As you fork over more at the gas pump each week and read the angst among economists over how high oil prices could sink the nascent economic recovery, consider this: According to a recent Environmental Protection Agency report, gas mileage in cars and light trucks, while improving every year, is only a shade better than in 1987.
The EPA's estimated mileage for all 2010 cars and light duty trucks was 22.5 mpg. That's up from 22.4 mpg in 2009 and from 21 in 2008. Light duty trucks include SUVs, minvans, vans and pickup trucks no heavier than 8,500 pounds.
This recent boost in fuel economy follows nearly two decades of decline, from 1987 to 2004. In 1987, the average gas mileage for all cars and light duty trucks was 22 mpg. By1998 it had dropped to 20.1 mpg. That decline came during the heyday of Ford Explorers and other SUVS, when they were essentially the Marlboro man's vehicle of choice, particularly in the West.
The EPA report spells this trend out clearly, saying that the increased overall market share of light trucks accounted for much of the decline in fuel economy in the 1987-2004 period. And it was the "explosive" increase in the market share of SUVs that was the main factor in the light truck market share increase, EPA said. SUVs market share rose from 6 percent of all light duty vehicles in 1990 to about 30 percent in 2004.
By 2009, however, rising gas prices and the economic collapse took a lot of the wind out of the SUV market, and the truck market in general. That year, fuel economy was the highest since records started being kept in 1975 by EPA. Trucks' market share in 2009 was its lowest since 1995.
The downside of this slow trend away from gas-guzzling? Engine power. The average 2009 vehicle weighed 3,917 pounds, the lowest average weight in eight years. The same year, the average vehicle carried 208 horsepower, the lowest since 2003, and the drop in horsepower in 2009 compared to 2008 was 5 percent, the largest deciine since 1980. But pickup didn't suffer, EPA said: "Estimated 2009 0 to 60 acceleration time remained constant at 9.7 seconds," compared to 2008.
For readers interested in global warming, climate change and greenhouse gases, note that all of the above figures showing improved fuel economy in recent years -- and declines in earlier years--were matched by corresponding recent decreases and earlier increases in greenhouse gas emissions from the vehicles.
EPA also noted in the report that the 2009 figures are the most recent ones that are reliable, and that the final 2010 figures won't be available until the next report comes out, in another year.
A personal note from the author. His first Honda Civic, bought in 1982, was a 1981 hatchback that breezed to a 47 mpg rating on the highway. The next Civic he bought, a 1999 hatchback purchased new that year, earned 40 mph on the highway. The new 2010 Honda Fit he bought last year gets 33 on the highway, according to fueleconomy.gov, a Department of Energy website. Hybrid vehicles, which do far better mileage wise, are out of his price range.