Pickups and large SUVs improve gas-guzzling reputations

EPA Finds They're Boosting Fuel Economy Faster Than Other Segments

Pickups and larger SUVs have the worst fuel economy of any vehicle types measured in a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency. But before beating up on these gas guzzlers too much, know that's only half the story. From their lowly position at bottom of the rankings, no vehicles have made more strides in improving their fuel economy in recent years. When you're the worst, there's nowhere to go but up.

SUVs increased their fuel economy by 0.8 miles per gallon from 2013 to 2014, improving their overall average to 21.7 MPG, according the "Fuel Economy Trends" report. Pickups improved 0.6 MPG year over year to an average of 18.0 MPG. The gains come even as overall fuel economy of American cars and trucks remained stagnant year over year, and they represent the second-best year-over-year improvements in their segments over the past 30 years.

"Conventional wisdom would be these would be very hard vehicles to make progress on," said Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality. "The data is showing that a wisely conceived policy can unleash this kind of innovation."

How does that translate into the marketplace? The number of SUV models on sale that achieve 25 miles per gallon has tripled over the past five years from 12 to 36, according to EPA figures. From 2010 through 2015, truck-based SUVs are expected to improve their fuel economy 10.1 percent. Pickups are expected to improve 11.8 percent during the same timeframe.

Those kinds of improvements can have an unanticipated consequence on the nation's overall fuel economy numbers. With cheap gas prices across the nation, a higher percentage of buyers are purchasing pickups and SUVs. Combined, their market share increased 5 percent in 2014. Because their fuel economy is lower than the rest of the fleet, that increase in share has offset the fleet-wide benefits that would have otherwise been achieved by the 0.6 MPG increase.

But still, EPA officials are happy to see that automakers are meeting stricter standards for fuel economy and CO2 emissions. Outsiders may think an influx of alternate-powered cars has made a big impact, but that's not necessarily the case. Manufacturers are improving fuel-economy numbers largely by improving upon existing conventional technology. They're adding turbochargers to cars and six, seven, even eight-speed transmissions.

"We expected there was still a lot of low-hanging fruit to be harvested with gasoline engines and transmissions," Grundler said. "Our analysis was most of the tech that would help them achieve standards through 2025 would largely be through better gasoline, transmissions, aerodynamics and tires. ... So we're not surprised at how the standards are being met. What some of us are surprised at are how quckly these have been adopted. It's the pace that has exceeded our expectations."

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