Not long ago, I spotted an advertisement touting the Ford Escape Hybrid. "Innovation under the hood," it read. "500 miles on a tank."
Big deal. Nash-Kelvinator introduced a car in 1941 that got 600 miles to a tank of gasoline, the aptly named Nash Ambassador 600. Sure, there are differences between the Escape and the Nash. For one thing, the Nash was a large six-passenger car. The Escape is a crossover that holds only five.
Nash achieved that fuel economy without the benefit of radial tires, electronic ignition, low-drag brakes or any of the other new technologies that have appeared in the past 65 years. And because the Nash didn't have exotic technology, it was priced right along with the "low-priced three" (Chevrolet-Ford-Plymouth). It sold like suntan lotion in a nudist colony.
So how far have we really come? Years ago, many cars offered better fuel economy than today's autos.
In the 1950s, a little U.S. automaker named Midget Motors marketed a teensy two-passenger runabout that got up to 90 mpg. The little Crosley (1939-52) was good for 41-50 mpg. In 1954, Nash introduced the Metropolitan, the Smart car of its day -- a stylish two-seater that routinely got 35 to 45 mpg.
Fast forward to the 1970s. In 1978, my wife and I bought a Mazda GLC, a cute little hatchback that was rated at 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. Many of today's so-called economy cars don't offer that kind of mileage.
Pinto Pony, Mazda Mizer
In 1984, I purchased a Wisconsin-built Renault Alliance, an attractive five-passenger compact that was rated at 38 mpg city and 52 mpg highway. I regularly saw gas mileage in the 44- to 47-mpg range with a load of people and luggage, driving at 70 mph with the air conditioning running.
In the fuel crises of the 1970s, several companies brought out "high mileage" versions of their standard cars. Ford had the Pinto Pony; Mazda offered the Mizer.
Today, aside from expensive hybrids, few companies are marketing a truly economical car.
Yet by doing so, an automaker could carve out a niche for itself. The enlightened automaker that decides to tread that path would have an easier time convincing people to trade in their old vehicles because buyers would see real advantages in buying a more efficient car.
Would everybody in America want one?
No, but I believe a significant segment of the population would be interested in such a car.
We don't know the size of the market for fuel-efficient cars, but the success of Toyota's Prius gives an indication of the level of interest. Lee Iacocca used to say that "people want economy, and they're willing to pay any price to get it." That's no exaggeration.
Perhaps we should consider bringing back the Mobil Fuel Economy Run. Remember? In the 1950s and 1960s, Mobil sponsored an annual contest for fuel efficiency. Cars competed in several categories, from low-priced to luxury. Fuel economy was measured in ton-miles so bigger vehicles wouldn't be at a disadvantage.
In 1951, a Rambler convertible with stick shift and overdrive set a record with 31.05 mpg. Nash got a lot of attention from that accomplishment. It later sent a Rambler wagon on a 2,961-mile run from Los Angeles to New York City with a NASCAR observer on board. The results: 32.09 mpg with only five stops for gas.
The Rambler was a four-door, six-passenger station wagon. The resulting publicity did wonders for Rambler sales.
Let's make up our minds to focus more attention on fuel economy. Bring back the Mizer models and the fuel-economy runs. Let's see who can be the first to emphasize efficiency.
You may e-mail Patrick R. Foster at [email protected]