Bringing Up the Average, On the Showroom Floor

, research director, Clean Vehicles | March 29, 2012, 14:52 pm EST
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Baseball season is upon us. This is an optimistic time for most fans, and particularly so for longtime Chicago Cubs fans like me who, it seems, all too often have less to cheer about as the season rolls on.

If you are a fan, or you recently watched Moneyball, you probably know that baseball is a game of statistics — ERA (earned run average), slugging percentage, batting average, etc. So, it was in this tradition that I spent an afternoon this past weekend, with a Cubs spring training game on in the background, digging into data to help me understand which car and truck classes offer consumers real choices for fuel-efficient vehicles, and which don’t.

The Average-to-Best Gap

To figure this out, I took a look at how 2011 vehicle classes, and the models in those classes, shaped up in terms of fuel economy. It turns out that some classes offer marquee players — standout models that far exceed the class average — while other classes don’t. The table below is a breakdown of the stats, including average and best fuel economies in each major vehicle class, along with the gap between the average and best (or, for the sake of simplicity, “ABG”). These data come from the latest edition of the EPA’s annual publication, Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends which, once again, delivers fascinating information on the latest shifts in the automotive industry.

So how do the classes compare? Take the midsize sedan category, for example. The sales-weighted model year 2011 average for that class was 27.2 mpg. But far more efficient options existed in showrooms. The most efficient model in that class reached 49.3 mpg, a full 22 mpg above the average. This is a very good ABG. Clearly, fuel-sipping technology exists and is being offered to shoppers in the midsize sedan class who want a fuel efficient model.

Now, compare that to the minivan category, whose average for the year was 21.3 mpg. And the best minivan? A measly 23.2 mpg — an ABG of not even 2 mpg better than the average. In other words, if you’re in the market for a particularly efficient minivan in 2011, well, sorry. Or, as Cubs fans would say, there’s always next year.

Next Year Is Here

Fortunately, for fuel-efficient vehicles, next year is here. 2012 is the first year of new fuel economy and emissions standards that are being phased in between now and 2016, and a proposal for even stronger standards out to 2025 is expected to be finalized this summer. These standards will bring fuel-saving technology to all major vehicle segments and ultimately bring up the overall fleet average. So to the little league team-toting minivan moms and dads, take heart. Things will get better soon.

As to the Cubs, we’ll take it one game at a time.

Average and Best Fuel Economies in Each Major Vehicle Class, Model Year 2011

2011 Vehicle Class

Average Fuel Economy (mpg)

Best Fuel Economy (mpg)

Average-to-Best Gap (“ABG”) (mpg)

Small Sedan




Midsize Sedan




Large Sedan




Small Wagon




Midsize Wagon








Large Van




Midsize Pickup




Large Pickup




Midsize SUV




Large SUV




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