Chart of the Day: Fuel Economy, Weight, and Horsepower, 1975 – 2018

Here’s a chart about cars, showing the changes since 1975 in some key dynamics about how cars use energy and how big they are. It’s from the EPA’s latest report on automotive trends, and it pegs these three variables at 1975 levels, charting the changes.

Check it out:

Fuel Economy Weight Car Chart

As you can see, there were big changes in the late 1970s, during the oil crisis, where cars became smaller and more fuel efficient relatively quickly.

Since then, though, personal vehicles in the US have been getting heavier and more powerful at a steady pace. Fuel economy, on the other hand, has seen improvements since about 2004. (Thanks, Obama.)

Here’s are some key points from the report:

The overall market continues to move towards both car SUVs and truck SUVs. Combined, car and truck SUVs captured a record high 43% market share in model year 2017. … All five vehicle types are at or near record low CO2 emissions and record high fuel economy and have steadily improved in recent years. However, the market shift towards SUVs and away from sedan/wagons has offset some of the fleetwide benefits that otherwise would have been achieved from the increased fuel economy within each vehicle type.

However, since model year 2004 technology has been used to increase fuel economy (up 29%) and power (up 11%), while maintaining vehicle weight and reducing CO2 emissions (down 23%). The improvement in CO2 emissions and fuel economy since 2004 is due to many factors, including gasoline prices, consumer preference, and increasing stringency of NHTSA light-duty car and truck CAFE standards.

Check out the whole report online.

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33 Responses to Chart of the Day: Fuel Economy, Weight, and Horsepower, 1975 – 2018

  1. Mark May 10, 2019 at 11:35 am #

    I’ve seen this chart making the rounds lately and some of the takes have been quite interesting. A lot of finger blame has been levied on SUVs (a lot of it deservedly so), but when you look at the chart it shows that weight gains over the last 15 years have been relatively static (2%) increase. Where we see the biggest gains are in that previous 15 year stretch from the late 80s to early 00s. Why? Well you can’t really blame SUVs here, instead it’s a combination of NHTSA, other Federal agencies, and good old consumerism.

    This period saw an influx of new safety devices that were either required or optional saw high adoption rates over the coming years. Airbags were required for 1989 cars. Anti-lock brakes, though not federally required, leaped to the forefront in the mid-80s when Mercedes made them standard. Crash tests led to new safety requirements which forced manufacturers to add side impact protections, larger canopy frames (A/B/C pillars) for rollover protection.

    Consumerism took it’s toll on weight too. People love having power heated (and cooled) seats. Sound systems with at least a dozen speakers. They want the quietest ride which means more sound deadening materials. Don’t forget about the larger rims. Catalytic converters became standard in the 70s, but nowadays it’s common for vehicles to have multiple ‘cats’. While many of these items were relatively small and by themselves add little weight, adding 5lbs over and over adds up. Just look at the Ford Mustang, over the 15 year stretch from the mid 80s to late 90s it added over 400lbs to its weight!

    I’m almost not ready to vilify horsepower increases as being evil. While they obviously can lead to an increase in fuel consumption if a person drives like a jackass, a lot of the increases are being achieved through methods that are intended to make the vehicle more fuel efficient. At the end of the day an engine is nothing more than an air pump, any efficiency changes to that system can increase fuel economy while increasing horsepower. Key examples are direct injection and turbocharging. Turbos have the ability to use waste (exhaust gas) to inject more air into an engine, thus increasing its efficiency.

    Sorry for the lengthy post, we can go back to our regularly scheduled chat about why SUVs are horrible.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke May 10, 2019 at 12:21 pm #

      The horsepower increases seem unnecessary given that the vast majority of the time cars are not using that potential energy.

