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Are Cars in the U.S. Less Efficient?

August 16, 2008

Filed under: money,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 12:57

I was sitting at dinner last week in Austin, Texas when the subject of fuel prices came up. Individuals from the UK were present, so we estimated the cost of gasoline in the UK. Our estimate: $9-10 per gallon. One Brit was quick to point out that cars in Europe are much more efficient than those in the U.S., indicating that they often get 40-60 miles per gallon (mpg). In the past, I had wondered if European cars got better mileage, but dismissed the idea. The conversation, however, motivated me to do a little research.

Wikipedia publishes the 2009 UK fuel economy ratings and the 2009 U.S. EPA fuel economy ratings. The mpg for cars sold in the U.S., both foreign and domestic, ranges from a low of 12 to a high of 41 for highway driving. Most cars fell in the range of the mid-teens to the mid-twenties. (It’s interesting to note that the original Ford Model T got 13-21 mpg, according to Wikipedia.) I did not calculate the average mpg because of the number of cars presented in the list.

The 2009 UK fuel economy ratings divided the cars in two groups: 1) 100 cars with the highest fuel economy ratings, and 2) 99 cars with the lowest fuel economy ratings. All of the cars with the best economy run on diesel fuel. These cars range from a low of 66 mpg to a high of 88 mpg for highway driving. The mpg is based on an Imperial gallon, which is about 20% larger than the U.S. gallon. The cars with the worst economy was from about 19 to 29 mpg (also based on an Imperial gallon).

As you can see, the fuel economy of a car with a diesel engine is vastly different than one with a gasoline engine. It is believed that cars with diesel engines are more established in Europe, so this may be one reason for the belief that European cars get better mpg.

The other big difference between Europe and the U.S. is the fleet on the street. According to a March 2007 article titled U.S. vs. Europe in Cars, Gasoline and Energy published by AOL Journals, the U.S. fleet gets about 25 miles per gallon; China about 35 mpg and Europe about 37 mpg. This year, according to the article, automakers are implementing voluntary standards to improve European fuel economy to 44.2 mpg and China to 36.7 mpg. The U.S. will remain at 24.8 mpg.