United States of Denial: Believe It, We Need to Downsize Our Cars to Get Better Gas Mileage

Last Updated May 13, 2010 1:36 PM EDT

In an otherwise not-bad Environmental Protection Agency press release of Top 10 Mileage Myths, the EPA touched on a real hobby-horse topic for me that I'm going to continue to ride for a while.

To be blunt, we all need to accept the idea of seriously smaller vehicles if we want to seriously improve gas mileage. Yet No. 1 on the EPA's list of "Myths" is, "You have to drive a small car to get good fuel economy."

That's a myth? Actually, you do need to drive a small car to get the best fuel economy. At least, you have to drive a lightweight car if you want to get the best possible fuel economy. And no cars are safe, large and sufficiently lightweight all at the same time. Until someone develops large, safe Styrofoam cars, folks looking for the best mileage will need to switch to a smaller package than most people drive today.

Instead of a myth, I would call that one of the Top 10 Mileage Inconvenient Truths. It's just that people don't want to hear it. In my opinion the EPA, of all institutions, shouldn't be sugar-coating it, either. (One thing I did like on the list of Mileage Myths was the photo, above, of a slick salesman pitching worthless gasoline additives.)

The EPA goes on to explain that improvements like hybrid drive, diesel engines, direct fuel injection, turbocharging, advanced transmissions, low rolling resistance tires and aerodynamic designs allow you to drive "standard-sized" vehicles and still get pretty good gas mileage. That's all true, and I've written a few of those Mileage Myth lists myself.

And of course it's better to have people driving newer, 20-mpg crossover SUVs than older, 12-mpg traditional SUVs. I infer that's where the EPA is coming from. They want to persuade SUV-driving Americans that better gas mileage doesn't have to represent a big lifestyle sacrifice.

However, I think lifestyle sacrifices are in the pipleline for all but the wealthiest consumers.

Despite the recession and the recent memory of $4 gasoline, some people still feel entitled to drive cross-country at a climate-controlled 70 mph with seven passengers and lots of luggage, towing two jet-skis on a trailer. That's going to get expensive. Besides whatever the price of gas turns out to be, in the future car companies won't be building as many large vehicles capable of doing all that, and they'ss be accordingly more expensive. The other high-priced alternative is to have a household fleet of vehicles, including a sports car for weekends, a commuter car for weekdays and a people-mover for trips.

For the rest of us who can't afford all that, in the future some stuff or some people are going to have to be left behind. It simply won't all fit in the vehicles of the future. That's inconvenient, but true.

Photo: EPA