Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Questions/comments about safety vs mpg?

When I was a kid, my dad had a 1968 Mercury Montego MX like this drawing above.
It was a great car, fast and cool looking, really the only one of my father's cars over the years that you could say that about. And I was a kid during the oil crisis of the 70's but I remember the lines for gas, the odd or even days based on your plate number. I even remember my dad saying that for such a big V-8 powered car ( 302 cid with a 2bl carb ) his Mercury got 20 mpg on the highway! That seemed like a lot to me at the time. That was around the time the Japanese cars started to really pop up on the streets of New York. And I've been thiking, if a big old "gas guzzler" like that got 20 mpg in the 70's why can't we do much better today? My 2006 Mazda 3 with a 2.3 I-4 gets about 30 mpg on the highway. So I got nostalgic about my cars and decided to post about the safety vs mpg issue.
In 1998 I bought a used 1992 Ford Crown Victoria, with the 4.6 V-8 and this is often called a "gas guzzler" as well. But I remember it fondly for many reasons, not the least was the fact people would move out of my way on the turnpike, thinking I was a state trooper. I took this car on my own personal pilgrimage in 1998 to Dearborn and Ford's World Headquarters. And thanks to the trip computer, I can tell you that on that long 2 day drive I averaged 25 mpg on the highway! Not bad for a "gas guzzler" huh? I'd say these two cars are very comparable, in size and power (despite the 2 extra doors on the Crown Vic) but the Crown obviously cheated the wind better.

My very first brand new car, was my 1988 Ford Festiva that I got in September of 1987.
And this was a 1.3 I-4 that got 40 mpg. But it only weighed about 1900 lbs! I loved this car, it was fun and frugal, but it was gutless and felt like a tin can. Safety wasn't a major factor in it's design. So, why does my Mazda 3 only get 30 mpg on the highway in 2009? I mean we've had such drastic improvements in engine management and aerodynamics since the 70's. Why can't our new cars get 30-40 mpg? Hell, why aren't we flying our cars to work? It's the future isn't it?
I'll tell you why we can't meet the fuel economy standards we dreamed of 20 years ago.
SAFETY! While we've been complacent, somewhat, about fuel economy, we've been screaming safety. Or more precisely the insurance companies, lawyers and big government have.
Let's think about this, my 1992 Ford Crown Victoria weighed about 3,800 lbs. My 2006 Mazda 3 weights about 2,800 lbs. The Festiva as I've said weighed about 1.900 lbs (maybe even less?)
We want power (got it, my Mazda has 158 hp, my 78 Thunderbird with 302 only had 150 hp) we wanted safety (got it, my Mazda has 6 airbags ABS EBD and a very crash resistant body cage, as does every new car) we wanted room ( a Mazda 3 while being a "compact car" is damn big inside and out, as is every other car over the last decade. Look at the Honda Accord over it's life) and we all want this at a reasonable price. And the government wants us to be safe. So, if we wonder why we're not all getting 100 mpg in our Suburbans and Explorers, it's not because the oil companies and auto industry bought patents to hide that mythical 100 mpg carb, it's because today's cares are little fortresses on wheels.

And it's only going to get tougher? That's right, read up on how the government is going to double, almost tripple roof crush standards. I believe right now most vehicles must withstand 1.5 times their own weight ( which of course is so heavy because of all the safety goodies ) but the regulations are going to 3-4 times their own weight! And every vehicle must have the complete aray of air bags. Remember that's why the Ford Ranger was going to be left to die.
And yet the government screams at the same time that the auto industry has failed us, by not supplying 40 mpg cars. It's not a conspiracy folks, the government isn't evil, as far as I know, and the auto industry isn't as a whole incompitent. It's just simple math, you can't demand fuel economy and increased safety overnight. It takes time and requires economies of scale.

And what of the future of convertibles? Will these safety improvements kill them off?
Does anyone remember the late 70's? The "last of the American Convertibles" Cadilac Eldorado?
The last Ford Convertible from the 70's I can remember was the 1973 Mustang. And it took a decade for Ford to bring it back. I'm not a ragtop man myself, never owned one, but that doesn't mean I don't like them. I know they're a niche vehicle. But will our safety require the end of the drop top? Are we, or the government, asking for too much too fast?

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