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

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author photo by Doug DeMuro July 2015

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.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Fuel Economy: Why Don't Modern Cars Do Better Than 1980s Models? - Autotrader