WASHINGTON - Automakers could be building vehicles that get 33 percent better fuel economy than the ones they are selling, the EPA says.
The catch: Americans would have to be satisfied with the performance, size and utility of the vehicles they bought in 1981.
As the Senate resumes debate over a giant bill to update and alter national energy policy, the EPA's latest report on trends in motor vehicle fuel economy suggests that automakers could meet tougher Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards.
Automakers have developed powertrains that extract more energy from each gallon of gasoline, according to the EPA report. But the industry does not use the gains to produce vehicles that use significantly less fuel. Instead, it makes vehicles that are heavier and more powerful. Many more of them are trucks.
Comparing 2003 models with 1981 models clearly shows that.
The average 2003 model will be 24 percent heavier than the average 1981 model, the EPA says. And the 2003 model has 93 percent more horsepower, helping it accelerate from zero to 60 mph 29 percent faster. But the 2003 model has only 1 percent better fuel economy than the 1981 vehicle.
Environmental groups say this misguided "progress" by the industry is a reflection of weak federal CAFE standards and that automakers don't do any more than the minimum to meet standards.
The EPA estimates that all 2003 models in operation will average 20.8 mpg, down 6 percent from a peak of 22.1 mpg in 1987 and 1988. Under EPA's analysis of horsepower and weight, this year's fleet fuel economy could be 33 percent better - or more than 27.6 mpg.
Elizabeth Lowery, General Motors vice president for energy and environment, disputes the claim.
"It's very difficult to do an average that way," she says. But if automakers were building vehicles with the attributes of 1981 vehicles, they would have "no customers," she adds. EPA's estimates of real-world gasoline mileage are about 15 percent lower than the mileage rates that are derived from laboratory tests and used for the government's CAFE program.