20 Years Of Gas Mileage: All Cars Improving, But Hybrids Best

2012 Honda Accord EX-L

2012 Honda Accord EX-L

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The impact of fuel costs on family budgets is a big topic of national discussion right now. 

A front-page article in my local paper said that an average family paid more than $4,000 per year for gasoline, whereas we paid only $450 total in fuel and service costs for a Nissan Leaf electric car and a Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric.

And thanks to new standards kicking in for 2012 and rising steadily thereafter, all vehicle classes are getting better fuel economy than they used to.

Compared to the cars of 20 years ago, the careful buyer can find options across all vehicle classes that are 30 percent more efficient--or better.

Honda Accord

The 1992 Honda Accord was one of the most popular cars that year, and Honda engine technology was one of its attractive factors.  That Accord averaged 24 mpg, and 10 years later it was still getting only 24 mpg overall. 

Now, the latest 2012 Honda Accord delivers an EPA average of 27 mpg--and the all-new model coming in 2013 is likely to improve on that still further--just as the 2012 Civic compact delivered significantly higher numbers than its 2011 predecessor.

Toyota Camry and Prius

The Toyota Camry has often been the best-selling car in the U.S. In 1992, the EPA reported a 22 mpg overall efficiency--rising to 24 mpg for 2002.  By 2007, a new generation of Camry was tested at 25 mpg overall--but also offered a hybrid version with 34 mpg overall. 

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid

In 2012, an all-new evolution of the Camry was introduced, with its standard engine producing 28 mpg in EPA testing. The hybrid made another huge improvement to 41 mpg overall . 

Then there's the Prius, another mid-size alternative vehicle, but one without a gasoline alternative. The most recent 2012 Prius received an overall 50 mpg rating in official testing. 

So the basic has improved more than 25 percent in efficiency, the hybrid Camry is 86 percent better, and the Prius is now more than twice as fuel efficient as that 1992 Camry. And a plug-in Prius model is coming later this year, which should roughly triple the mileage of the 1992 standard.

Chevrolet Lumina v Malibu (and others)

American car companies are not to be left behind in the evolution of better mileage, as Chevrolet has done some very good engineering with its mid-size entry. 

In 1992 the Chevy Lumina was rated at 21 mpg overall, with its 2002 replacement Malibu coming in at exactly the same 21 mpg. By 2007, the Malibu had been tweaked to 25 mpg overall, and for 2012, this has improved to 26 mpg. 

For 2013, the Malibu Eco (the only Malibu on sale at the moment) uses a mild-hybrid system and aerodynamic extras to further improve economy to a 29 mpg average.

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Comments (12)
  1. Those gas miles improvement are pathetic compared to the huge increase in the car's price. 2 and 3 MPG improvement is pathetic when 30 or 40 years ago GM had an 89 MPG car for under $5 thousand. People will be paying $5,000 yr. for gas and if they buy a hybrid they will be making $6,000 yr, or more, payment and still paying $4,000 yr for gas and oil. That is beyond the means of the working class person with a family. So where is the savings in buying a hybrid? Their price puts them out of the range of 70% of the working class who holds minimum wage jogs. Nothing like living off the backs of the poor.

  2. @James,
    Wow, I thought I had kept the pulse of the car market, and I have religiously followed the introduction of cars for over 50 years at least ( being an older contributors here), so please enlighten me on that "89 MPG car for under $5 thousand" available back in 1972?

    I remind you, that our salaries have had inflationary adjustments over the years, and in my career back in 1972 starting salary was about $11,500 and today starting salary is closer to $60,000. This is about a 5.2 times higher income to cover the living costs today. A 3year old Prius can be bought for $14K in my area, and annual fuel costs would be about $1200 at $4/gallon. You are absolutely right that min. wage job persons are hurt in this setting for sure

  3. I was recently comparing (for a colleague) a Honda Fit (non-hybrid) to a Prius C (hybrid) at 7,000 miles/year and $4/gallon, payback was 8 years. Driving a little more per year would make the payoff quicker. But starting at $19,000 make the Prius C hybrid more affordable than ever, but right, at minimum wage, it is not going to happen.

