Among the highest achievers, the percentage of the new crop of vehicles getting more than 30 mpg drops to 4 percent from 6 percent a year ago. Only 33 of the 934 cars, trucks and vans listed in the 2003-model annual fuel economy statistics released Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency are that efficient. That compares with 48 of the 865 models available last year.
In 1987 and 1988, back before Americans developed a thirst for gas-gulping sport utility vehicles, the fleet averaged 22.1 mpg — compared to 20.8 for the new year.
"Clearly it is disappointing that more than 15 years after fuel economy peaked, fuel economy is still hovering around an all-time low," said David Friedman, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley, Calif. "And yet the technology is out there. We could be averaging close to 30 to 40 miles per gallon, and that's with conventional technology: non-hybrids, better engines, better transmissions, improved aerodynamics."
This year, three hybrid gas- and electric-powered vehicles — the two-seat Honda Insight coupe and five-seat Toyota Prius and Honda Civic sedans — top the list of fuel pinchers. Last year there were only the Prius and the Insight.
The Insight has 64 mpg combined city and highway driving, the Toyota and Honda sedans 48 mpg. Next most efficient are four Volkswagen diesel cars and the Toyota Echo.
During the past year, Congress rejected by a wide margin any substantial legislated increase in fuel economy improvements. Industry officials long have argued that automakers give buyers what they want.
"With gas prices at historic lows, the cost of fuel is not as important as many other vehicle characteristics such as the utility of the vehicle, how many passengers they can carry, cargo and towing and safety features," said Ron DeFore, a spokesman for the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, which lobbies against government fuel-economy rules.
Automakers are required to meet fuel-economy standards set by Congress in 1975 for their entire fleet of models sold, not specific ones. The required average is 27.5 mpg on fleets of new passenger cars and 20.7 mpg for those of light trucks, including pickups, minivans and sport utility vehicles.
EPA Administrator Christie Whitman and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham were taking a look at some of the new fuel-efficient cars Tuesday while releasing the new Web-based fuel economy guide with emissions and safety data.
The EPA said in releasing the figures that those vehicles highlight efforts to reduce the nation's dependence on imported petroleum and strengthen national security.
Average fuel economy for the 488 cars in the 2003 fuel economy list is 23.6 mpg, marking a continued decline from 23.9 mpg for 2002 models and 24.2 mpg in 2001. For the 446 models or variations of SUVs, vans and pickup trucks, the average is 17.6 mpg, down from 17.9 mpg for 2002 but above 2001's 17.3 mpg.
By class, the best achievers are compact cars at 26.1 mpg, followed by small station wagons at 24.6 mpg and subcompact cars at 23.3 mpg. Cargo and passenger vans guzzle the most gas at an average 15.7 mpg, followed by standard pickups at 17.1 mpg and four-wheel-drive SUVs at 17.3 mpg.
Among midsize cars, the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Corolla Matrix report the best combined city-highway mileage of 32 mpg — an increase from last year's 28 mpg performers. The worst in that category is, again, the luxury Bentley Arnage, which drops to a combined 12 mpg from last year's 13 mpg. All but seven other models get 20 mpg or better.
Two minivans from DaimlerChrysler — the Chrysler Voyager/Town & Country and Dodge Caravan — have the best mileage, 23 mpg combined, in the passenger van category. The Chrysler Voyager has the worst at 14 mpg.
Big SUVs such as Chevrolet's Suburban, Avalanche and Tahoe and GMC's Yukon and Yukon XL get 12 mpg. The luxury sport import Lamborghini L-147 Murcielago is, again, the biggest guzzler, 10 mpg, followed by the Ferrari 456 MGT/MGTA automatic at 12 mpg.
By John Heilprin