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Thursday, April 17, 2014

‘MPG’ Politicized

The evolving definition of Miles Per Gallon
From gas-guzzling SUVs to fuel-frugal hybrids, energy-efficiency applies to a wide range of vehicles. With gas prices at an average of $3.50 or more per gallon these days, the miles-per-gallon measurement has become a more significant issue for Americans seeking to cut back on the cash they pump into the pump each week. 

But miles-per-gallon is also probably more misunderstood than in-car navigation systems, Bluetooth connections and other high-tech features common in new vehicles.


In fact, “MPG” is little more than a government-controlled measurement that the average consumer ought to carefully scrutinize before signing a pricy new car contract.

Government oversight

Since the 1980s, the average MPG actually dropped a bit – vehicles are slightly less efficient today than they were when the boxy, compact eyesore of the Chevy Sprint ER boasted a remarkable 53 MPG on the highway. Thisinfographic by DriveTime explains how Congress and American automakers have influenced the public’s understanding of MPG for more than 40 years amid a fuel-economy freeze.

Today, standards are evolving as some policymakers and the Environmental Protection Agency consider raising the average MPG for passenger cars to more than 47 MPG by 2025. But that goal might sound like a pie-in-the-sky effort, based on how the federal government has waffled over how to manage MPG in the past few decades.

The average fuel efficiency today is around 27 MPG, or a half-mile-per-gallon less than the 1980s. But that doesn’t mean every car is less fuel-efficient now. Hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles are more prevalent now than ever. The MPG issue became so confusing that the EPA redesigned the fuel-economy stickers affixed to new cars to provide the average consumer with a clearer explanation of how much money the new-car buyer can expect to spend on fuel costs each year.

Going beyond 'MPG'

Fuel-efficiency is also more important to consider than MPG because driving habits, road conditions and the weight of the vehicle all factor into overall fuel economy. Judging fuel-efficiency requires a close look at the quality of a vehicle’s brakes, fuel system, the size of the gas tank, wheel size, and other factors.

Fuel costs entirely depend on vehicle type, vehicle maintenance or longevity, and the region of the U.S. where gas is purchased. Fuel watchdogs like the American Automobile Association provide motorists with gauges and calculators to estimate costs, though with the ever-fluctuating price of oil, it’s difficult to find a clear answer on how much to budget for gas each year.

Sites like Edmunds.com and ConsumerReports.org offer guides to understanding fuel economy. The EPA also provides its own side-by-side vehicle fuel economy comparison. The bottom line is to get beyond MPG and do more extensive research than just viewing a single number.

It’s clear that MPG isn’t the best number to focus on during a new car purchase. Those “highway MPG estimates” mentioned in the rapid-fire fine-print script on car commercials are just that: estimates.