Skip to main content

Modern gasoline powered cars approaching hybrid mileage levels

Gasoline powered vehicles are starting to match the first generation of hybrids in terms of combined MPG. Here's how they did it without using any electric drive.

Modern gasoline powered cars and crossovers from Toyota and Mazda in particular, but all manufacturers to some degree, are very close to matching the amazing fuel economy that the first wave of hybrids achieved. When the first generation of Honda Insight, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry, and the king of the hill Toyota Prius came on the scene there were two reactions from the majority of writers, drivers, and critics. First, we were all amazed by the jump in fuel economy hybrids were able to make. Second, we all hated to drive them because they were awful. Too slow, herky jerky braking, and also extremely expensive for the class they were in.

Before we go too far it is important to discuss the way EPA rates cars. Prior to 2007 the EPA had a system and it worked pretty well. I owned about 10 cars up to that point and I always got the EPA rated mileage on all of them. However, I mostly drove Hondas and Toyotas. In addition, I was always aware that if I was in a blizzard, idling a lot (for example in winter conditions to warm the car, or keep the battery from dying due to sub-zero cold) or if I was acting like a race car driver, my mileage would drop a bit. Other car makers did not do as good of a job sticking to the EPA program and some normal drivers with normal intelligence were disappointed with their mileage. Also, many not normal drivers with not normal intelligence complained loudly that they could not understand why they were not getting the EPA estimates. So EPA adapted and built in a cushion. In 2008 it changed the ratings to be more difficult.

It sort of worked. Almost all people now get the EPA estimated mileage in all but the most extreme conditions, which frankly have nothing to do with the estimate program anyway. For example, car magazines doing acceleration and top speed testing still report their mileage and we have no idea why. It only confuses the issue. The cars they are testing are passenger cars, not track cars, so why the much lower track MPG is included in their reports is still a mystery. Also, Ford and Hyundai/Kia have both paid their customers to keep them from successfully suing them in court over exaggerated MPG estimates (allegedly…). So there are still cheaters and still people who find ways not to get the MPG the EPA test cycle predicts, but it is more under control.

The upshot of this is that the older cars had higher ratings and have been adjusted to match what they would get today if tested using the harder protocol. For example, the 2005 Honda Accord V6 Hybrid was originally rated 29/37 MPG and it would now be rated 25/33. The new, 2014 Honda Accord V6 gets a whopping 21 MPG city and 34 MPG highway. It doesn’t match the old hybrid in the city, but it is almost the same in overall mileage.

The original Honda Civic is also a good example. The revised mileage for that car with an automatic was rated at 40 city and 43 highway. That is still good today, but the Toyota Corolla LE Eco is approaching that with 30 city and 42 highway. Yes, we realize the city mileage is significantly lower, but on the highway these two cars are about the same.

Crossovers are coming much closer. The original Ford Escape was a 205 model and in 2WD configuration it got 30 MPG city and 28 MPG highway for a combined score of 29 MPG. The new Mazda CX-5 (gasoline only) can match that with its 26 MPG highway and 35 MPG highway numbers. Combined it gets 29 MPG.

Clearly, in the city hybrids will always have the edge because their electric assist works best in that scenario. Hybrids both generate and also use most of their electric power in the city. On the highway they really don’t do a lot better than they would without the electric drive system.

There is one big exception to this whole story and that is the original Honda Insight. That car’s original mileage rating by the EPA was 61/70 MPG. After adjustment to comply with the new more rigorous EPA ratings system, the car still gets a 49/61 MPG rating. That car simply blows away every other single green car made before or since in terms of sensible green transportation. Those numbers by the way are for the five speed stick shift version of the car. Imagine what a CVT transmission could have bumped that car up to?

The reason that gasoline cars can do so well now is 2-fold. First, other than the electric motor and battery system, almost all new cars have all of the other fuel saving hybrid tricks as standard equipment. Low rolling resistance tires, CVT transmissions, electric power steering, and active aerodynamics are just a few of the tricks. Almost all car makers now also have a way to charge the regular battery in the car only when there is ample power to do so without impacting fuel economy, and many cars also now have much more carefully programmed AC systems. The drag on the engine is reduced by using the accessories only when it makes good sense. Finally, although not a big factor in EPA figures, all car makers can now employ auto stop-start so that cars sitting at red lights don’t burn any gas. The second reason gasoline cars are doing so well is due to new engine advances such as direct injection (like diesels have had for some time) and valve management like Toyota’s new Valvematic system.

Mainstream gasoline cars and crossovers have made in credible advances in fuel economy over the past decade. Cars like the mid/full size Mazda 6 sedan now get 40 MPG highway and are creeping in to the mid-30s MPG range city. Small cars like the new Mitsubishi Mirage can get 44 MPG highway. It should be noted though that the most popular single vehicle sold in the US is a 4WD truck that gets 15 MPG city. And that company brags about it.


ByeBye (not verified)    December 19, 2013 - 1:19PM

This is an example of yellow journalism in the digital age.
Interesting how the writer accused Hundai and Ford of cheating in their EPA ratings. They performed the testing according to EPA's rules, they did not invent the test, so to call them cheaters when the test methodology is clearly inadequate for predicting all real world scenarios.
Comparing 2005 era Hybrid vehicles to 2014 era SI Engine vehicles is questionable at best, and fails to compare the Fuel Economy gains in Hybrid vehicles which have occured over those 9 years. Certainly not fully objective reporting.
One last observation is that the author is in all probability a student of physics; speculating on how good mileage for a Insight would be if only it had a CVT vs. a 5 speed Manual. FE boils down to gear ratio and slip / inefficiencies within the Powertrain. (CVT inherently has more slip and lower efficiency than a step ratio manual transmission due to inclusion of a torque converter and oil pimp among other factors.)
Oh well I guess everyone has an opinion, and the internet allows you to post it with no oversight as to competence.

John Goreham    December 20, 2013 - 9:34AM

In all fairness you are so wrong on CVTs it is simply shocking. The story says right in the subtitle that it is a comparison of first generation hybrids to current ICE cars. That is the premise. The reason that both Ford and Hyundai both settled with the EPA and NHTSA and paid their customers the difference in what they wrongly advertised as fuel economy and what they actually got was that they got caught gaming the system. In Hyundai's case they did not stick to the normal EPA test cycle standards and exaggerated the coast down effect. In Ford's case they used another car's fuel economy numbers. Defend that action if you want to. Both have republished the fuel economy numbers and they are significantly lower than they first advertised. Hyundai still has not worked its way back to the MPG it had previously claimed a few years ago.