      • Mark May 10, 2019 at 12:42 pm #

        I get that line of thinking, but it’s not really the case. What you need to focus on is the area under the curve. Horsepower numbers are always listed at peak value, and while that helps sell some vehicles and gives those with low self worth something to brag about to their friends, that isn’t the key data point. Efficiencies in the combustion process will lead to a natural byproduct of horsepower increases. Take for instance changing your air filter for an aftermarket unit, or even just a clean one, the engine will breath better, you’ll instantly gain better fuel economy, and more power. Since the engine won’t have to work as hard since it’s more efficient, it’ll make more power at a lower RPM, lower RPMs = better fuel economy. So while you may decry the peak horsepower values as completely unnecessary it’s far more complex and there is some value in it (too a point, obviously we don’t all need 500hp nor should we really be using the peak number a vehicle can achieve on a regular basis).

        This is also a key reason why transmission technology has been critical in helping increase fuel economy. The modern 10 speed transmissions coming out allow a vehicle to operate at a significantly lower RPM at the same speed versus an old 4 speed transmission.

        • Monte Castleman May 10, 2019 at 1:23 pm #

          There’s actually a trend towards larger crossover type vehicles to have under-sized engines for what they are in the interest of fuel economy (both the government getting it’s hands all over the free market with EPA standards, as well as response of the free market itself due to consumer demand). I guess the thinking is if you want something peppy and sporty you buy a V6 sedan, not a crossover. This is mitigated somewhat by gains made in aerodynamics, hybrid technology, and 6+ speed transmissions.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke May 10, 2019 at 3:51 pm #

          way over my head!

        • Lou Miranda May 11, 2019 at 4:27 pm #

          Increasing horsepower has made our streets more dangerous as anyone who can press a pedal can quickly get in over their head.

          Look at all the photos of cars crashing into buildings lately.

          Horsepower.

          • Mark May 11, 2019 at 10:23 pm #

            No, that’s the result of stupid drivers and reckless driving. You can blame the tool all you want, but it’s the responsibility of the operator. What we need is better driver education, and actual recertification instead of a basic eye exam.

            • Lou Miranda May 12, 2019 at 9:02 am #

              You can’t accelerate into a building from a parking spot in front of it unintentionally if your car has only 80 HP (or ft-lbs of torque). You’ll barely get over the curb before realizing what’s happening.

              • Mark May 12, 2019 at 1:08 pm #

                That’s an incredibly poor argument. The fact that you’re unwilling to even entertain the thought that the operator has some blame shows a clear bias on your part.

                The average vehicle does 0-60 in 8 seconds. The average human reaction time is .5 seconds. If a driver goes into a building from a dead stop from their parking spot it’s because they’re an idiot. Again, you’re blaming the tool when it’s crystal clear the operator is 100% at fault.

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke May 12, 2019 at 10:50 am #

              Separating technology from individual agency is a lost cause.

              • Mark May 12, 2019 at 1:01 pm #

                It’s a lost cause with that attitude. Using your stance we shouldn’t enact any change at all because the vast majority of humans are complacent and unwilling to do anything….and yet here we are having a discussion about differences…..

      • Monte Castleman May 10, 2019 at 1:15 pm #

        Maybe you’d change your mind if you’re trying to merge onto the freeway in a 1980s “malaise era” car and you can only make it up to 45 mph before you need to merge into freeway traffic moving along at 65+

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke May 10, 2019 at 3:50 pm #

          ah it’s fine. i have driven tons of 4-cylinder cars.

          • Monte Castleman May 10, 2019 at 5:08 pm #

            But have you driven something like a 4 cylinder 1981 Ford Escort (70hp), or just cars like a 2013 4 cylinder Toyota Corolla (132 hp), I’ve been in 1980s Escorts and the lack of power when trying to make a left turn in a gap in traffic, merge onto a freeway, or pass a semi is terrifying.

            • Lou Miranda May 11, 2019 at 4:29 pm #

              I drove many low-horsepower Japanese cars in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Sure, they were slow. Making them faster has only made them more dangerous.

              Look at all the protections we need for drivers and passengers, all the while killing pedestrians & cyclists.

