Car Guy

Magical Thinking in California

Zero to 40 in under 7 years -- that's miles per gallon, with no exceptions.

By 7.2.09

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California's a mess. A bankrupt fiasco. A state that has regulated and spent itself into a well of debt so deep it makes the economic situation in the other 49 states seem not half-bad.

But instead of putting a chokehold on California's run-amok bureaucrats, the federal government just gave them the go ahead to impose California-specific fuel economy and emissions control requirements on new cars sold there, beginning with the 2016 model year. California has long wanted to demand that new cars achieve 40 mpg, on average -- 5 mph higher than the "49 state" requirement recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama.

Now there will be two sets of differing requirements for the flatlined auto industry to cope with: One for cars sold in CA, one for cars sold everywhere else. Maybe several different requirements, since a number of states have expressed interest in either following CA or maybe passing requirements of their own.

So, instead of building a single car to sell everywhere in the United States, the car companies will have to build some cars for CA, some for other states. Which of course will make them more expensive for everyone, since it costs more to build a "California Corolla" and a slightly different one for, say, Texas -- instead of just a Corolla that's sold everywhere.

The other option is for the industry to build all its cars to meet the CA standard and then sell them everywhere. But here again, state laws tend to be slightly different from state to state -- and it will take lots of billable hours for the lawyers to sort it out and then more time and money frittered away by designers and engineers trying to make it all work. Which means, probably, it'll cost you more, too.

Undergirding both the recently passed nationwide 35 mpg standard and the even more ambitious CA 40 mpg standard is a species of Magical Thinking that imagines if you can wish it (or toss out a new law) it will be so. The people running the EPA, the Congress and the CA state government are not engineers. They like the notion of 35-40 mpg cars (doesn't everyone?) and assume it's merely the intransigence of the car companies and the machinations of "big oil" that have kept such wonders from a desperate public.

But 35-40 mpg cars are hard to make when the government has already imposed laws and regulations that have pushed the weight of "economy" cars up by more than 500 pounds on average, mandated ethanol-laced "gasoline" that reduces average fuel efficiency by as much as 5-10 percent and the industry so bankrupted by the existing rules and rigmarole that there is not much money left lying around to "invest" in "new technologies" -- which are rarely cheap. (Not many know this, but every single hybrid sold by Toyota to date has been sold at a loss, the company subsidizing the true cost in order to "encourage" the technology.)

We did have 40 mpg cars -- dozens of different models -- about a quarter century ago. But that was before the government came thunder-thighing into the room and imposed "safety" requirements like air bags and low-speed bumper impact edicts that made it illegal to build cars like the old VW Beetle or the Renault LeCar or the Plymouth Champ or even the venerable Chrysler K-cars of the early '80s -- all of which got better mileage than any new "economy" car built today.

The economy cars of the '70s and '80s were much lighter than their modern counterparts, so they could get by with smaller, much less gas thirsty engines. Even without the advantages of modern technology, they easily got better mileage than almost any modern econo not-so-compact can deliver.

True, they weren't as "safe" in an accident -- and yes, they were slow (0-60 times were on the order of 15 seconds vs. 8-9 seconds today). But you literally cannot have it both ways. You can have a low-cost, extremely fuel efficient compact. Or you can have a more expensive, not-so-compact that's astonishingly crashworthy for its size and rather peppy, too -- but not quite so fuel efficient.

What you can't have is a 40 mpg economy compact that's as crashworthy as the mid-sized cars of 20 years ago and which can get to 60 mph in under 10 seconds for not much more than $10,000 or so -- merely because you wish it to be so.

And a 40 mpg pick-up? Family-sized car? Why not also wish for world peace while you're at it?

But in the Land of Dreams, magical thinking is a pervasive affliction. It has already driven California to the brink of an unprecedented financial disaster. Now we're about to follow California's example on a national scale.

Enjoy the ride. The upside is, it won't last long…

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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.