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Car manufacturers have long known that they could easily build more fuel efficient cars, but they also knew that hardly anyone would buy them. (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)
Car manufacturers have long known that they could easily build more fuel efficient cars, but they also knew that hardly anyone would buy them. (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)

The Green Highway

The new No. 1 priority: Fuel efficiency Add to ...

The tide has finally turned. A major new survey has discovered that Americans now identify fuel economy as the most important consideration in the purchase of a new car. The Consumer Reports study (1,702 responses from adults in households that had at least one car) noted a number of reasons why people choose particular cars but fuel economy is, at long last, number one.

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For decades, fuel economy was nowhere on the list of American wants; safety made its way up the list 20 or 30 years ago but since then it’s been performance, performance, performance. Now, 37 per cent of respondents name fuel economy as their leading consideration in car shopping. Quality, safety and value were next, all polling less than half of fuel economy’s votes. Performance languished in the basement at 6 per cent.

Car manufacturers have long known that they could easily build more fuel efficient cars, but they also knew that hardly anyone would buy them. Well, we’d buy them in Canada but nobody builds for Canada. They all build for the United States and then add a heated steering wheel to the Canadian version. Gasoline engines have made huge steps forward in efficiency in the last 10 or 15 years but the gains have gone to more horsepower for bigger, heavier cars favoured by Americans.

It’s commonplace to get 100-plus horsepower per litre of engine displacement. Until recently, that was unheard of except for one-off racing engines. If consumer demand actually shifts for the long term to favour fuel efficiency over horsepower, the automobile offerings will change fast. A one-litre engine in your next family sedan? If the vehicle is light enough, why not? If people will buy it, why not?

Ninety per cent of those surveyed said high gas prices were the reason why they wanted a more fuel-efficient vehicle. That’s no surprise. Fuel prices rose to these levels in 2008 but fell off in 2009. This time, however, they’ve stayed high long enough to register on the consciousness of the average American. Consumer Reports also noted that almost two-thirds of all car buyers said they wanted to drive more “green” and one half said they were in favour of oil independence, but you would expect agreement with motherhood statements like those.

Nevertheless, fuel efficiency as the number one reason for 37 per cent of Americans to buy a particular car is an eye-popping number. Its effects were seen in full-size sedans dropping sharply in popularity while subcompacts and compacts were given a favourable rating by almost everyone surveyed. Yikes. For years, it’s been considered almost un-American to drive one of “them little, foreign, compact cars.” Now, with fuel efficiency and green driving on the minds of most Americans, the world is changing.

The Obama Administration, should it be back in office after November, wants to finalize fuel efficiency standards that would require manufacturers’ average fuel economy to reach 54.5 mpg by 2025. Almost 80 per cent of people surveyed agreed with the statement, “Fuel economy standards should require auto manufacturers to increase the overall fleet average to at least 55 mpg.” Romney take note.

Car makers have proven there is a replacement for displacement and it comes with direct injection, dual turbos, beltless power steering and cooling and a smart alternator. Reduced engine size and reduced fuel consumption doesn’t have to mean you’ll be holding up traffic or need help getting over hills; I have no problem in the left lane of Highway 400 with a 90-horsepower diesel.

I’ve made optimistic predictions before only to be disappointed again and again. But it feels different this time. Americans are starting to get it. Hurt ’em at the gas pumps long enough and they change. Imagine how quickly they could solve several of their problems with a good, stiff carbon tax.

mvaughan@globeandmail.com

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