    My colleague makes a decent salary, is interested in hybrids, but as soon as I mentioned 8 years, he was no longer interested. Not sure what is holding him back.

  4. Hey George - I know you've paid little for energy and gas but you've spent over 80K on those two cars and, god knows how much, on your solar panels. You can stick it to the $4K/year families but theoretically and financially most of them are still ahead even though they're not as loaded... I have the LEAF and I can make the case for our side all day long but c'mon, let's be real.

  5. Here's another twist to the story... That 1992 Accord is actually smaller than 2012 Civic (or identical when you combine passenger and cargo space.) The Civic has many more safety features and the fuel economy is roughly 50% higher. Comparing just model names is not fair since most current compacts are just bigger and heavier than midsize cars 20 years ago (put two Tauruses side by side :-) )... If you compare apples to apples, the fuel economy improvement (along with safety and emissions) has been quite dramatic.

  6. @Red Baron,
    Good point on the size escalation of many car models. The article tried to stay with what are classed over the years as "mid-size vehicles," and traced specific models over that 20 year period. Yes, the current Civic and Corolla for that matter are bigger than tos models 20 years ago, and they do get better mileage now than their previous "big brothers."

    The Passat TDI seems like a most solid practical "buy" for economy and room without the extreme extra cost of hybrid tech.

    For anybody living in a reasonably sunny area, going solar does "pencil out." For Western US PG&E customers solar PV pays for itself in about 6.5 years! After that...all gravy. We are saving about $6000/year with our EVs and ZERO home electric cost.

  7. @Red Baron,
    But continuing...

    the big mileage gains, looking at today's hybrids vs conventional ICE models is from the newer hybrid and other drivetrain MAJOR changes, like diesel.

    Yes, as I noted, conventional engine technology has shown 20+% fuel reduction over the last 20 years, but to reach the further goals of massively reduced Middle East oil dependence, ICE technology by itself improving appears to absolutely NOT offer that promise.

    Only by moving strongly to more hybrid technology and/or other new motive power systems will we see the national goal of 50+mpg be met...and at a national average of 50 mpg....we would be reducing our fuel use in this country by well OVER 50% compared to our current pattern of use !

  8. 50% cut would make this country self-sufficient but the "true patriots" down here will never give up their F-150s or install some sissy solar panels. Blowing up mountains in VA and sending cash to our friends in Saudi Arabia (it was Iraq who brought the towers down after all) is still very much patriotic and true American way.
    As long as CA doesn't let TX and GA take over the electoral voting power, we should be moving (albeit slowly) in the right direction...

  9. With the current system of incentives in Massachusetts, along with the low cost of solar panels, people will put solar panels on your house for free. You just pay them a little each month just like your electric bill (only slightly less).

  10. Not sure about the Passat TDI avoiding the "extreme extra cost of hybrid tech. Passat TDI is $26K versus the Prius at $24K.

  11. John,
    Based on my extended ownership of a 2000 and 2002 Passat a 2004 Prius and a 2007 Camry Hybrid, I would put the Passat as a much more upscale car than the Prius and more directly comparable to the fully outfitted Camry. We paid right at $30k for our Camry Hybrid and even a stripper in that line would have been north of $26k....5 years ago. So I still hold the TDI system seems like a more simple and less costly was to get to 50% gains in fuel conservation.

  12. Two points.
    1) If you are doing city driving (which I do) the 30 mpg city of the Passat TDI is terrible compared to the 51 mpg of the Prius.

    2) Not sure how common this is but my sister-in-law had a 2000 Jetta that was nothing but trouble from the first six month. The transmission shifting was terrible from R to D, check engine lights constantly on, and the vehicle was dead at 60,000 miles for excessive oil consumption. She will never buy a VW again. Now has a Honda Fit for three years with no problems.

    However, the interior of the Jetta was very nice and ride quality was good.

    Also worth pointing out that a Prius C is coming at a price of $19K, which will far undercut diesels on price and city MPG.

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