U.S. Average Fuel Economy Down in August, Up for End of Summer: Study

The average fuel economy of new cars and light trucks sold within the United States in August was 25.3 mpg, down a very modest 0.1 mpg from July. Based on data plotted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, that represents an overall increase for the summer months — though it’s been a few years since we’ve seen a meaningful net gain.

Peak efficiency occurred in August of 2014, when fuel economy averaged 25.5 mpg. Since then, it’s been a herky-jerky series of minor rises and falls — ultimately resulting in an annual stagnation. Lower gas prices, combined with a growing preference for crossovers and SUVs, has kept the yearly economy average at 25.1 mpg. 

While it’s too early to say anything definitive, the 2017 model year looks to be the first 12-month production period to yield an overall improvement since 2014. It won’t be dramatic, however. Average fuel economy shot up 5.2 mpg between the 2007 model year and 2014 but, if we’re being generous, the best this year is likely to see amounts to a few tenths of a mile per gallon.

According to Automotive News’ Data Center, year-over-year U.S. light-vehicle deliveries dropped 1.8 percent in August — with car sales descending 9.5 percent as pickups and crossovers rose 3.7 and 4.8 percent, respectively.

It’s important to remember that the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s data is sales-weighted. Were consumers not buying larger and less economical vehicles, we would have seen larger economy gains over the last few years. But the research tabulates a real-world average based upon consumer choices, rather than an idealistic scenario where the name number of people buy a Toyota Prius and Ford’s F-Series.

If you’re curious, the entire Prius family garnered 9,551 U.S. deliveries in August against the F-Series’ 77,007. That represents a roughly 66-percent decline for Toyota’s hybrid compared to August of 2013, and just another strong month for Ford.

Change could be coming, however. The rise in average fuel economy has shadowed the price of gasoline. A typical gallon of regular gasoline was $2.661 on Wednesday, up from $2.199 a year ago, according to AAA data. Should the trend continue, smaller cars could become more attractive to new car buyers.

[Graph: University of Michigan]

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