              • Monte Castleman May 13, 2019 at 10:25 am #

                In 1980 there were 3.35 fatalities per 100 million VMT. In 2017 there were 1.16. I don’t think cars are getting more dangerous.

                Maybe if you’re driving 70 in a 30 speed is dangerous and even a malaise era car can (eventually) do that. Speed isn’t dangerous if you have a powerful enough engine to actually match freeway speed going down an entrance ramp, lack of speed and acceleration is what’s extremely dangerous. Merging onto a freeway at 45 mph because that’s all your under-powered car can do is a good way to cause a crash

                • Stuart May 13, 2019 at 11:23 am #

                  Are your fatality figures for the people driving, or the people they are hitting? Most of the “slower is safer” arguments put forward on this site are relating to drivers in cars hitting people walking or biking.

                  As discussed above, allot of the changes in car design over the last 40 years have been to make the car safer for the people inside of it, even though they are going faster and more dangerous to other people.

                  • Adam Miller
                    Adam Miller May 13, 2019 at 11:33 am #

                    And feature designs (i.e., SUVs) that we know make them more deadly to pedestrians.

                  • Mark May 13, 2019 at 12:02 pm #

                    The fatality numbers represent anyone killed (within 30 days) from a crash involving a vehicle, including occupants, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc…

                    SUVs are clearly more dangerous to pedestrians due to their larger frontal area. When I was in Switzerland a few years ago the Volvo (wagon) I was driving had a system that would automatically brake if the car detected something in the road (person, animal, vehicle, etc….). I’ve seen this technology slowly be offered in the US, ideally it should be standard, especially on SUVs.

                    Another change I would like to see is regarding braking standards on vehicles. Right now all the attention is focused on the engine, be it size, horsepower/torque, fuel economy, emissions, but very little is paid to brakes. Sure vehicles have ABS now, but it wasn’t until 2013 that it was mandated by NHTSA. There should be braking standards that each vehicle should be required to hit, such as 60-0 in 120′.

                    • Monte Castleman May 13, 2019 at 12:22 pm #

                      And there is thought into making vehicles safer for pedestrians in a car vs pedestrian crash. Things like hood ornaments and popup headlights are no longer allowed.

                      I agree that front collision avoidance systems should be standard as soon as feasible, as well as amber rear turn signals. We’ve gotten a good start with mandatory ABS and vehicle stability control.

                      Instead we’re seeing things like mandatory rear cameras and calls for an alarm that goes off if you leave a kid (or presumably a bag of dog food) in the back seat. While tragic such incidents are pretty small compared to traditional “crash into an another car / person / object” type incidents.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller May 13, 2019 at 9:59 am #

          I drove a tiny Renault (not sure but think it may have been 3 cylinders) around Ireland. Merging on the freeway was interesting, but I was thankful for it on the tiny roads.

          • Monte Castleman May 13, 2019 at 10:53 am #

            How’s driving in Ireland in general? My sister insists that we go there sometime and keeps asking if I’d be fine driving over there.

            • Adam Miller
              Adam Miller May 13, 2019 at 11:29 am #

              In a word, narrow. You’ll be fine, but there will be some scares about how much space is between the center line and the rock wall next to the road. And I find I drive a lot slower than the locals, thanks to the narrowness.

              But I got farther afield than most do and probably used some smaller roads. Freeway driving was pretty normal, aside from being on the wrong side.

    • Lou Miranda May 11, 2019 at 4:24 pm #

      Except this graph is not the average of each vehicle sold, it’s the average of all models.

      Since SUVs have increased in market share so much, things are much worse than this graph makes them seem.

      Take a vehicle model—an model—and trace it over the past 20 or more years. They have gotten much longer, wider, heavier, and more powerful. A 1980 Honda Civic was a tiny, lightweight car that had <100 hp and got 40+ mph on the highway. A 2019 Honda Civic is far larger, heavier, longer, & more powerful than a 1980 Honda Accord was.

      4-cylinder engines today easily go up and over 200 hp.

