Checking Consumer Reports for mileage stats on the most fuel efficient cars on the market has me shaking my head. The Toyota Yaris Base with manual transmission at 26/44 mpg is apparently the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid car on the road. The best rating overall went to the Toyota Prius Base, at 35/50 mpg.
What bothers me is that I remember when Pop brought home our brand new 1984 Toyota Tercel. The drunk friend of a neighbor’s teenage son had plowed into the family car parked in front of the house in the middle of the night, totaling the brown 1978 Ford Fairmont that lives in many of my early childhood memories. I was only 11, but I still recall Pop boasting about the stripped-down Tercel’s fuel economy. He didn’t go for a single non-standard feature. I had to poke around for mileage ratings because, based on the 2008 offerings I see, I was sure my memory was betraying me. It wasn’t.
According to the folks at MPG-O-Matic, the base model 4-speed Tercel got a neat 39/50. Even more disturbing was seeing that over 30 models available that year offered even better milage than the ’84 Tercel! Compared with today’s most fuel efficient cars, this didn’t seem possible.
Those were official figures, but they didn’t tell the whole truth. They didn’t reflect real-world driving in a variety of conditions. Actual mileage was less and, as USA Today reported:
“In 1984, responding to consumer complaints that its numbers didn’t match on-the-road experience, EPA cut 22% from its highway fuel-economy number and trimmed the city estimate 10%, starting with 1985 models.”
OK now we’re getting somewhere. A check over at http://www.fueleconomy.gov (which uses the EPA’s new mileage standards) shows the 1985 base model 4-cylinder 5-speed Honda Civic HF rocked at 40/48 mpg! This figure is down somewhat from its original sticker mpg rating of 49/54, but not by all that much, and still notably better than Japan or anyone else can come up with today for a street-legal non-hybrid internal combustion engine car in America.
The ’08 Yaris runs a 1.5L engine that boasts 106 hp compared with a 1.3L at 60 hp for the ’85 Civic HF. The ’08 manual transmission Yaris has it’s curb weight listed at 2,293 lbs. compared with 1,750 for the Civic HF.
So I guess that’s my answer: the most fuel-efficient gasoline powered car on the road today offers some 75% more horsepower to carry around about 30% more weight. And Pop’s ’84 Tercel sure wasn’t fun merging from those short entrance ramps onto Long Island’s Northern State Parkway, so I can imagine how an even less powerful vehicle would do. Regarding the extra weight, I couldn’t find a listing of standard features in the ’85 Civic HF but I recall that Pop’s base model Tercel did not have an air conditioner while in the Yaris the AC unit comes standard. The only other possibly weighty non-essential feature included in the base model Yaris that probably didn’t come standard in the ’85 Civic is power steering. So I imagine most of the 543 lbs or so of the Yaris’ extra weight is mostly made up in safety measures. But gasoline prices being what they are, it does stand to reason that stripped down, bare minimum cars like those mid-80s sub-compacts should be available to consumers today. Lots of commuters can’t get above 40mph during rush hour anyway and safety standards surely aren’t as important for people who rarely travel outside the city.
Still, it is rather disappointing that after 23 years, we cannot build a non-hybrid car with the curb weight and horsepower of the ’08 Yaris that can match the gas mileage of the 1985 Civic. Further, it’s highly disappointing that our modern and very expensive hybrid cars are just slightly more fuel-efficient than what must have been one of the least expensive cars you could buy in 1985.