American drivers are burning record amounts of gasoline this year, encouraged by a strong economy to get out on the road and increasingly turning to vehicles with more zip and less fuel efficiency.
This summer’s gasoline consumption nationwide reached a peak of 356 million gallons a day in July and averaged a record 336 million gallons a day for the first eight months of the year, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
The latest fuel mileage statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency for 1998 models - out this weekend - show efficiency at a standstill. While a handful of small cars get high mileage, nine of every 10 vehicles get less than 30 miles per gallon and nearly a fifth get less than 20 mpg.
For the eighth time in nine years, Chevrolet’s Geo Metro subcompact was the stingiest fuel miser, getting 46 mpg in combined city and highway driving. It was followed by two Volkswagens - the Jetta and Passat- at 43 mpg.
But motorists are showing continued interest in sport utility vehicles and peppy cars, with 1998 models now coming into showrooms emphasizing performance and style over fuel economy. Automakers say they’re providing what the consumer wants.
Much of the increase in gasoline use stems from the robust economy, simply having more vehicles on the road and people driving faster after states raised speed limits. Total miles traveled have been going up 2 percent or 3 percent a year.
But with cheap gasoline, drivers also are buying more fuel-hungry cars, especially larger sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks, than they did a decade ago when automobile fuel efficiency hit its peak, according to industry and energy efficiency experts.
Critics of fuel economy requirements emphasized that while a handful of cars get 40-plus miles per gallon, few people buy them, accounting for less than 1 percent of all car sales. “The small high mileage vehicles have very limited consumer appeal,” said Diane Steed, president of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, a group that lobbies against federal fuel efficiency standards.
More than two decades ago, Congress required that the average car get 27.5 miles per gallon, and it set the ceiling for small trucks at 20.7 mpg. At that time, trucks accounted for less than one of every five vehicles on the road. Today, pickups, sport utilities and minivans - all officially classified as light trucks - account for nearly one of every two vehicles.
Half these vehicles get less than 20 mpg and the rest are in the low 20s, says the EPA. And their broad popularity has caused overall fuel economy for all passenger vehicles to drop from an average of 26.2 mpg a decade ago to 24.9 mph in 1996, while the number for cars has remained fairly constant at around 28 mpg, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
EPA experts on fuel efficiency say the downward trend shows every indication of continuing over the latest two model years.
Meanwhile, they say, passenger vehicles since the mid-1980s become peppier and heavier. Average acceleration from zero to 60 miles an hour has been cut by nearly two seconds while passenger vehicles now weigh on average 500 pounds more than they did in the mid-1980s, according to the EPA.
It’s no surprise people are traveling more and paying less attention to fuel economy with gasoline prices at 1973 levels after inflation is taken into account, said David Hamilton, policy director of the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington-based environmental group.
“With unemployment and inflation at near all-time lows … leisure auto travel should end the year at record levels” and increase nearly 3 percent next year, said Graeme Clarke of the American Automobile Association.