Who Really Wins? Detroit vs Japan, Korea and Europe for Fuel Economy Advantage

Comparing many vehicles delivers surprises, challenging many consumer perceptions

Most consumers, when surveyed, assume Japanese vehicles are the most fuel efficient. That's because Honda and Toyota have long topped Detroit brands when the government measures Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE). But in model vs. model comparisons among Detroit, Japanese, Korean and European cars and trucks, the results will surprise.

Let's start with what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says in its current ranking. While many consumers believe Honda and Toyota top the fuel economy rankings, Hyundai actually has had the highest fleet-wide fuel economy since 2008. Last year, its fleet averaged 25.9 mpg. Honda was #2 with 25.6 mpg. Kia was no. 3 with 25.1 mpg. Volkswagen scored 24.6 mpg (helped a lot by its clean-diesel vehicles that get greater fuel economy than gas-fueled cars). Toyota was no. 5 with 24.5 mpg. The top Detroit automaker was GM in 11th place, with a fleet-wide average of 20.8.

The desire for bragging rights pushes automakers to make all kinds of ad claims. Toyota, for example, currenty advertises that it is the top ranked "full-line" manufacturer for fuel economy. "Full-line" means the company sells cars, full-size pickup trucks and SUVs.

But those CAFE numbers are meaningless when consumers are selecting a new car based on fuel economy. Why does Detroit fair poorly when the EPA calculates the fleet-wide average? Because Detroit sells most of the pickup trucks and full-sized SUVs in the country. Detroit is the pickup-truck expert, with Toyota and Nissan unsuccessful in putting much of a dent in Motown's truck leadership.

Don't go by reputation. Look up the mpg numbers.

When you compare specific model categories, GM and Ford are on par with Japan, Korea and Europe. Chrysler still has some ground to make up, lacking both small fuel efficient sub-compacts, as well as hybrids.

Determining which vehicles are the most fuel efficient is easy. The government website, www.fueleconomy.gov, allows anyone to look up the model of vehicle they are interested in researching. The site makes it easy to research an individual model, or a whole category, like minivans or hatchbacks.

So we ran the numbers, comparing traditional gas-powered vehicles, not diesels or hybrids. The point is to compare where the manufacturers are when it comes to making efficient internal-combustion engines. But we let you know in our ranking below when diesels and hybrids lead the segments.

Let's start with the best selling passenger cars in the U.S. -- mid-sized family sedans. The top sellers in order are Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu. Which is the stingiest on gas? We compared the four-cylinder versions of these cars, which are the best sellers for each model.

Mid-Sized Sedans

: Hyundai Sonata: 28 mpg
2. Nissan Altima and Honda Accord: 27 mpg
3. Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion: 26 mpg
*Best alternative drive-train: Ford Fusion Hybrid: 39 mpg
**Chevy Volt is an extended range electric that gets a combined 37 mpg when running on gasoline. It goes up to 40 miles on an electric charge depending on driving technique.

Crossover Compact SUVs

Winner: Chevy Equinox: 26 mpg
2. Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4: 24 mpg
3. Hyundai Santa Fe: 23 mpg
4. Nissan Murano: 20 mpg
*Best alternative drive-train: Ford Escape: 32 mpg

How about pickup trucks? They aren't known for being fuel efficient vehicles, but owners, especially contractors and builders who put a lot of miles on these vehicles every year scrape for every cost savings they can find. The competitors here are Ford F150, Chevy Silverado, Dodge Ram and Toyota Tundra. Nissan Titan also sells, but has been so unpopular that the company has decided it isn't going to make a new one. We compared the base model, six-cylinder, front-drive versions of the pickups.

Full-Size Pickup Trucks

Winner: F150 and Toyota Tundra: 18 mpg
2. Chevy Silverado: 17 mpg
3. Dodge Ram: 16 mpg
4. Nissan Titan: 15 mpg
*Best alternative drive-train: Chevy Silverado Hybrid: 21 mpg

Large SUVs, like pickups, are not typically bought by people who are green conscious. Many people buy big SUVs like the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition as work vehicles, buying tow packages, so they can haul horse trailers, boats and storage trailers which hold landscaping equipment.

Full-Sized SUVs

Winner: Chevrolet Tahoe: 17 mpg
2. Toyota Sequoia and Ford Expedition: 16 mpg
*Best alternative drive-train: Chevy Tahoe Hybrid: 21 mpg

People often buy small cars precisely because they are conscious of gas prices and fuel consumption. So vehicles like Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra all try for the highest possible fuel economy to establish "bragging rights." Which of these models actually earned them?

Compact Sedans/Hatchbacks

Winner:Hyundai Elantra and Chevy Cruze Eco: 33 mpg
2. Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra get 31 mpg.
3. Ford Focus, Kia Forte and Honda Civic: 29 mpg
*Best alternative drivetrain: Toyota Prius: 50 mpg
**Honorable mention: Volkswagen Jetta TDI (Clean Diesel): 34 mpg.
***Nissan Leaf is an electric vehicle competing in this class.

And how about the littlest vehicles? Buyers of Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Ford Fiesta and Chevy Sonic (due out in September) tend to be cost conscious across the board on purchase price, as well as fuel economy. The title winner may change in the next few months as new 2012 versions of the Versa, Rio and Accent debut; the Hyundai and Kia Rio are both, say the companies, expected to achieve a whopping 50 mpg in highway fuel economy when certified by the EPA, which means they will easily top the list.

Sub-Compact Sedan/Hatchback

Winner: Ford Fiesta: 33 mpg
2. Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris: 31 mpg
3. Nissan Versa: 30 mpg
*Best Alternative Drivetrain: Honda CR-Z: 37 mpg

The Environmental Protection Agency has calculated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) based on gas mileage estimates for each car in an automaker's lineup and the number of those cars produced that year. That is key to understanding CAFE ratings and why Hyundai scores highest, with Honda close behind. Chevy and Ford, for example, have never come close to topping Honda or Toyota overall because the Japanese automakers haven't sold pickups or full-sized SUVs in any large numbers as the Detroit automakers have. And, Honda, for example, sells more Accords and Civics than Ford sells Fusions and Focuses, while the only trucks it sells are the Pilot SUV, Honda Odyssey minivan and the slow-selling, light-duty Ridgeline pickup.

Bottom Line

Perceptions are hard to change. Until 2008, Honda was the overall fuel economy leader, according to the annual EPA CAFE rankings. Hyundai has led all manufacturers since 2008, yet few consumers would come up with that answer of stopped on the street and quizzed.

Perhaps most surprising to consumers is that Detroit models lead or nearly lead in fuel economy in several key models like pickup trucks and compact crossovers. GM, Ford and Chrysler have the reputation for selling "gas guzzlers," because they have traditionally sold the lion's share of pickups and SUVs, which American consumers have happily snapped up, and in many cases need for their livelihoods and sporting hobbies.

But it is telling that when Japanese automaker Toyota, which enjoys a healthy "green" image with consumers largely because of its well-known commitment to hybrid vehicles like the Prius, attempts to build a pickup truck or full-sized SUV, it is unable to top Detroit for fuel economy.

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