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In the United States, where the vehicle fleet largely mirrors that in Canada, average fuel economy across the board increased 15 per cent between 1980 and 2006 – while the average curb weight of vehicles increased 26 per cent and horsepower rose 107 per cent. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
In the United States, where the vehicle fleet largely mirrors that in Canada, average fuel economy across the board increased 15 per cent between 1980 and 2006 – while the average curb weight of vehicles increased 26 per cent and horsepower rose 107 per cent. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

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Auto industry's sharp gas pains Add to ...

Let’s pretend for the moment that fuel economy is the absolute, No. 1 driving force for every single shopper culling dealerships and the general marketplace for a new or used ride.

I know; this is pure fantasy. So far this year, sales of the most fuel-efficient vehicles are tepid, while large and luxury vehicles are on fire – and light trucks, which are hardly the thriftiest of vehicles, account for more than 57 per cent of all new-vehicle sales in Canada.

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But humour me.

Let’s just ignore the fact that sales of fancy and big vehicles are up 35 per cent.

We’ll overlook the fact that, as DesRosiers Automotive Consultants reports, small, entry-level vehicles are performing only at the market average (through the early part of 2012 up about 11 per cent in a market up about 11 per cent).

We’ll skip dealing with the reality that while, in the words of auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers, “governments have mandated better fuel efficiency…consumers still want to drive bigger vehicles.”

Instead, let’s acknowledge what technology has done to improve fuel economy and lower vehicle emissions, while you and I and most everyone else craves some decent level of 0-100 km/h performance and fantasize about speed.

Here are the facts: 48 brands improved their overall fuel efficiency since 1982, while just 13 saw their fuel efficiency get worse, new research from DesRosiers shows. And “worse” does not necessarily mean bad. That is, “Smart cars [from Mercedes-Benz]got worse when they moved from diesel engines to gasoline engines,” says DesRosiers, though Smart cars “are still low but not as low as they once were in the market.”

The most important point to remember, however, is highlighted by research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Christopher Knittel. He notes that in the United States, where the vehicle fleet largely mirrors that in Canada, average fuel economy across the board increased 15 per cent between 1980 and 2006 – while the average curb weight of vehicles increased 26 per cent and horsepower rose 107 per cent.

The takeaway: buyers want bigger, more powerful vehicles, yet overall fuel economy gains have been real and they’ve come across a wide range of vehicle brands.

And among brands, the winner is: Lincoln light trucks, which is now at 10.02 litres/100 km, versus a combined fuel efficiency rating of 17.16 litres/100 km when introduced into the Canadian market. This, as DesRosiers point out, represents a 36.2 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency.

Still, 10.02 litres/100 km in a long way from the 2016 fleet-wide fuel efficiency targets of 6.63 litres/100 km or 35.5 mpg.

“Lincoln, for instance, would have to improve by another 65 per cent over the next six years [2010 versus 2016]” notes DesRosiers, although also pointing out that each vehicle in a fleet is not required to meet this standard, but rather the 6.63 number represents a corporate average.

So which brands are closest to meeting the U.S. fuel targets we’re adopting in Canada? Scion’s cars are essentially there. Toyota’s youth brand must improve fuel economy across its car fleet by a meagre 2.7 per cent. Mini’s cars are nearly there, too, needing just a 3.5 per cent improvement within less than four years. Toyota’s cars are within 5.2 per cent of the fleet-wide mandate, while Honda’s cars are within 8.1 per cent, Kia’s cars are within 8.3 per cent and Volkswagen’s are within 9.5 per cent.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that no other car brand is within 10 per cent of what’s required. On the other hand, Porsche’s cars need a 50 per cent improvement, Jaguar’s 67.5, Mercedes-Benz’s 62.5 and BMW’s 55.5 per cent. Good luck to them all.

The even bigger rub is found where the majority of Canadians shop, in light trucks. Toyota may be on track with its passenger cars, but to meet the 2016 standards, its trucks – the Tundra and Tacoma pickups, the 4Runner and Highlander SUVs and so on – will need to improve fuel efficiency by 60 per cent in less than four years. Kia’s trucks are closest, but will still require an overall fuel economy improvement of more than 22 per cent.

Some light-truck brands face a nightmare scenario in trying to get to 2016. Land Rover needs to improve overall fuel economy by a whopping 125.7 per cent and Porsche’s truck lineup needs a 100 per cent boost. Infiniti needs to juice light truck fuel efficiency by 86 per cent, Ford by 81.2 per cent, and Dodge by 75.1 per cent. Do you believe in miracles?

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