More High-Mileage Cars Available To U.S. Buyers

A new wave of high-mileage cars is making its way to the U.S. market. Full-size cars that routinely get 40, even 50, miles per gallon on the highway have been on sale for years in Europe.

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A new wave of high-mileage cars is making its way to the U.S. market. Cars that get up to 50 mile a gallon have already been on sale in Europe and elsewhere for years. High mileage versions of cars we already know, like the Ford Focus and the Volkswagen Passat.

Reporter Steve Tripoli went to find out why it has taken these cars so long to make it to American showrooms.

STEVE TRIPOLI, BYLINE: A one-time drag strip in rural Connecticut is now Consumer Reports magazine's Auto Test Center. On a bright, chilly day, head auto tester Jake Fisher is putting a luxurious Audi A7 through its paces.

JAKE FISHER: Have to hold on for a little bit here and we'll go. Or we take a car safely up to the maximum cornering.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR SCREECHING)

TRIPOLI: Fisher says this diesel version of the A7 is getting about 30 miles a gallon overall, impressive for its class.

FISHER: This is a big car, this is a heavy car, and it's giving fuel economy basically that you get in a Chevy Cruze, a small car.

TRIPOLI: Consumer Reports' garage is full of high-mileage cars to test. A hybrid Honda Accord, a Ford C-Max plug-in, a VW Jetta that combines hybrid power and turbocharging, plus and a BMW 3-series with a small diesel engine.

They're all new to American buyers, but about half the cars in this garage have been available elsewhere for some time. Why haven't domestic buyers seen them?

PHIL GOTT: They don't sell, bottom line.

TRIPOLI: Phil Gott is an industry analyst with IHS Automotive. Gott says Americans often say they want high mileage. But they also want more performance.

GOTT: So, the consumer, they would really like their cake and eat it too.

TRIPOLI: Europe's models often feature engines that shut down at stoplights, sleek aerodynamics, and high-mileage tires as well as advanced engines. When Americans see that price tag, mileage often takes a back seat. So carmakers hold back on bringing them here.

But that's changing. Phil Gott, Consumer Reports' Jake Fisher and carmakers themselves say buyers are choosing differently with gas prices in today's $3.50 to $4 range. In Europe, gas and diesel prices running from $7 to $9 a gallon made high-mileage options attractive long ago.

The equation's changing here for two reasons, says Volkswagen of America's Doug Skorupski.

DOUG SKORUPSKI: One, the U.S. customer is asking for higher-mileage vehicles, and that's partly due to the increased fuel prices that we have, and also just as importantly, is the greenhouse gas emission regulations and CAFE requirements that we have to comply with.

TRIPOLI: Rising environmental concerns reflected in the Environmental Protection Agency's CAFE mileage standards are driving change and becoming as much a factor as cost savings for some buyers.

Industry analyst Phil Gott says if the government is serious about the CAFE goals of cutting pollution and oil consumption, mandating higher-mileage cars alone won't do the job.

GOTT: You know, one of the things that we keep saying is one of the simplest things to do to get people to become more fuel conscious, in both their driving habits as well as their choices of vehicles, is to raise the price of fuel through fuel taxes.

TRIPOLI: Proposals to raise fuel taxes have come from across the political spectrum, but none have garnered enough support.

A final factor fueling America's move toward mileage is diesel engines. In Europe, more than half of all new cars sold have them. In the U.S., it's less than 5 percent.

The reasons are complicated. Diesel fuel costs less in Europe than gas but costs more here. A diesel can offset that extra cost through better mileage and environmentally, some diesels can be better at reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

Now more diesels are meeting the EPA's pollution rules. And that, says Jeff Breneman of the U.S. Coalition for Advanced Diesel Cars, means more carmakers can start bringing in diesels to meet their EPA mileage mandates.

JEFF BRENEMAN: So, most of the automotive forecasters are predicting that the diesel market share in the U.S. is going to continue to rise, most think to about 10 percent by 2020.

TRIPOLI: Some models top that already. Volkswagen says fully 30 percent of U.S. buyers for its large Passat sedan are choosing diesel. That shouldn't come as a surprise, since Consumer Reports tests show the Passat's four-cylinder diesel getting 50 miles a gallon on the highway.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Tripoli.

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