Car Guy

The Obama Car

Obama's auto-industry regulations are taking us full-steam into the future -- to a world without affordable cars.

By 7.7.11

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Now Obama's decided to ban cars outright.

Not in so many words, perhaps, but his just-announced proposal that new cars be required by law to average 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025 will effectively do just that.

Not one car sold in the United States currently averages 56 MPG -- not even on the highway. Not even hybrids like the Toyota Prius, the best of the lot -- which maxes out at 51 on the highway and 48 in city driving. The maximum highway mileage achieved by a current non-hybrid car (the 2012 Honda Civic HF) is 41 MPG. Its average mileage is 33 MPG.

To achieve an average of 56 MPG, one or more of the following would be necessary:

* Massive reduction in vehicle weight

It is easier - more efficient - to move a lighter car than a heavier car. A 2,000 lb. car will use less gas, all else being equal, than a 2,800 lb. car because a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine can do equivalent work in terms of accelerating the vehicle and maintaining speed.

The problem is the engineering/economic conflict between weight and safety.

For decades, the federal government has been passing one safety-minded mandate after another, each of which has had the effect of making newer cars heavier than their equivalents of the past. A current-year subcompact like the 2012 Fiat 500 weighs 2,363 lbs. -- a porker in comparison to an equivalent subcompact from the '70s such as an original model VW Super Beetle, which weighed about 1,900 lbs. That 400-plus pound weight difference is the main reason why, despite the Fiat's 40-year advantage in technology -- including computer-controlled fuel injection and overdrive transmissions -- its gas mileage (30 city, 38 highway , 33 average) is only slightly better than the Beetle's high 20s, low 30s.

Of course, the old Super Beetle was less "safe" -- that is, less crashworthy (if you crashed it). The government decided that gas mileage mattered less than how well a car performs in an accident. But now it wants cars to do both -- comply with all current and soon-to-promulgated "safety" standards while also doubling or even tripling their gas mileage.

Which brings up the next problem:

* Lowering weight while maintaining crashworthiness will not be cheap or easy

There are ultra-lightweight race cars that are extremely crashworthy. You can hit a wall in one at 150 MPH and walk away with nothing more than a few bruises. Of course they also cost hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars each. High-strength, lightweight materials such as carbon fiber and titanium cost a lot more than steel or aluminum, the materials used to make ordinary passenger cars.

The Obama Car could be made of carbon fiber and average 56 MPG while also being very safe in a crash (though few people will ever have to worry about crashing one because no one except maybe tax-feeding millionaires like Obama himself will be able to buy one).

* Nix size

Of course, you could always just eliminate all cars larger than, say, the SmartForTwo car (which incidentally only gets 41 highway and seats -- you guessed it -- only two people). Maybe with a diesel engine such a car could manage to get close to 56 MPGs, average. There are micro-compacts in other markets, such as Europe, that approach 70 MPG on the highway. But anything larger than a micro-compact is going to be hugely problematic. A current year mid-sized family sedan like the Toyota Camry averages 26 MPG. That's with the four cylinder engine. Toyota would need to more than double the average MPGs of the Camry (and drop the optional V-6 from the roster) to qualify as an Obama Car, while also somehow retaining the ability to carry 4-5 passengers.

Which brings up the next option:

* Nix capability

Absent some deus ex machina technological miracle, there is no way -- period -- any vehicle you could describe as a truck or SUV will ever average 56 MPG. If cost is no object and you don't mind driving something very, very small the Obama Car is at least theoretically possible. But -- unless Obama really is in touch with aliens and has acquired their Advanced Technology -- 56 MPG and the ability to pull 10,000 pounds (or even 5,000 pounds) and do the other things people expect and yes, need their trucks to be able to do simply ain't gonna happen. Because you need at least a very big V-6 to do these things and no big V-6 (let alone a big V-8) will ever average 56 MPG or even come close to 56 MPG on the highway -- unless it's being rolled downhill with the engine off.

Not even today's pint-sized, car-based "crossovers" approach the Obama Car standard. For instance, the 2011 Honda CR-V -- which has a small 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine -- only manages 21 city and 28 highway and an average of 24 MPG. Honda would have to more than double the CR-V's mileage to make the cut. And the front-wheel-drive-based CRV is a lightweight, both in terms of its curb weight and its capabilities. It can barely tow 1,500 lbs. It does not have a two-speed transfer case. It is not designed to go off-road.

All current model pick-ups, trucks and crossovers with V-6 engines would have to nearly triple their current average MPGs. Anything with a V-8 would need to do even better. Do you believe in miracles? Apparently Obama does. More likely, he knows exactly what he is doing.

Wave bye-bye to every make/model pick-up, SUV and crossover on the market. Mid-sized cars might make it -- maybe -- if they're hybridized and downsized. And they'll be priced so high that by 2025, a car like the Camry will become the equivalent of a Daimler Maybach today. A car for the uber-rich elite only.

The rest of us will be driving tuna can-sized Obama Cars.

If we're allowed to drive anything at all.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.