Does fuel efficiency weigh on new car buyers?

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By Allen Penticoff
Mr. Green Car

I recently noticed a full-page ad by a local Nissan dealer that touted their line up of cars that attained 30 mpg or better. The gas mileage was boldly printed for city and highway mpg for comparison and comprised a number of cars. This is in stark contrast to a decade ago when fuel economy was not considered worth mentioning in car reviews or advertising. But consumers now care about the fuel economy of their prospective purchases, and thus it is promoted by companies that have the products customers are looking for. There is even heavy competition to produce the most fuel-efficient pick-up trucks.

Documenting this trend is a recent study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. In their report they found that more than half of prospective new car buyers describe fuel efficiency as “very important” in their buying decisions. Another 39.5 percent say that gas mileage is “somewhat important” to them while shopping for a new vehicle, while 9.5 percent claim “slightly important” and only 2.1 percent said efficiency was “not at all important.”

We should take this report as good news. Even with gasoline prices still under $3 per gallon, consumers are wary and are hedging against the very likely prospect that the Saudi’s will soon end their flooding of the oil markets with cheap oil – bringing back $4 per gallon fill ups to the U.S. The survey did not ask why fuel efficiency was important to people. From personal experience, I find for most it is economic and not environmental reasons.

The study did query respondents on knowledge of technology. Most had no preference in technology to attain high fuel efficiency, leading to the conclusion that buyers don’t care how you get there, just so long as the desired result is to their liking. Only 23.9 percent said “engine improvements” is the route to efficiency they preferred while 20.2 percent claimed alternative fuels were the choice in finding efficiency. From this, we can safely say that the “alternative fuel” they are referring to must be diesel, since ethanol is not more efficient, and hydrogen is unavailable at present time. Compressed natural gas can be less costly per mile to operate, but refueling is still a challenge and not widely available. Almost 90 percent said they knew how diesels and hybrids work, but lacking in knowledge of what is presently available in showrooms right now.

Half had not heard of continuously-variable transmissions, while 60 percent had no knowledge of cylinder deactivation. It appears turbocharging is understood by 81 percent of buyers however. Some of the new technologies are forcing higher compressions in the engines to get more power from a smaller displacement. This leads to the need for premium fuel – and is a line consumers will be reluctant to cross; with 72.6 percent of respondents saying that a vehicle using premium fuel would reduce their desire to buy it.

The study should confirm that what the major manufacturers have been doing in recent years – taking a wide approach with efficient straight engines, turbocharging, hybrids, diesels, and electric vehicles being offered to accommodate our needs, desires and fears. Only start up manufacturer Tesla has put all their eggs in one basket and pursued a single drive system – pure electric. There have been plenty of words written forecasting Telsa’s demise for just this reason.

The planet is not making any more oil. We are drawing out the hard to get to stuff now. So saving all of it we can will keep our oil based economy rolling along until some new miracle technology appears that will enable a switch over to something more sustainable. Buying efficient vehicles frees your wallet to make other purchases that fuel the national and local economy as well. Saving the planet may not be your primary concern, but we all benefit by driving fuel-efficient vehicles nonetheless. Consider becoming among the majority who find fuel-efficiency to be “very important” in their buying decisions.

For comparisons of vehicle fuel efficiency, visit the excellent government website fueleconomy.gov.

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