      Manufacturers have been introducing smaller models as their existing models get bigger and bigger. Honda had to introduce the Fit and HRV as the Civic and CRV grew in size. Meanwhile, these vehicles sell less and less, and Americans buy more and more large SUVs. We’re back to vehicles the size of 1976 Cadillac de Villes, which were derisively nicknamed ocean liners.

      Is it consumerism, or marketing? Are people dying to buy these extra features, or do manufacturers hawk them in ads, and add them to “convenience packages” that make them more appealing to people who look for “value”?

      • Lou Miranda May 11, 2019 at 4:25 pm #

        That was supposed to say “Take a vehicle model—any model…”

      • Mark May 11, 2019 at 10:16 pm #

        Not really. Again you’re looking at the date and wanting it to support your beliefs, but a critical look at the core data paints a far more complex picture.

        Over the last decade SUV & light truck sales saw their market share increase by 12%, yet this chart shows only a 2% increase in average vehicle weight.

        Vehicle weight has become static in recent years, it’s previous increase was in many ways driven by NHTSA (and consumerism) and the need for increased vehicle safety. That adds weight to a vehicle. If you want to compare an 80s Honda to a current one then you should also examine its emissions impact as well as safety, it’s quite clear which car wins (hint: nothing from the 80s).

        Also it’s quite disingenuous to claim that vehicles are the same size as the behemoths from the 70s. I’m old enough to remember them, to have driven them, we’re nowhere close to that. The fact is a Suburban has practically the same wheelbase for the last 30+ years….which is the same as the Cadillac you reference.

        • Lou Miranda May 12, 2019 at 9:06 am #

          That’s exactly what I’m saying. In the ‘80s we moved to smaller cars. Now we’re moving back to Suburbans which are the same length as Cadillac de Villes of yore, but far wider, taller, & more dangerous with their truck frames and flat fronts, killing pedestrians & cyclists with ease.

          • Mark May 12, 2019 at 12:59 pm #

            Except not really. The Suburban is by far the biggest passenger vehicle sold today, and yet it accounts for a minute fraction of all SUV sales. You’re trying to use extremes to make your point, focus on the actual data instead.

            I would gladly welcome a discussion about why the frame of a truck is inherently more dangerous than a unibody style. And I don’t mean vehicle height, weight, width, strictly the frame itself.

      • Monte Castleman May 12, 2019 at 10:27 am #

        I don’t think people need marketing to make them want versatile, capable, comfortable cars.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke May 12, 2019 at 10:33 am #

        Oh dear. That is disingenuous on the part of the EPA.

        • Monte Castleman May 12, 2019 at 11:09 am #

          And one way you compensate for the decreased performance due to adding weight and emissions control equipment is adding horsepower to the engine…

  2. Lou Miranda May 11, 2019 at 4:14 pm #

    Excellent chart, Bill. I’ve been looking for this information for a while. I’m old enough to remember new cars in 1975. 😉 Oh, the days of those glossy brochures in the Sunday paper.

  3. Andrew Evans May 13, 2019 at 11:34 am #

    That chart is too new. It would be helpful for it to reach back to the 20’s or 30’s and include piston driven aircraft. Although we did have the muscle car years, iirc and imo, some of the development for piston engines dropped off once the jet age hit. There was no need to look into turbo’s or superchargers because jets, not pistons were operating under extreme conditions. Things like water injection were (rightfully or wrongfully) set aside for the most part. So at least to me, some of the development was static up to the 70’s.

    It also should show the years when laws or regulations were passed. For example we have crash testing here, which excludes quite a few European cars. We also have laws that impose certain fuel blends, that add additional design and development into engines so they can burn it. That, and we have more emissions laws that impose additional requirements on an engine.

    I had thought that the reason HP has been increasing is that companies want to get the cleanest burn and most performance out of their engines to meet emissions and end up running them faster, hotter, and leaner, than they would have in the past. That, or engine technology is finally starting to catch up to things like efficacy and being able to do it while meeting fuel and emissions requirements.

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