Consumer advocates tout proposed U.S. fuel-economy standards as a cost saver

Consumer advocates said Thursday that the U.S. public is generally in favor of the stricter fuel-economy standards the federal government proposed last year for 2025 and that the average driver would typically save money in the form of lower refueling costs, even if vehicle prices rise as a result.

Representatives with Consumer Reports and the Consumer Federation of America, which held a joint press conference to release their recent survey results, said that the car-buying public wants more fuel-efficient cars and light-duty trucks and will purchase them in greater numbers as fuel prices continue to rise. David Champion, director of auto test division at CR, said 80 percent of those recently surveyed were in favor of federal regulations that would require about an 80 percent increase in fuel efficiency by 2025, while more than half of those polled are considering buying vehicles with advanced powertrains. Mark Cooper, director of Research for Consumer Federation of America, estimated that, factoring in both the higher price of hybrids and more fuel-efficient vehicles, customers who buy cars with a typical five-year loan would immediately save money in the form of lower refueling costs. "Gasoline prices have been clobbering households," Cooper said, adding that vehicle-refueling costs have leapfrogged home utility expenses. "The whole structure of the cost of driving has changed."

Last year, the U.S. government proposed raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) fuel-economy standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That equates to a real-world average of about 40 miles per gallon. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) will hold hearings on the standards later this month in Detroit, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Automakers appear to be making progress in recent years. The EPA said U.S. fleetwide fuel economy among the 14 largest vehicle makers was 22.5 miles per gallon for the 2010 model year, the most recent year the EPA tracked such numbers. That's up about 17 percent from the 2004 model year average.

Whether the U.S. public is embracing more fuel efficient vehicles is open to debate. Gas prices averaged a record $3.53 a gallon last year, and refueling costs accounted for an average of $2,850 per household in 2011, according to Cooper. Still, hybrids account for about 2.5 percent of new car purchases, which is essentially unchanged from recent years, and the average fuel economy of a new light-duty vehicle acquired in December was actually down from November, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) reported. Still, both Cooper and Champion said that, as more automakers develop hybrids, costs will fall and customers will boost purchases.

"As we see more hybrids coming along, we'll see better hybrids, lower cost for the hybrid technology and greater penetration of hybrids," said Champion. "I don't think anyone believes fuel prices are going to come down anytime soon."

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