Study: Cars Have Grown Bigger and Faster But Not As Efficient

The first car my best friend ever drove was a early 80’s Honda Accord hatchback. It was little more than an oversized rollarskate with a tiny, 80 horsepower engine, but it beat the hell out of walking. The car itself was cramped and lacked all the amenities one would find standard on today’s cars, even cupholders. Today, the car serves as an immobile flower bed for a maple tree and wildflowers, but the memories will remain.

Flash forward to today, and a new study finds that since the early ’80’s the Honda Accord has packed on over 1,000 lbs, doubled its standard horsepower, and fuel economy has steadily dipped. The study seems to suggest that if vehicle weight, horsepower, and torque were held at their 1980’s levels, then fuel efficiency could have increased by at least 50%, rather than the 15% increase that actually occured. But is it really that simple?

The study, by Christopher R. Knittel, entitled Automobiles on Steroids: Product Attribute Trade-Off s and Technological Progress in the Automobile Sector compares the Honda Accord of today with that of yesteryear. Today’s Accord weighs in at 3,200 lbs, 1,000 lbs more than the old 80’s accord. But it isn’t simply a matter of the cars increasing in length and girth. Since the 80’s, auto manufacturers have had a slew of new safety features forced upon them to improve accident impact. Things we take for granted today, like air bags, stability control, reinforced frames, and crumple zones did not exist back then. These features all add up over time, requiring more room on the car and thereby increasing its weight. Cars may be heavier today, but they are also impeccably safer too.

Comparing trucks results in an even more staggering numbers. The average horsepower on trucks increased by 99 percent, while weight went up by 26%. Sales of light trucks more than doubed between 1984 and 2004 as well, from 20% of passenger vehicle sales to 51%.

I have to take issue with the horsepower factor. I was lucky enough to survive my encounter with the Honda Accord hatchback, but only just. It had no passing power, period. An 80 horsepower motor, even on a lightweight 2,200 lb frame, is only enough power to get from point A to point B. Merging onto a highway was an exercise in patience, as fully loaded with four heavyweight teens, the car could take upwards of 20 seconds to reach even 60 mph. You don’t have to believe me, as I’ve been there. I would never wish anyone the experience of semi-trucks flying past at highway speeds, horn blaring, as the driver struggles to control the car through the strong wind wake while simultainously accelerating.

Besides, I like going fast.

Cars are supposed to improve year by year anyway. Why buy a new car that has the same horsepower rating as the 5 year old car still sitting in your driveway? Not everybody needs 300 horsepower, but I don’t think too many people want to drive an underpowered car either. Unless you live in Europe or do all your driving in the city, where you never go above 45 mph anyway.

The study does recognize that engines have, indeed, become more fuel efficient, as well as less noxious to the environment. The chart is a little deceptive as it fluctuates between 8 mpg, though it looks like a much more dramatic drop. Today’s engines are more powerful because they carry around more weight, but they also pollute less and they do more work on comparetively less fuel. Stick one of those old engines into a new Accord, and see what kind of mileage you get without the benefits of new engines and transmissions.

You could argue that the increase in horsepower was not necessary, but at least in America, where the roads are often long and flat, the power is usually a welcome feature. And remember, car companies are out to make money. That means competing with each other to provide the most attractive car to prospective buyer. If one company is offering 20 more horsepower at the same price as a competitors car, all other variables being the same, where do you think the buyer might drift?

I would like to emphasize, again, that actual fuel economy has dipped. The 80’s Hondas got better gas mileage because they were lighter and had less horsepower. But overall engine efficiency has increased, as the engines make double the horsepower, carry a 1/3 more weight, and still get impressive fuel economy figures, at least in the Accord’s case. Why the study suggests that fuel economy could have increased 50% if all other factors remained the same, I don’t know, because you are then disregarding 25 years of progress in both safety and engine efficiency.

But taking the study for what it is, we can see where car companies priorities have fallen. Amerca has always had big cars, and imports sought to emulate American sucess. The hard truth of the matter is, the car companies, including “green leaders” like Toyota, have always sold us, the consumer, what we wanted. It would be a little hypocritical for us to condemn them for selling us what we asked for.

At least for now though, the world seems to have changed its mind. You can hit the link below to go directly to the study itself.

So, what do you guys think?

Source: Automobiles on Steroids: Product Attribute Trade-Off s and Technological Progress in the Automobile Sector


Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.