The March Towards Fuel Efficiency: Trading Econoboxes for Hybrids

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 “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.

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  • Jim H.

    The article was correct in every way but 24 years has gone by and the prius gets ONLY 2 mpg better. One would think that there has to be someway to do better. We as a nation have grown a accustomed to very large vehicles and large heavy, fat tires. It’s time to scale back on the size and weight and improve the mpg even more.

  • Dom

    Automatic transmissions are a step backwards in my opinion…
    Interesting that the early VW diesels aren’t on that list. I looked up an 84 Rabbit diesel and the EPA originally gave it a 45mpg combined rating… I guess they’re comparing the new rating… but I’m not sure the re-calculated ratings for older cars are very reliable…

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Actually, the 1986 Chevy Sprint could be said to get 2MPG better than the 2010 Toyota Prius – depending how the 2010 Toyota Prius is driven. Right now, if I would replace my tires with some low rolling resistance tires, I would average 52+ MPG in our 2006 Prius. It just comes down to how one drives.

    This article is probably based on averages per EPA / DOE. And like the article states, the 1986 Chevy Sprint and the 2010 Toyota Prius have two very different sets of comfort and luxury values.

  • JF

    To elaborate on Jim H’s point: I also feel the comparison made is somewhat unfair.

    Aside from being small and light with a low power engine, that old econobox uses no “special” technology – none of the many non-hybrid advances in design & engineering of the past 20+ years from which the Prius also benefits.

    Even minus a hybrid drivetrain, if that same econobox were built today with modern engine electronics, low friction internals, possibly employing direct injection or a small turbo, plus a proper transmission, good aerodynamics and low rolling resistance tires, its fuel economy would probably be 20 or 30% better again than the old car.

    Where decent fuel economy used to be almost a byproduct of buying an inexpensive car, automakers have since decided it’s a “feature”, and if you want it, you will pay for it.

  • Yegor

    1) First of all Geo Metro 1993 is two! times lighter than Prius
    Geo Metro 1993 – 1621 pounds vs Toyota Prius – 3042 pounds
    2) Secondly Geo Metro is much smaller.
    3) Thirdly Geo Metro is much less safer – some safety tests did not even existed back then, for example roof test.
    4) Car manufacturers are trying to make and compete in small cars even today Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit. Toyota Yaris curb weight is 2311 pounds. This is how small you can go now while being a safe car.

    Geo Metro today is Toyota Yaris but it is 1.5 times heavier because of safety standards.
    Toyota Yaris fuel economy 29/36.
    If you multiply by 1.5 it is 44/54
    Geo Metro fuel economy 43/52

  • Dave – Phoenix


    The old compact eco-boxes have been dead for a long time (At least in the U.S.) Even the new compact versions of the old eco-boxes don’t match up with the fuel efficiency from the 1980’s version. (Example: A 2009 Volkswage Rabbit has an EPA rating of 20 mpg City and 29 mpg Highway. Shameful….)

    True…. Hybrid is now what you buy when you want 40 mpg, but with the much higher cost, only a few hybrids are sold. The people who need 40 mpg the most, can’t afford the vehicle.

    Back in the 1980’s those eco-boxes were priced so that “anybody” could afford one. A much larger percent of eco-boxes were on the road in the 80’s compared to the percet of hybrids on the road today…

  • Van

    I may be missing something here, but the 1993 Geo Metro mileage for the 5 speed manual, 3 cylinder engine was 38 MPG city, 45 highway (using the adjusted EPA numbers). and the Yaris gets 29 MPG city and 36 MPG highway. So the Metro got about 9 MPG more than today’s Yaris. Soon Toyota will bring out a small hybrid and it is expect to get more MPG than the Prius, so even with the additional weight, the car of 2012 will be better in every respect.

  • usbseawolf2000

    2010 Prius is bigger, more powerful, better equipped, safer and much more refined than the 1986 Camry. Prius also double the Camry MPG. See the side-by-side comparison:

    Prius is the engine of change that moved us forward.

  • Dave K.

    I must comment because I owned many of these cars, the current hybrids are far superior to the old econoboxes(I now drive a Prius) my son had a Geo Metro for a while, 50hp, tiny and cheap, he kept breaking interior parts, window crank, vents ect. The point is everything was as small and light as possible, to the point that it barely worked, in contrast my Prius is very well appointed, much safer, and performs far better, it’s also the most reliable car I’ve ever seen! In 100K I’ve cleaned the throttle body and changed the oil and the tires once, that’s it! That Geo was always broke. Yegor is right, the dominant factor in city mileage is weight and the crash tests have made it impossible to build a light car that’s affordable, carbon fiber is expensive, also cars keep getting bigger, a 1980 Accord is about the size of a new Fit.

  • Yegor

    Speaking about mini cars why not to take the smallest one – Smart fortwo:
    Geo Metro 1993 – 1621 pounds vs Smart fortwo – 1808 pounds (just Smart fortwo 10% more

    Geo Metro fuel economy 43/52 (manual)
    Smart fortwo fuel economy 33/41 (automatic)
    Smart fortwo 22% worse

    Geo Metro Horsepower: 49 hp
    Smart fortwo Horsepower: 70 hp
    Smart fortwo 43% more

    I guess smart fortwo fuel economy is worse because the engine is much more powerful.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    One of the things I like most about hybrids and EVs is that they are truly better than the ICE. This way, we won’t be doomed to squeeze into little ecoboxes in order to be ecological.
    I dread the thought of a future with nothing but the little junk that litters the streets of Europe.

  • simon@syd

    Stiffness is essential. Without carbon fibre its going to add weight. I think if there was an econo car with the approach of simply losing weight (and what a good start that is!) then you’d have to do it with carbon fibre. And there goes the cheapness out of the equation.

  • arthurarnold

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