Chicago Auto Show Blog

Who shares the burden?

Posted by: Mark Bilek

A few months ago, when gas was $4.00+ per gallon, everyone was clamoring for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Buyers flocked to small cars, environmentalists insisted on strict fuel-economy regulations, and the government knee-jerked into action like it always does, with the meandering ferocity of a three-toed sloth.

Now that gas prices have dropped to 2005-levels, public outcry for fuel efficiency has faded and the automakers, many of whom scrambled to redefine model lineups with more efficient cars and SUVs, are left to bear the brunt of buyer's fickle preferences.

However, in the mad dash to be the first to offer the 100-mpg car, automakers learned something: fuel efficiency has a price. A recent "Automotive News" article, pegged the tab of improving the fuel economy of today's vehicles by 25-30% at almost $1000. That's the cost of adding features like a 6-speed transmission, electric power steering, stop-start, and direct injection.

Now, I'm no math wiz (heck, that's why I went into Journalism in the first place) but let's assume that $1000 made a 30-mpg sedan 25% more efficient and increased fuel economy to 37.5 mpg. Annual gas savings would be around 67 gallons per year. That's not bad.

However, at that savings rate, it would take owners more than five years to recoup their additional purchase price in fuel savings. Let me repeat that for the hard of hearing, FIVE YEARS. (BTW, the cost of financing an additional $1000 over five years adds an additional $20 to your monthly payment.)

There's no doubt that we MUST do everything possible to increase the fuel efficiency of today's vehicles and reduce our dependency of foreign oil. But, perhaps we shouldn't put 100% of the onus on the automakers. After all, they are in business to make money and do provide jobs to more than 1 million Americans.

Maybe some of that burden should fall on the consumer. If the automakers have to invest $25 billion into improving fuel efficiency, shouldn't the consumer at least have to make a smarter purchase? Shouldn't we penalize buyers who choose a thirsty V8 over a thrifty V6? Maybe we should tax the bejesus out of people who buy a vehicle that's the wrong size for the job?

I'll leave you with this thought. The Nissan Pathfinder and Nissan Altima have roughly the same passenger and covered cargo space. Yet the Altima is as much as 40% more fuel efficient. If people simply made the smart and environmentally friendly decision by purchasing an Altima over a Pathfinder, we'd achieve significant fuel savings at NO additional cost.

It might sound simple, but if everyone really cares about curbing our oil addition and saving the planet, doesn't this make more sense in the short term? 

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