Despite $2 Gas, Consumers Still Buy Fuel Economy

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 19, 2015

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit, continuing until January 25, includes a bunch of green cars but automakers also used it as a way of saying “we’re back” with horsepower and big trucks. In some ways, low gas prices and the great sales year enjoyed in 2014—more than 16 million vehicles sold—was a license to go wild at the auto show, where muscle ruled. Examples:

The Ford GT: 600 horsepower from a twin-turbo V-6. (Jim Motavalli photo)
  • The Ford GT, more than 600 horsepower from a twin-turbocharged V-6.
  • Acura NSX, more than 550 horsepower from a twin-turbo V-6 engine hooked to a nine-speed, dual-clutch transmission, and three electric motors.
  • Shelby GT350R Mustang, 600 horsepower, also from a twin-turbo V-6, this one an EcoBoost (giving some vague environmental credentials).  
  • Ram Rebel pickup, the base engine is a V-6 with a mere 305 horsepower, but red-blooded Americans are likely to opt for the 395-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi.
  • Porsche 911 Targa GTS, a 3.8-liter boxer engine pushing 430 horsepower.
None of these cars is a gas-sipping Prius. You could be forgiven for thinking that $2 a gallon means nobody cares about fuel economy anymore, but you’d be totally wrong. It actually remains a really big factor in why people buy cars, according to the new J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Avoider Study. Some 14 percent in the survey of new car owners say gas mileage is “the most influential” reason for picking their vehicles. And bad fuel economy is the second-biggest reason auto models are rejected by car shoppers, with a 16-percent rating.

The Porsche 911 Targa GTS: a model that is new, improved, and scaring people since 1965. (Jim Motavalli)According to Arianne Walker, a senior director at Power, car shoppers know that what goes down also comes up. “Consumers know that, although gas prices are low today, the cost of fuel will likely increase during the time they own their vehicles,” she said. After all, people own their cars more than 11 years, on average, and shoppers “are considering the total cost of ownership when selecting their new vehicles.”

Hybrids and electrics together now make up only 3.5 percent of new car sales, which is down slightly from 3.8 percent in 2013. Gas prices are undoubtedly a factor in that drop. In the survey, 24 percent say they avoid hybrids because they cost more, but only 16 percent say they stay away from gas engines for the same reason.

The Acura NSX is a hybrid with three electric motors, and a serious supercar at the same time. (Jim Motavalli photo)So if you put all that together you get to the fact that Americans want fuel-efficient cars, but are reluctant to pay extra for them. That’s why cars like Chevrolet’s new Bolt (a little electric hatch introduced in Detroit which offers 200 miles of range for $30,000, after federal subsidies) and the similarly spec'ed Tesla Model 3 are so important. Both are targeted for 2017, or around there, and could provide a beachhead for great and affordable green cars.

In a surprise appearance at the Detroit show to talk with Tesla owners, CEO Elon Musk was surprisingly sanguine about the Bolt, which is aimed squarely at the Model 3. Musk disses most other non-Tesla EVs, but he said—correctly—that we need as many mainstream electric cars on the road as we can get.

The Chevrolet Bolt is headed for the market; we just don't know exactly when. (Jim Motavalli photo)It doesn’t help that the bang-for-the-buck equation is confusing for electric cars and plug-in hybrids. Do people really know what MPGe means? The “e” is for equivalent, and the rating counter-intuitively translates electrons into a liquid fuel measure. Now the AfterOilEV blog has another option—a metric of miles per $1 of energy. By that measure, battery EVs have everything else trounced—33 mp$. Even with gas at $2 a gallon, a 30-mpg car’s mp$ is only 15.

I like that the $33,190 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, while not exactly cheap, has the exact same price as the gas version. We need more of that in the auto world, because consumers shouldn’t pay a penalty to go eco.

If you missed Musk at the Detroit show (and even most of us who were covering the event did) then here's the video:


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