The Environmental Protection Agency’s newly published list of fuel economy greatest hits, 1984 to 2010, divides the top 10 fuel-sippers into two broad categories. The first group includes small stripped-down econoboxes from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Cars like the Chevrolet Sprint (1985 – 1987), Geo Metro (1989 – 1994), and Honda CRX (1985 – 1989) boasted combined city/highway fuel efficiency ratings in the high 40s.
The second group is hybrids from the past decade, the Honda Insight, Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid. These high-tech hybrids are rated from the high 40s to the low 50s. (The EPA’s list allows you to mouse over a “similar models that qualify” link to see that all the generations of these three hybrid vehicles, from 2000 to 2010, qualify as fuel efficiency greatest hits.)
It’s easy to look nostalgically at the Sprint, Metro, CRX and Suzuki Swift, and view that generation as some sort of heyday of fuel efficiency. But using a rose-colored rear view mirror has a blind spot: Those cars lacked most of the comfort, convenience and safety features—from power steering to automatic transmissions—that today’s car buyers see as absolutely essential.
Cheap & Small vs. High-Tech
“You used to get fuel economy by cheap and small. And now, you get it through technology,” said John DeCicco, faculty fellow at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, in an interview with HybridCars.com. “For example, you used to get a car without a radio. Now an entry-level car has a great sound system and you can plug in your MP3. What kind of system did a Chevy Sprint give you?” DeCicco said. He believes the vast expansion of features represents a shift in priorities in society.
Green car fans might see the trading of fuel economy for more features and more comfort as a sad shift in natural priorities (although a few weeks behind the wheel of an econobox might change attitudes). Regardless, there’s no turning back. The era of the econobox is gone and won’t be coming back. The good news is that the era of hybrids is here, and the technology will make an inexorable move into broader range of mainstream vehicles.
“The success of hybrids is that our priorities have changed,” DeCicco said. People are buying hybrids even though they carry a premium, because they offer great fuel economy without sacrificing all the driver features that econoboxes lacked. “They are a ton more safe, quieter, and a lot cleaner on the tailpipe,” DeCicco said.