We live in the golden age of horsepower, speed, and fuel economy. No really, we do. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, modern cars pack more power, more performance, and more efficiency than their beloved 1960s forbears could have ever dreamed of.
Since 1975, CO2 and fuel economy trends in the United States have gone through four distinct phases, with the two mirroring each other since they have an inverse relationship. The first phase was a rapid increase in fuel economy and decrease in CO2 emissions from the 1975 through 1981 model years. The next phase saw a slightly slower increase in fuel economy and decrease in CO2 emissions until 1987. The third phase was an actual decrease in fuel economy and increase in CO2 emissions up until 2004. The final phase is the one we’re in now, with an increase in fuel economy and decrease in tailpipe emissions from 2005 to present.
The EPA attributes the dip in fuel economy and bump in CO2 emissions to the increasing popularity of trucks and SUVs at the time. Even with truck and SUV sales still on the rise, 2010 saw an all-time high in fuel economy at 22.6 mpg, and low in CO2 emissions at 394 g/mi. Though final data for last year is not yet in, the EPA’s preliminary data shows that 2011 will top 2010, with the expected average fuel economy to be 22.8 mpg, and CO2 emissions to be 391 g/mi.
This increase in fuel economy and decrease in tailpipe emissions can not only be attributed to new automotive technologies (more on that in a bit), but also to automakers increasing their fleet-wide fuel economy averages. The EPA report notes that ten of the 13 highest-selling automakers in the U.S. (representing 99 percent of the market) increased their fuel economy averages in the last three years. Hyundai, Kia, and Toyota topped the list. Hyundai’s 2011 average is projected to be 27.5 mpg, up from 25.1 mpg in 2009. Kia’s 2011 projected average was 27.2 mpg, up from 2009’s 24.2 mpg, making it the most improved automaker. Among the top three, Toyota was the only one that dropped; in 2009 its corporate average fuel economy was 25.4mpg. In 2011, it fell to 25.1 mpg.
Though they all saw improvements relative to 2009, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, and Ford rounded out the bottom three of the list. Ford’s 2011 average fuel economy was 21.3 mpg, Mercedes-Benz’s was 20.0 mpg, and Chrysler’s was 19.7 mpg.
Now for the good stuff. Even with fuel economy up, the EPA reports horsepower, 0-60 mph times, and somewhat strangely – weight, are all the highest (save for 0-60 times which are the lowest) they’ve ever been. In 2010 the average vehicle produced 214 horsepower – a number the EPA expects to shoot up to 228 once the final 2011 figures come in. The ever-important 0-60 mph times have also fallen to 9.6 seconds in 2010, and are expected to fall further to 9.3 seconds for 2011. Normally the enemy of both performance and fuel economy, weight as also crept up the past couple years from 3917 lbs. in 2009 to 4002 lbs. in 2010. The EPA expects weight to further rise to 4084 lbs. in 2011.
All that extra weight can be attributed to more trucks and SUVs being on the roads, but the credit for the increased performance goes entirely to the new technology making its way into modern day automobiles.
Fuel-saving technologies like variable valve timing, gasoline direct injection, and hybrid technology have all been on the increase since they started becoming widely implemented in the middle of the last decade. Variable valve timing has seen its market share increase from 39 percent in 2004 to 94 percent last year. Gasoline direct injection has seen gains too; in 2008 only 2.8 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. featured the technology. The EPA expects that number to jump to 13.7 percent when the final 2011 numbers are tallied. The bane of many enthusiasts, hybrid powertrains have increased from 0.5 percent in 2004 to 4.0 percent in 2011.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the modern automotive golden age is coming to an end anytime soon. Some technologies that regularly put smiles on the faces of enthusiasts have increased the last couple years. Forced-induction availability continues to grow as turbo and supercharged engines grab increased market share, reaching 7.4 percent last year. V-8s also are grabbing more market share; although nowhere near the peak it experienced in 1975 when 62 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. packed eight-cylinders under the hood, V-8s now account for 16 percent of the U.S.’ market share – the highest it’s been since 2009. The last factoid that’ll make you happy? That manual transmission usage is on the increase – 5.1 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. had a third pedal, up from 2010’s low of 3.8 percent.
You can check out all of the charts and graphs for yourself in the gallery below.
Source: Environmental Protection Agency