gas mileage. After all, they're competing for our dollars. They'll do what we tell them to do. Not what we tell them to do with our words, but what we tell them to do with our actions. Our words are, “gas costs too much” but our actions are, “I'm going to keep buying gas no matter what you charge” which translates to “I'm willing to pay even more.” If Americans choose size over efficiency, they're saying that efficiency isn't as important as size, so carmakers should focus on size. That's what carmakers (and all businesses in a free market) should do: provide what the consumer really wants, not what they say they want.
Large, bulky vehicles are not the choice I'm making though. I've chosen small, sporty, nimble, and better mileage. Will others choose the same? It's possible that high gas prices will get people thinking about fuel efficient cars again. I hope so. You don't need to pay a premium for a hybrid. Take a look at the Toyota Corolla (32/41), Scion xA (32/37), Pontiac Vibe (30/36), Dodge Neon (29/36), or Honda Civic (36/44). If you really “need” an SUV, consider the Toyota RAV4 (24/30), Saturn VUE (23/29), or Honda CRV (23/29).
Even though I generally feel the government should not be forcing people to buy certain kinds of cars, I do think the government should play a role in some aspects of cars, especially when consumers are unable to make good decisions or when others have to pay the costs. Example: all of the above quoted mpg numbers are somewhat bogus, because the EPA's tests do not reflect realistic driving conditions. For one thing, they take place in a building and not on the road, so wind resistance (coefficient of drag) does not play a role. Instead, the EPA assumes all vehicles have the same air resistance, and uses that to compute the mpg numbers. The government's role here should be to provide realistic mileage numbers so that consumers can make better choices. I also think there are costs (like pollution, carbon dioxide, and noise) that are not paid by the person who chooses the car, and that the government's role here is to transfer those costs to the decisionmaker. Gasoline taxes are part of this, but there should be fees or taxes for emissions, carbon dioxide, and noise as well. The cost of accidents is borne by insurance companies, but government should require that car owners have sufficient insurance. The goal should be to get the best outcome for society via choices freely made by businesses and individuals. When there's an inefficiency (primarily because one party benefits while another party pays the cost), government should step in and make sure the costs and benefits are apparent and assigned to a decisionmaker. But that's it. I don't think government should be telling us to buy certain kinds of cars or to eat low-fat yogurt or to stop smoking. Government should make sure the benefits and costs of a decision are paid by the decisionmaker and not by someone else. Government should make sure we have the information we need to make good decisions ourselves.
Do your research. Make good choices. My Audi A3 should arrive at the end of November.