In the United States, where the vehicle fleet largely mirrors that in Canada, average fuel economy across the board increased 15 per cent between 1980 and 2006 – while the average curb weight of vehicles increased 26 per cent and horsepower rose 107 per cent. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

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Auto industry's sharp gas pains

Globe and Mail Update - includes clarification

Let’s pretend for the moment that fuel economy is the absolute, No. 1 driving force for every single shopper culling dealerships and the general marketplace for a new or used ride.

I know; this is pure fantasy. So far this year, sales of the most fuel-efficient vehicles are tepid, while large and luxury vehicles are on fire – and light trucks, which are hardly the thriftiest of vehicles, account for more than 57 per cent of all new-vehicle sales in Canada.

But humour me.

Let’s just ignore the fact that sales of fancy and big vehicles are up 35 per cent.

We’ll overlook the fact that, as DesRosiers Automotive Consultants reports, small, entry-level vehicles are performing only at the market average (through the early part of 2012 up about 11 per cent in a market up about 11 per cent).

We’ll skip dealing with the reality that while, in the words of auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers, “governments have mandated better fuel efficiency…consumers still want to drive bigger vehicles.”

Instead, let’s acknowledge what technology has done to improve fuel economy and lower vehicle emissions, while you and I and most everyone else craves some decent level of 0-100 km/h performance and fantasize about speed.

Here are the facts: 48 brands improved their overall fuel efficiency since 1982, while just 13 saw their fuel efficiency get worse, new research from DesRosiers shows. And “worse” does not necessarily mean bad. That is, “Smart cars [from Mercedes-Benz]got worse when they moved from diesel engines to gasoline engines,” says DesRosiers, though Smart cars “are still low but not as low as they once were in the market.”

The most important point to remember, however, is highlighted by research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Christopher Knittel. He notes that in the United States, where the vehicle fleet largely mirrors that in Canada, average fuel economy across the board increased 15 per cent between 1980 and 2006 – while the average curb weight of vehicles increased 26 per cent and horsepower rose 107 per cent.

The takeaway: buyers want bigger, more powerful vehicles, yet overall fuel economy gains have been real and they’ve come across a wide range of vehicle brands.

And among brands, the winner is: Lincoln light trucks, which is now at 10.02 litres/100 km, versus a combined fuel efficiency rating of 17.16 litres/100 km when introduced into the Canadian market. This, as DesRosiers point out, represents a 36.2 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency.

Still, 10.02 litres/100 km in a long way from the 2016 fleet-wide fuel efficiency targets of 6.63 litres/100 km or 35.5 mpg.

“Lincoln, for instance, would have to improve by another 65 per cent over the next six years [2010 versus 2016]” notes DesRosiers, although also pointing out that each vehicle in a fleet is not required to meet this standard, but rather the 6.63 number represents a corporate average.

So which brands are closest to meeting the U.S. fuel targets we’re adopting in Canada? Scion’s cars are essentially there. Toyota’s youth brand must improve fuel economy across its car fleet by a meagre 2.7 per cent. Mini’s cars are nearly there, too, needing just a 3.5 per cent improvement within less than four years. Toyota’s cars are within 5.2 per cent of the fleet-wide mandate, while Honda’s cars are within 8.1 per cent, Kia’s cars are within 8.3 per cent and Volkswagen’s are within 9.5 per cent.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that no other car brand is within 10 per cent of what’s required. On the other hand, Porsche’s cars need a 50 per cent improvement, Jaguar’s 67.5, Mercedes-Benz’s 62.5 and BMW’s 55.5 per cent. Good luck to them all.

The even bigger rub is found where the majority of Canadians shop, in light trucks. Toyota may be on track with its passenger cars, but to meet the 2016 standards, its trucks – the Tundra and Tacoma pickups, the 4Runner and Highlander SUVs and so on – will need to improve fuel efficiency by 60 per cent in less than four years. Kia’s trucks are closest, but will still require an overall fuel economy improvement of more than 22 per cent.

Some light-truck brands face a nightmare scenario in trying to get to 2016. Land Rover needs to improve overall fuel economy by a whopping 125.7 per cent and Porsche’s truck lineup needs a 100 per cent boost. Infiniti needs to juice light truck fuel efficiency by 86 per cent, Ford by 81.2 per cent, and Dodge by 75.1 per cent. Do you believe in miracles?

The challenge is made more enormous by the simple fact that consumers have spoken for decades about fuel economy – with their buying habits. Consumers may talk the talk of fuel economy, citing it as a consistent Top 3 purchase consideration, but they walk the walk of performance and size. Fuel prices have, in fact, been on the rise for years now, yet consumers keep buying pickups and SUVs and cars with relatively powerful engines – vehicles that are not as fuel-efficient as the government mandates call for.

