The costly engineering that delivers better fuel economy is a big problem for both car companies and boosters of so-called "green" cars.
Take the recent spate of testing from Consumer Reports, which has, for some time, been a big cheerleader for tougher fleet-wide fuel economy rules. The CR testers panned the highly fuel-efficient and technologically advanced Toyota Prius c, refusing to recommend it. At least CR expects "very good reliability" for the Prius c based on the quality history of other Toyota hybrids. CR also found that the most fuel efficient version of the Honda Civic sold in the United States ranks "near the bottom of its class" and while both the Ford Focus SFE and Chevrolet Cruze Eco were near the top among small sedans, the pump payback for fuel thriftiness in each case is minimal – $20 (U.S.) a year for the Cruze and a bit more than $10 a month for the Focus.
Consumer Reports, part of Consumers Union, has some eight million subscribers and carries plenty of clout. That's why many took notice when last year Consumers Union president Jim Guest said "an aggressive [fuel economy] standard with a long lead time for auto manufacturers will foster the development of better cars that use less gas at an affordable price."
David Champion, who heads up CR's auto testing, added that "A minimum standard of 56 miles per gallon is definitely good for consumers and currently achievable, but 62 is even better. Technologies to attain this level of improvement exist, and the auto makers can incorporate them over the next 15 years."
Moreover, Champion said advanced fuel-saving technologies are already for sale now. "In our testing, we've already seen highway consumption of 55 mpg in a Toyota Prius hybrid and 49 mpg in a Volkswagen Golf diesel."
The Prius c hybrid, in fact, does significantly better than the standard Prius at saving gas. True, the gasoline-electric combination here produces a pokey 99 hp versus 134 (for the regular Prius) but, as I have said, if all you want is a small transportation appliance that uses very little gas (3.5 city/4.0 highway using regular fuel), this is a reasonable urban runabout.
How reasonable? The federal government's fuel consumption guide calculates that the Prius c will use $6,216 in fuel over eight years ($777 a year) versus $10,416 for a similarly-sized Yaris ($1,302 a year). The difference: $4,200 saved by driving the Prius c.
"But overall," said CR in its testing notes, "drivers will get what they pay for. This subcompact hatchback, which is related to the lacklustre Toyota Yaris, suffers from a stiff ride, very noisy cabin, slow acceleration and cheap-looking interior trim. In Consumer Reports Ratings [sic], the Prius c's overall test score puts it slightly under its chief competitor, the mediocre Honda Insight, and [this] is too low for us to recommend the model."
Here is the dilemma for car companies. When at least some of them deliver super fuel-efficient vehicles, they get slammed for cheap interiors, noisy cabins and general mediocrity.
In addition, there are those critics who, on the one hand, argue for greater fuel efficiency, but also say the payback in fuel savings does not seem to justify the extra up-front cost in the purchase price of the most fuel-efficient models.
In the car business, it seems that at least some of the time, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.