More Fuel-Efficient Cars, Like Honda's Insight

Posted by: John Carey on February 12, 2009

I’ve been covering energy issues for nearly 30 years, including the debate over auto fuel economy. Over that time, I’ve been amazed that report after report has concluded that automakers could significantly improve fuel economy at relatively modest cost. Consider this 1992 report from the National Academy of Sciences, which said that it was “technically achievable” for mid-sized cars to get up 35 miles per gallon at an additional cost of $500-$1250 per car. Since 1992, of course, there have been numerous technological advances for further gains in efficiency.

Yet for years, we never saw those potential gains from the domestic industry. Instead the Big Three historically fought any attempts to raise fuel economy standards, arguing that it would be impossible or at least far too costly. They finally lost the battle at the end of 2007, when Congress passed higher corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. Part of the reason was that the political winds had shifted. But also the Big Three’s arguments had lost credibility and political support.

Now come more reminders of how feasible it is to build reasonably priced fuel-efficient vehicles. Consider Ford’s new Fusion hybrid, a pretty big car that is rated at more than 40 mpg and starts at $28,000. I haven’t driven it myself, but USA Today’s James R. Healey is a fan.

Or consider Honda’s new hybrid Insight, which will hit the U.S. market this spring. Thanks to the generosity of Honda’s Washington office, I did have the opportunity to try it. It’s great: plenty of zip, sharp handling, good visibility, and numerous clever features. It’s also rated at more than 40 mpg, and some reviewers have clocked considerably more than that. (The car’s video game-like displays make it easy to drive efficiently). The price hasn’t yet been determined, but is expected to start at $20,000 or less. This was one car I didn’t want to return.

And it’s also clear that more efficiency gains are possible. I recently had a chance to meet with executives from Continental. In addition to tires, the Hanover, Germany-headquartered company makes equipment like high-pressure gas injection systems. Add features like these to old-fashioned internal combustion engines (whether in a regular car or hybrid), and fuel economy can jump up 20% or better. “The internal combustion engine will be around for a long time because there are so many technologies improving the efficiency,” says Kregg Wiggins, senior vice president of the Continental’s North American region powertrain division.

Reader Comments

Jonathan

February 13, 2009 2:05 PM

What's bizarre is that more car companies haven't tried, over the years, to offer fuel efficiency as an option. GM manufactures dozens of models. They didn't see fit--during all these decades of reports like the one you cite--to design one or two midsized cars according to efficient specs? They had to choose to pursue other features for every one of their vehicles? All the other makers are pretty much in the same boat. Toyota didn't come out with the Prius in 1994. It's just amazing to me that none of the makers wanted to even test the efficient waters to see if they'd lead to good, profitable lines that they might build on in the future, especially given the decades of concern over oil's availability and the wisdom of burning it even when it is available. I can understand that they chafe at mandated efficiency (though I don't really care about the fact that they don't like it), but I can't understand the pig-headedness of the strategy. It's so phenomenally foolish--and predictably so--that even global warming and peak oil deniers would be stupid to ignore the markets for efficient cars.

kws

February 13, 2009 6:34 PM

Fuel economy would increase substantially across the board if the technology in 2009 engines were installed in 1992-era cars and trucks. Why? The vehicles from the late 80s-early 90s were considerably lighter than today's. They are bigger and include safety options that pack on a lot of mass. fueleconomy.gov once had an article a couple years ago that said that if vehicle weight had stayed the same from 1988, but used 2006 engine technology, the average fuel economy would go up by 33%. Even 1970s era Datsuns were advertised to get 45mpg. Sure, they are very small and spartan by current standards, but it's worth noting how much fuel we use due to comfort, safety, and other regulations.

christiano

February 13, 2009 6:39 PM

um, the first insight got 65 - 70 mpg. And that was a few years back. Now they tell us, well, it's possible to get cars on the road that get around 40 mpg. Who do they think they are kidding. Bogus.

DatKine

February 16, 2009 1:01 PM

My 1975 Honda CVCC Civic got 38-40 mpg.
When gas prices fell to ca. $2.00/gal nobody wanted to buy fuel efficient cars.
There are no miracles in internal combustion.
The biggest thing holding back fuel efficient cars is the wishes of the consumer...not technology.

Rodney

February 16, 2009 3:53 PM

Why is there no mention that Toyota was also lobbying against new C.A.F.E. standards in 07? Is it me or is nearly every journalist biased against Detroit? I believe that Detroit is getting what is coming to them for not pursuing more fuel efficiency and destroying the electric cars that they made in the 90's (along with Nissan, Honda and Toyota) but none of this is ever mentioned. I'm not trying to start an argument with anyone about buy American or foreign but I think all of the facts should at least be stated. This article goes on to praise Honda for its new 40mpg car and as Kws stated even Datsuns got this kind of mpg 20yrs ago. Once again I am not trying to defend or attack any car company here but I think the facts should be stated that accross the board all car companies have not made gains in increased efficiency even though Honda and Toyota did produce more fuel efficient cars in the past.

