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Fuel Economy: Why Don’t Modern Cars Do Better Than 1980s Models?


We’re often asked why 1980s vehicles returned much better fuel economy numbers than today’s models do. After all, certain models of the 1980s, such as the Honda CRX and Chevy Chevette, had no trouble reaching 50 miles per gallon back then. So with all the technological advancements since the 1980s, why can’t new cars get the same gas mileage as their predecessors? We have the answer.

Weight and Equipment

The biggest differences between the miserly 1980s cars and their modern counterparts are weight and equipment levels. Yes, it’s true that the most efficient Chevrolet Chevette returned up to 48 miles per gallon on the highway, but it also weighed in at less than 1,900 pounds. By comparison, a modern Ford Fiesta weighs around 2,500 pounds in its lightest form. The same is true for the Honda CRX, which returned 52 mpg hwy but weighed less than 1,700 pounds. Today, even the lightest Honda Fit models weigh 2,400 pounds or more.

So you’re probably wondering why automakers don’t just go back to lightweight cars in order to improve gas mileage. The answer is: because consumers don’t want them to. Yes, the CRX got 52 mpg, but it also had crank windows, manual mirrors, a manual transmission, manual locks and manual wipers. Most CRXs didn’t even have air conditioning, and crash protection was mostly left up to chance because there was very little side-impact protection or crumple-zone engineering, and there were no airbags or anti-lock brakes.

It’s the same story with virtually every car of the CRX’s day: They primarily earned such high fuel economy ratings by cutting out all the stuff and losing a lot of extra weight in the process. In today’s world, we like gas mileage, but we also like safety, convenience and technology. By modern standards, those 1980s vehicles are practically from the Stone Age.

As a result, we suspect that a modern-day automaker with a 1,800-lb car for sale would have a hard time finding any buyers for it today — and just as hard of a time passing today’s stringent safety regulations.

Fuel Economy Testing

One other reason why cars of the 1980s were able to enjoy such a big gas-mileage advantage over modern vehicles is that 1980s cars were subject to different fuel economy regulations than today’s models.

Back then, fuel economy numbers were based on a speed limit of just 55 miles per hour on the highway, and they didn’t factor in air conditioning and other devices that could decrease the car’s gas mileage. This Environmental Protection Agency testing procedure didn’t change until the 2000s, when the agency finally revised its measuring system to more accurately reflect modern driving styles.

Our Take

Although today’s cars struggle to reach the gas-mileage heights of some 1980s models, the truth is we’re a lot better off now than we were back then. No, a simple compact car won’t get 50 mpg hwy, but many can get better than 40 mpg hwy while still carting around a wide range of new features that would have been considered science fiction in the 1980s. If a few mpg is the price we have to pay for dramatically improved automotive safety, convenience and technology, we’re willing to make the sacrifice. For everyone else, we suspect that you’ll be able to find a few used CRXs and Chevettes here and there on Autotrader.

Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I disagree with the lightweight theory as my Dad’s 84 2500 suburban was getting 30 mpg highway while pulling a horse trailer, it had power locks, power windows, AC, Heat, it had even more weight since the one he got which is rare had a power window in the back with a very heavy tailgate, instead of the doors or hatchback. with the heavy duty steal compared with the new thinner lightweight steel. I am positive it weighed more than the newer models getting at best 25 mpg without towing anything. The newer vehicles have too many whistles and horns for my liking. You used to be able to see the end of your hood too, less chance of bumping someone when you are forced to back out of spaces. If you have any skill at all in backing up your trailer or vehicle itself you don’t need back up cameras. People used to be able to drive better until technology made them complacent and lazy. For Michal Hal its that thing that you need to know if you want truckers to bring the stores supplies. Big trucks can’t run on electricity, and you can’t tow a trailer with it either. You need the power that gas and diesel supply.

  2. Strongly disagree that it is what people want.  I will take my 1993 gas sipping (36 MPG Hwy) Buick LeSabre Special (all the bells and whistles) over my daughter’s gas guzzling (36 MPG Hwy) Chevy Cruz any day.  The Buick was a luxury car with a 3.8L engine.  The Cruz is a compact with a puny 1.4L engine.  The LeSabre outweighs the Cruz by no less than 400 lbs.  

    Hard to understand why these cars have the same fuel economy.
  3. Disagree about what consumers want. We aren’t even given the choice! Would definitely take gas mileage over having half a dozen airbags. New cars have such poor visibility and distracting screens, accidents have only gone up in recent years. This “more is safer” thinking is too narrow. A careful responsible driver has no trouble drving a CRX, hence the large number of them still on the road in California.

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