Better fuel economy matters to more US consumers, survey finds

US consumers appear to be latching onto the drive for fuel economy, with almost 3 in 5 saying it will be a 'very important' factor in the next vehicle they buy, a survey shows.

By , Staff writer

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    Subaru Foresters are lined up at Twin City Subaru in Berlin, Vt., in February. US consumers appear to be latching onto higher mileage standards and to vehicles that sip rather than slurp gasoline in the next vehicle they buy, a survey shows.
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America’s transition is well under way to higher mileage standards and to vehicles that sip rather than slurp gasoline, with manufacturers and consumers both supporting the shift, according to new research by the Consumer Federation of America.

Just six months ago, the federal government finished a plan to boost fuel economy standards of new cars to an average of 54.5 miles per gallon (m.p.g.) by 2025, up from 35 m.p.g. in 2017. Those mileage increases were authorized under the Energy Independence and Security Act passed by Congress in 2007.

Unknown, however, was how quickly automakers would shift production to go after those targets – and whether consumers would accept higher vehicle prices up front in exchange for lower gasoline costs over the lifespans of their vehicles. In a first cut at answering those questions, the CFA polled consumers and analyzed fuel efficiency of new vehicles, including plug-in vehicles.

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It found a shift in consumer sentiment and manufacturer output, including the following:

•A large majority of Americans support the higher fuel-economy standards approved by Congress and amplified by the Obama administration. Today's consumers say they expect the next vehicle they buy to get many more miles to the gallon than their current vehicles, the CFA survey found.

•Automakers are boosting average vehicle mileage of their fleets, while making a range of options available. At the same time, consumers have increasingly purchased more efficient vehicles, four years of automaker data show.

•Sales of electric vehicles, still new on the market, are outpacing sales of hybrid vehicles at a similar point in their introduction to market.

Most Americans support federal requirements to increase fuel economy, national polls conducted for the CFA found. Eighty-five percent back them, with 54 percent saying they strongly support the standards. Respondents' political affiliation didn’t seem to matter much, with 77 percent of self-described Republicans, 87 percent of Independents, and 92 percent of Democrats supporting the increase in mileage standards.

Moreover, 88 percent of those polled say a vehicle's fuel economy will be an important factor when they next shop for an automobile (for 59 percent, it's a “very important” factor), the poll found. The general expectation is that the next vehicle a buyer purchases will get much better mileage than his or her current vehicle. Owners of cars that get 24 m.p.g., for instance, expect 31 m.p.g. next time.

“Whatever you think the cost of fuel economy has been, it has not been so much that consumers won’t buy it,” Mark Cooper, CFA’s director of research, told reporters during a conference call unveiling the report. “The improvement in fuel economy suggests there are the pocketbook benefits.... Automakers are delivering more fuel-efficient cars to the market and consumers are buying them.”

He also said that a CFA econometric analysis had revealed that what most impelled the trend toward the manufacture and sale of higher-efficiency autos is the 2007 federal law, although he acknowledged that higher gasoline prices "matter, too." 

Indeed they do. In 2012, households with at least one vehicle spent almost $3,000 on gasoline, with household gasoline expenditures last year almost 50 percent higher than combined total spending on electricity, natural gas, and heating oil for the home. A decade ago, gasoline costs on average were 13 percent less than home energy spending.

On the manufacturers' side of the ledger, the best-selling cars, pick-up trucks, and vans that get at least 30 m.p.g. are winning a larger share of the market. Comparing popular 2009 models with 2013 models, the new analysis shows the percentage of vehicles that get at least 30 m.p.g. rose from 4 percent of sales to 12 percent, while the percentage getting less than 22 m.p.g. fell from 70 percent to 44 percent, the CFA found.

A big reason for the mileage increase is the rising popularity of four-cylinder vehicles. In 2005, less than 30 percent of the new vehicles purchased had four-cylinder engines, while in 2012 nearly half of new vehicles purchased had four cylinders.

But another reason is the relatively rapid adoption of plug-in electric vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf. They are selling at rates much higher than conventional gas-electric hybrids did when they were introduced on the market more than a decade ago, the CFA reported.

Despite competition from fuel-efficient, conventional internal-combustion-engine vehicles, hybrids and all-electric vehicles accounted for more than 5 percent of sales of all new vehicles bought in 2012 – double the level of sales four years ago, the CFA found. Within that group, more than 60,000 sales were of plug-in hybrid and all-electric drive vehicles – almost double the number of standard hybrid vehicles sold at the end of their third year on the market, CFA found. Those annual plug-in sales numbers are projected to soar by 2020.

“Despite what many media pundits would have you believe, consumer acceptance of those vehicles is higher than acceptance of hybrids when they were first introduced,” Dr. Cooper said in a statement. “As battery technology improves and prices go down, there is no question that electrics will play an important role in meeting consumer demand for higher efficiency.”

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