FACT CHECK: Do Some Modern Cars Get the Same Fuel Mileage as the Model T?

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald | Dec 23, 2015

Let’s get something out of the way early, before Bernie Sanders supporters are burning me in effigy: I like Bernie Sanders. During the seven years I lived in Vermont, I had the pleasure of voting for him twice; first, when he ran for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by “Jeezum” Jim Jeffords, and second, when he ran for re-election. In my personal experience, he was the most responsive senator who has ever represented me.

With that out of the way, I also cringe every time a candidate for national office talks about cars or the automotive industry, because they invariably get it wrong, or only tell half the story. Donald Trump stepped in it a month or so ago when he suggested that Ford decided to re-invest in a plant in Ohio because of his comments, despite the fact that the plan had been in the works for years.

(Jalopnik)

At issue yesterday was a meme that Bernie Sanders’ social media team posted on Facebook (according to Jalopnik), using Sanders’ own words to compare modern cars to Ford’s Model T:

“When the Ford Model T first came on to the market in 1908, it got 13 to 21 miles per gallon of gasoline. That was almost one hundred years ago, but in 2015 there are still cars being manufactured that get the same gas mileage as the very first internal combustion engine.”

So is he correct? Partly, but it’s really stretching the truth to its absolute limit. According to the EPA, yes, there are cars that still get worse than 21 miles per gallon.

Fifteen of them, to be exact.

(FuelEconomy.org)

Almost all of those cars are ultra exotics that represent a completely insignificant sliver of the automotive industry at large. The only one of those 15 vehicles that is sold in any kind of numbers is the Infiniti QX80. Infiniti sells about 1,200 of them a month, so it’s not exactly a high-volume kind of car.

There’s also one station wagon. It’s the $104,000 Mercedes-Benz AMG 63 S 4Matic Wagon. Its volume is barely measureable.

What Sanders fails to mention is that the industry also turns out just as many cars that get fuel economy equivalents of 107 miles per gallon, such as the Smart ForTwo Electric and the Volkswagen eGolf. If it’s going to be pilloried for producing low-volume cars that get lousy fuel economy, it should also have praise heaped atop it for producing low-volume cars that get exponentially better fuel economy.

What’s infinitely more important is fuel economy for cars that people actually purchase in significant numbers. Fleet-wide, including cars, pickups, minivans and everything else considered a “light-duty vehicle,” fuel economy is currently pegged at 25.4 miles per gallon, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, a 22 percent increase since just 2008.

(University of Michgan Transportation Research Institute)

The EPA considers about 200 cars to be “midsize” these days. Most of them represent cars that actual people buy, but it also includes cars like the Ferrari FF. If you average the highway fuel economy of all of them, you end up with 32.575, a 54.76 percent improvement over Sanders’ claim.

And that march has just started. After the Obama Administration set a goal of a 54.5 mile per gallon average by 2025, 13 major automakers, which represent more than 90 percent of all vehicles sold in the United States, announced their support for the new standards.

Finally, the Ford Model T might have gotten decent fuel economy, but part of the reason it was able to was that it weighed 1,200 pounds, and had a maximum speed of about 45 miles per hour, which you’d only hit if you were actively trying to kill yourself. We could probably make a 100 mile per gallon car tomorrow if you are okay with dispensing with such unnecessary items as seatbelts, heavily padded dashboards, doors, side windows, safety glass, brakes on the front wheels and airbags.

Are there fuel economy improvements to be made? You betcha. But stretching the truth to make a political point doesn't make a whole lot of sense no matter which candidate does it.


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