John Carey

February 16, 2009 5:23 PM

Readers are making some good points here. I too have had older cars that got great mileage -- a 1984 Civic wagon that averaged in the high 30s, and a 1989 Accord that got 40 mpg on the highway (and 33-36 overall). Clearly, the Insight and the Fusion aren't that much of an improvement--unless you consider the increases in weight that have come along with increased safety (stronger passenger compartments, air bags, anti-lock brakes, etc.) and increased convenience. But it does point out how mileage of these new cars could be improved by making them lighter, using strong but light materials like carbon fiber and/or aluminum. The original Insight, after all, was a lightweight aluminum 2-seater (and less peppy in my experience, to today's Insight), which helps explain why it is so fuel-efficient

CrxSquared

February 17, 2009 12:50 PM

My 1988 Honda CRX DX 5spd (92hp) consistantly would get 47mpg highway on trips (EPA rating was around 36-38mpg hwy). And I put 371,000 miles on the car (original engine and transmission, no major repairs other than a headgasket at 349K). Of course the car weighed about 75% that of a current base-model Civic- no airbags and other Government-mandated BS to weigh the car down and kill gas mileage. I've owned FIVE CRX's- a fantastic little car. Honda eff'd-up big time when they discontinued making them after the '91 model year. Patiently waiting for the CR-Z to go on sale for the 2010-2011 model year.

chris

February 19, 2009 12:49 PM

It seems to me like the author is looking at Detroit slightly backward. What is the function of an auto manufacturer? To produce cars that people want to drive and can afford to operate. When gas was 1.50 people bought trucks, because it was what they Wanted to drive. The Big three obviously have some responsibility to protect the environment, but at this point in their lives I would say staying alive is priority number one. During the past year Prius sales have dropped at a higher rate than full size trucks. Why? Incentives (people can afford to drive the vehicles they want, aka trucks) and cheap gas. I'm not saying everyone wants to drive a big gas guzzling truck, but numbers don't lie (well they do, but in this case I'm going to trust them).

Larry

February 19, 2009 11:54 PM

Yes, there have been fuel-efficient cars in the past - but they were not nearly as safe as today's vehicles, nor were they nearly as clean in terms of tailpipe emissions. We now have cars that are as efficient or more so than those of the past for fuel consumption, that are much safer, and are much cleaner. The argument that people want to drive trucks is a big line that was peddled by the auto manufacturers. Who made buying an SUV into something desirable? It was advertising by the companies, certainly not an organic demand that came from the general public. While there are certainly a small fraction of the public that actually need an SUV-type vehicle (people who actually drive off-road, for example), that doesn't hold for the vast majority of the public that swallowed the kool-aid that was being fed them by GM, Ford, and the like. SUV's fall short in virtually every measure that most people would ordinarily use to buy a car, relative to most sedans: comfort, interior space, ease of handling, safety, parking ability, visibility, etc. etc. - yet people thought they were getting these benefits, along with the privilege of getting 15 mpg rather than 30 mpg. Why were these trucks being pushed? Because the profit margin was so much greater. Why push a Ford Focus, in which the profit margin might be a couple of hundred dollars, when you can sell a Ford Explorer, where the profit is several thousand dollars? Yes, people wanted trucks - but that desire was created by the Big Three. There was a real lack of foresight by GM and the like, and while they are now scrambling to build cars better suited to a warming planet with diminishing resources as they clamber for taxpayer bailouts, they could have gone down that path 20 years ago, as did Honda and Toyota (even if the latter also protested increases in the CAFE standards).

Bert

March 16, 2009 6:49 AM

The 1992 Honda Civic VX got 60 or 70 mpg on the highway. It was slightly more expensive than the regular civic but was pulled in 1994 due to weak demand. That same lean burn tech could have been applied to all their vehicles but they didn't. The last Honda Accord Hybrid was a 3-6 engine. 3 cylinders were shut down when cruising. this should be part of all their V6 vehicles.

Acura

July 5, 2009 3:32 AM

I'm like Honda Accord These are practical and beautiful cars

Justin

July 31, 2009 9:21 AM

A Honda Insight is great for someone whoe drives back and forth between Baltimore and DC. Many of us in the real world want a vehicle that is a little less specialized. I need a vehicle that can carry a load of 2X4s, negociate a muddy pipeline right-of-way, and transport a dead deer to the meat processor.

The margins made by the auto companies on fuel efficient cars is either razor thin or more commonly is being subsidized by sales of utility vehicles. Why should rural consumers by subsidizing urban consumers?

If you want me to drive a truck that gets 40 mpg why don't youy overpay $20,000 for your Honda Insight and take that $20,000 off the price of a new fuel-efficient diesel, V-8, four-door, long bed, four-wheel drive truck, preferably in white with a black brush guard and a winch. Then we can all be happy.

George

October 29, 2009 12:39 AM

Yeehaw Justin...

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About

BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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