Car Guy

Safety Inefficiency

Before government developed its safety fetish, American economy cars were genuinely efficient -- and affordable.

By 3.9.09

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Several state governments are going to a four-day workweek to save money. Some are issuing IOUs to taxpayers in lieu of tax refunds. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

So how come the same breaks aren't being cut for the auto industry -- and car buyers?

Why not, for example, at least temporarily suspend federal requirements that force the automakers to build 3,000 pound, 30 mpg "economy" cars that can't match the fuel efficiency of the mid-sized cars of 20 years ago and which cost thousands more than they need to?

Yes, you can thank Uncle Sam -- well-intentioned, as always -- for the fact that if you want a car capable of 40 mpg or better, your choices are very slim, or very expensive. Only hybrids and diesels make the 40 mpg cut. The best of today's "economy" cars are in the 35-38 mpg range.

Most are closer to 32 mpg.

Yet back in the early '80s, it was routine for economy cars to get 40 mpg. A few -- such as the 1982 Dodge Omni -- were in the 50s on the highway. The Mercury Lynx got 44 on the highway, the Chevy Cavalier 42 mpg's. This was with Disco-era technology such as four-speed manual transmissions, incidentally. (Almost every new car sold today has at least a five-speed transmission.)

There were literally dozens of cars available in the early-mid 1980s that got more than 40 mpg.

There is not one available today -- unless you count elaborate/expensive hybrids and diesels.

Doesn't "progress" mean we go forward? What happened?

Government happened.

Over the past 25 years, our friends in Washington -- who are always looking out for us, of course -- have demanded, under penalty of law, that new cars be made ever "safer," both in terms their ability to withstand a crash and also in terms of their ability to protect the occupants in every conceivable type of crash -- frontal, side, offset. You name it.

Thus the weight of the average "economy" car has increased by 500-800 pounds (heavier, more reinforced bodies provide better crashworthiness) while on the inside, at least two and more typically four air bags have been fitted.

Thus modern cars are a lot safer. But they're also much less economical.

Given a quarter-century of technological improvement (everything from five and six-speed transmissions to very sophisticated engine management systems that were not around in the early '80s), it would be simple -- and cheap -- to build a 50 mpg economy car today.

If the government would allow it.

Merely suspend federal bumper impact and "passive" (air bag) safety requirements. Let the automakers build 2,000 pound, 50 mpg cars that cost $10k -- which they could easily do, if allowed.

But such cars would be unsafe!

Well, that depends on how you define "safe." And how much safety you think the government should be forcing people to buy. The '70s and '80s -- an era of genuinely economical cars -- were not a time of mass carnage. True, if you wrecked an '82 Omni your chances of being hurt -- or even killed -- would be greater than would be the case if you'd been driving a 2009 (and federally approved) Toyota Yaris. If you wrecked. But maybe -- probably -- you'll never have a serious accident. Most people don't. Some of us -- many of us -- stand a good chance of never being involved in more than a minor fender-bender.

Perhaps the very real everyday fuel savings (and up-front savings on the car itself) are worth more to you than the theoretical "what if?" safety advantages of the modern, government-approved car?

The key phrase in the last sentence being "worth more to you." Shouldn't it be your decision, not Uncle Sam's? Why can't we -- like the eggheads running the government -- weigh the pros and cons of something and come to a conclusion that best meets our particular needs? And does anyone doubt that what America -- what the car industry -- needs very much right now is affordable, very high-mileage cars?

In a single stroke -- and with not one cent spent -- President Obama could resuscitate the U.S. car industry and massively decrease the nation's annual fuel consumption. Smaller, lighter cars would have another good effect, too. Our highways would take less of a beating -- and need fixing less often.

In so many ways, we're being forced to confront reality, economic and otherwise. It should be no different when it comes to the cars we're allowed to buy. The plain truth is out of work and financially struggling people cannot afford $25,000 hybrids. (GM's pending Volt electric car will be closer to $35k.)

Nor should they be told by know-it-all (and invariably very rich) D.C. politicos that they must have "x" and "y" -- invariably at their expense. The principle behind this has always been obnoxious. But now, it is unaffordable.

We can have uber-safe cars that cost $15k. Or we can have cars that get 50-plus MPG and cost $10k. We can't have both.

Whose choice -- whose business -- should it be?

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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.