Auto makers, in fact, are starting to question whether consumer buying patterns will ever change. This is why you’re going to see car companies focus on boosting the fuel efficiency of their entire lineups, right across the board. Fleet-wide fuel economy numbers will not be met simply adding more small cars and subtracting bigger ones and light trucks almost entirely.

“I don't see this reshaping the buying public,” Bill Reinert, Toyota USA national manager of alternative fuel vehicles, recently told Automotive News. “We've been through these cycles for two decades, but it's never really taken. I don't see this as a chance for a sales boom for the [Chevrolet]Volt and [Nissan]Leaf [electric cars]”

Government regulators are, however, mandating a tipping point by setting a future date to implement drastic fleet-wide fuel economy rules, regardless of the price of fuel and economic conditions. A more natural tipping point would be found in the price you pay at the pump. However, fuel prices are somewhat unpredictable and largely based on global events – recessions, wars or unstable political situations in oil-producing regions. And governments will not raise fuel taxes to drive buying behaviour to thriftier rides.

For auto makers racing to meet the fuel regs, rapid advances in technology and design offer the only hope of finding an answer to the disconnect between government regulations and consumer wants and needs. The trick is to sell the fuel-sipping benefits to buyers who want relatively large vehicles with strong performance.

That’s why you see Mazda Motor pushing its SkyActiv suite of design and technology advances that deliver better fuel economy, lower emissions without compromising “Zoom Zoom.” Fuel-saving technology, so the story goes, delivers a cost-of-ownership benefit, an environmental boost and without any loss of power and functionality. It’s the same story at Ford, where EcoBoost turbocharged engines are now available in the company’s best-selling model, the F-150 full-sized pickup, as well as the EcoBoost Explorer, Edge and the (upcoming) Escape – all crossovers – and the next-generation Fusion sedan.

Other auto makers are taking their own tack to the regulatory endgame. Toyota remains the market leader in hybrids and Honda is charging hard with better engines and upcoming hybrids, too. Hyundai has put a premium on direct injection engines across its lineup while working on hybrid technology – as is Kia. VW will soon introduce a Jetta hybrid to complement its line of existing fuel-efficient diesels in mainstream models.

The reality, however, is that car companies as a group are far from meeting the 2016 standards. Many, including DesRosiers, believe they will fail as a group to meet the 2016 standards and the rules will be changed or exceptions offered. We know this: time is running out, which means the debate and the speculation will end soon enough.

What’s needed to meet the 2016 fuel economy standards

CARS

Brand

2010 fuel efficiency (litres/100 km)

Improvement required



Closest







Scion

6.8

2.7 per cent



Mini

6.85

3.5 per cent



Toyota

6.96

5.2 per cent



Honda

7.16

8.1 per cent



Volkswagen

7.25

9.5 per cent











Furthest







Aston Martin

13.9

109.9 per cent



Mercedes-Benz

10.77

62.6 per cent



Lincoln

10.41

57.2 per cent



BMW

10.3

55.5 per cent



Infiniti

10.27

55.1 per cent





TRUCKS

Brand

2010 fuel efficiency (litres/100 km)

Improvement required



Closest







Kia

8.13

22.8 per cent



Scion

8.46

27.8 per cent



Hyundai

8.95

35.3 per cent



Subaru

9.24

39.6 per cent



Mitsubishi

9.62

45.4 per cent











Furthest







Land Rover

14.94

125.7 per cent



Porsche

13.24

100 per cent



Infiniti

12.31

86 per cent



Ford

11.99

81.2 per cent



Dodge

11.59

75.1 per cent



Source: DesRosiers Automotive Consultants

Don't forget to check out our gallery: In pictures: Canada's most fuel-efficient vehicles

Clarification

This story highlighted the dramatic fuel economy improvements required by most auto makers to meet the 2016 fleet-wide fuel standards Canada plans to adopt based on U.S. regulations. While the arguments contained in the article remain sound – that the vast majority of car companies face a significant challenge to meet the 2016 standard – a number of the percentages cited for the fuel efficiency improvements required were strictly speaking incorrect from a mathematics point of view. When discussing the “improvements” required to meet fuel economy standards, the article cited research and calculations from DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. The percentages cited for the “improvements” required should have been based on the fuel economy improvements required divided by the current fuel economy achieved. Instead, the calculations reflected the gap between the 2016 fleet-wide standard and the current fleet-wide fuel economy achieved by a number of car companies.

 

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