Someone's Apologizing for Sorry Fuel Economy but Not Automakers

The real shame: Only a handful of models surpass 30 mpg.

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If you wonder why it's so hard to get beyond oil, consider the Bush administration official who was forced to apologize for urging his agency's employees to consider buying fuel-efficient cars.

Yes, to make this rather obvious suggestion to help reduce oil dependence is to generate a political firestorm. That's because—you guessed it!—not one of the cars on the gas-saving list was made in the U.S.A.

In a nation that was really gung-ho about a new energy future, perhaps Detroit would be apologizing for not being able to fill up that list with exciting high-fuel-economy choices, both sporty and family friendly. Instead, it was Joe Ellis, assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, the man responsible for the energy newsletter E-mailed to the agency's 67,000 employees, who had to hang his head. "Clearly, the newsletter strayed from its purpose of sharing information about energy conservation that is relevant to working for our Department," he said. "I deeply regret that our newsletter offended anyone, especially those Americans working in the automobile industry and the millions of people who make American automobile manufacturers successful." HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt takes credit for taking Ellis to the woodshed in his blog.

Unless you are a member of the Michigan congressional delegation, you might find it hard to find offense in the original HHS employee newsletter, which can be found at the Detroit News's online Auto Insider. After all, it makes a point of singling out three American-made vehicles for consumers interested in a larger ride: the Ford Ranger pickup (21 mpg for the 2007 model, combined city and highway driving, according to fueleconomy.gov), the Dodge Caravan two-wheel-drive minivan (20 mpg), and the Ford Escape hybrid SUV (30 mpg for the full-wheel-drive version). But the crucial error, apparently, was to reprint the list of the Top 12 Green Cars for 2007 developed by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. That list is headed by the Honda Civic GX (which doesn't use gasoline at all but cleaner compressed natural gas, with fuel economy equivalent to 28 mpg gasoline), the Toyota Prius hybrid (46 mpg), the Honda Civic hybrid (42 mpg), and the Nissan Altima hybrid (34 mpg). Now the Ford Escape may have a legitimate beef since its fuel economy edges out the last cars on the list, the Kia Rio, the Hyundai Accent, and the Honda Civic (all 29 mpg), and the Hyundai Elantra (28 mpg).

But it is patently untrue that "consumers can choose from a wide variety of models made by American auto companies that get over 30 miles per gallon," as was claimed by the Michigan members of Congress, both Democrat and Republican, in a joint letter of complaint to HHS, found here at the Detroit Free Press website.

In fact, consumers can't choose from a wide variety of models made by domestic OR foreign auto companies that get over 30 miles per gallon. In the brand-new 2008 fuel economy guide, available at fueleconomy.gov, we counted only 18 American cars and 34 foreign ones that scored over 30 mpg on the highway out of more than 600 models on the market. If you do not do all your driving at 55 or more miles per hour, the results you get will most likely be closer to the combined city and highway driving score, and on that, only two American models—the Ford Escape hybrid and the identical-under-the-hood upscale version, the Mercury Mariner hybrid—broke the 30-mpg barrier (at 32 mpg). Just six foreign cars get over 30 mpg combined city/highway: the hybrids, the Toyota Corolla, and the super-small Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit.

So the foreign automakers have a slight edge in a race for fuel efficiency in which no one is doing extraordinarily well.

I asked the ACEEE about the list that caused the HHS assistant secretary such shame. It turns out the Ford Escape hybrid has broken into the top rankings in the past. But in 2007, it may have fallen off because the group's scoring takes into account factors other than fuel economy, such as overall manufacturing impact. (So in a close call, a heavy vehicle that uses more materials would tend to score lower than a lighter car with similar fuel economy.) But it's perhaps notable that the American manufacturers were out of the running in the list of top fuel-efficient cars at the vehicle-buying site Edmund's as well.

ACEEE has written to the Michigan members of Congress to defend both its ranking system and its patriotism. "While we pride ourselves on the objectivity of our ratings, ACEEE cheers each time a domestic manufacturer's vehicle makes the 'Greenest Vehicles' list," writes Executive Director Steven Nadel. "Unfortunately, U.S. manufacturers' relative environmental performance has since lagged, while consumer interest in vehicles' environmental impacts has grown considerably."