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Americans back 55 mpg CAFE, Consumer Report survey shows

Americans may finally be buying into the idea of more fuel efficient vehicles, according to a survey released by Consumer Reports that says the majority of respondents back a corporate average fuel economy (CAFÉ) of 55 miles per gallon.

Unlike some surveys associated with Consumer Reports, this opinion poll was not conducted among subscribers to its print and online publications. The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a telephone survey of a nationally representative probability sample of telephone households. More than 1,000 interviews were completed among adults from Oct. 28 to Oct. 31, 2011. The margin of error is +/- 3.1% points at a 95% confidence level.

Not surprisingly, 93 percent of respondents support increased fuel efficiency, while 77 percent agree that car manufacturers should produce more fuel-efficient vehicles and the government should increase standards and enforce them. After all, who is going to tell a stranger on the phone that more fuel efficiency is a bad idea?

Where the survey starts to get interesting is the nugget that 56 percent of respondents said they were considering hybrid or electric cars for their next vehicle. If availability improves over the next 15 years, consumers are even more likely (72%) to consider them, according to survey results. Vehicle consideration is a tricky thing to track from intent to purchase because people will say one thing and then do another.

Consumer Reports says one of the factors behind the strong interest in fuel efficiency is the higher cost of gasoline. "Eighty-nine percent of consumers who are considering these hybrid and electric models cited lower fuels costs as one of their motivations for making the transition," said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center. "This survey demonstrates there is strong support in the consumer market for more efficient vehicles that help you keep your costs down at the gas pump."

Manufacturers are playing into that demand by creating more fuel efficient vehicles that offer high miles per gallon through smaller engines, lighter weight, the use of hybrid technology, all-electric vehicles or diesel powertrains that do especially well in highway mileage. Hyundai already points out how much of its sales are by its 40-mpg vehicles. Other manufacturers will probably soon follow suit.

An unsettling aspect of the survey is 81 percent of consumers say they were willing to pay extra for a more fuel-efficient vehicle if it would lower their operating costs. That thinking led people to buy the Toyota Highlander Hybrid when it first came out in spite of the fact it would take more than nine years to make up the difference in MSRP vs. the standard Toyota Highlander. That has improved to 8.5 years with gas at $3.42 a gallon. Operating costs are lower at approximately $1800 for the four-wheel drive hybrid (only available in four-wheel drive) vs. $2600 for the standard four-wheel drive hybrid.

Among the issues evaluated, consumers who have at least one car indicate that the price of gasoline (79%) is their number one concern, followed closely by America's reliance on foreign oil (72%). Champion said, "Moving to a 54.5 mpg average by 2025 would save consumers thousands in fuel costs over the life of the vehicle. This survey makes it clear that there will be customer demand for these efficient vehicles as auto manufacturers continue to innovate to meet these standards."

This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to unveil details of the proposed CAFE standards and issue a notice of proposed rulemaking.

Time will tell if the Consumer Reports survey reflects reality and American consumers finally start to rein in their lust for more powerful, less fuel efficient vehicles.