LOS ANGELES -- I am at Starbucks outside the main floor of the Los Angeles Auto Show, and Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is waving a report card in my face. In this case, it’s cars that are being graded on fuel economy, and (as with people) there are A and C students, even a shameful D or two.
It’s worth thinking about this holiday weekend. The Environment America group just released a report entitled “Gobbling Less Gas for Thanksgiving” (I had to get that title in there) that Americans could save $234 million at the pumps this weekend if they had 60 mpg cars. That has been proposed as a possible federal mandate for 2025, but it’s a long way from reality.
Cooper is the director of research at CFA, and what he’s done is give letter grades to all 39 new cars on display at the Los Angeles show. His marks were calculated using the formula that the EPA has proposed for auto window stickers. The industry isn’t thrilled, but what a great idea! What grade do you think your car would get? Here are the ratings of the L.A. cars:
A+ Cars: (all electric, except for the fuel-cell Benz). BMW Mini E, Coda sedan, Mercedes-Benz B-Series F-Cell, Mitsubishi I-MiEV, Nissan Leaf, Wheego LiFe, Honda FCX Clarity, Honda Fit EV, Fisker Karma, Toyota RAV4 EV, Volvo C30 electric, Volkswagen Golf Blue emotion, Chevrolet Volt.
B+ Cars: Audi A3 TDI (diesel), Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, Volkswagen Golf TDI (diesel), Hyundai Elantra, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Fiat 500 Cinquecento, Ford Fiesta, Kia Optima Hybrid, Infiniti M35 Hybrid.
B Cars: Audi A7 Sportback, Kia Optima sedan, Volkswagen Eos, BMW X3, Mazda S.
B- Cars: Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid, Nissan Murano Cross Cabriolet, Nissan Quest, Saab 9-4X, Porsche 911 Carrera, Dodge Charger, Chevrolet Camaro Convertible LT, Porsche 911 Speedster.
C+ Car: BMW ActiveHybrid 7.
C Cars: Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG, Dodge Durango, Nissan GT-R, Range Rover Evoque.
It could have been worse. The Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano and Mercedes-Benz Maybach 57 would have gotten a D+ if they’d been there, and the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti a D. What’s heartening is the number of A+ and B+ cars on display, a clear majority.
If 2010 vehicles got letter grades, there’d be 40 rating B+, 218 getting B, and a whopping 369 (the largest group) getting B-. Some 19 would come away with Ds.
America’s car fleet is getting better. Fuel economy for 2009 models showed a 1.4 mpg increase, according to the EPA. The average vehicle achieved 22.4 mpg, which is a whopping seven percent increase over 2008. A lot of this is Americans switching from trucks to cars, and SUVs moving from truck chassis to crossovers based on more fuel-efficient cars. Trucks are now at their lowest share of the vehicle fleet since 1995. And 14 of the 15 manufacturers selling cars in the U.S. showed mileage gains.
“What’s interesting about this is that gas prices are not that high, especially when compared to the $4 people paid in 2008,” Cooper said. “There was also a big increase in people buying four-cylinder vehicles.”
Cooper told me that Americans could easily adapt to electric cars, since 85 percent of travel is in trips of 100 miles (the EV’s range limit). And he said (consumers take note!) that electrics cost just $2 to operate for 40 miles. If the upfront costs are high (and they are, with $32,000 a good starting point before federal rebates), Cooper points out that a buyer who takes out a six percent auto loan will be “cash-flow positive” almost immediately because of fuel savings. “The costs are lower in the first month,” he said.
Will electric vehicle prices come down with scale? Cooper is convinced they will. “When it reaches 60,000 sales annually, the Chevy Volt will be making money,” he said. That’s interesting, because I recently quoted former auto czar Steven Rattner saying that the car will cost $40,000 to build (and sell for $41,000). Scale certainly helps.
I don’t know if cars will end up with letter grades on the window stickers, but I think it certainly helps consumers make a quick judgment on the showroom floor. Here's my own showroom-eye video view on the Honda Fit EV, which I'd buy in a heartbeat:
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