35.5 MPG Is No Big Deal

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By 2016, per federal mandate, all new cars will be required to average 35.5 miles per gallon. This sounds like a big deal. It isn’t – except in terms of how much we’ll all be paying for this grand achievement. Either directly – in the form of “gas guzzler” penalties tacked onto the MSRPs of new cars that don’t make the cut. Or indirectly – in the form of elaborate technologies such as automatic engine stop (like hybrids, but for non-hybrid cars), smaller displacement engines fitted with turbochargers, gas direct injection, etc. – for those that do make the cut.

The real big deal is that it’s perfectly possible to build cars that achieve an average of 35.5 MPG – or more – without federal mandates, without elaborate technology, and without the suffocating expense that comes with both. Hell, it’s already been done.

More than 40 years ago, in fact.

Friends of ours own a 1970 Morris Minor, which I keep up for them. For those not familiar with the Morris Minor, it was Britain’s answer to the VW Beetle (original model). Though differently laid out (it’s got a water-cooled and front-mounted engine vs. the Beetle’s rear-mounted and air-cooled engine) it was very similar in concept. It was designed to be simple, economical transportation. Thus, above all else, it was light. The 1970 Morris sedan weighed just under 1,700 lbs. – which made it slightly heavier than the Beetle. But both cars weighed about 600-800 pounds less than their contemporary equivalents. A 2012 Mazda2 sedan, for instance, weighs 2,306 lbs. Even the tiny Fiat 500 – which is nearly a foot shorter overall than the Morris Minor – tips the scales at 2,363 lbs. (It actually weighs more than the physically larger, four-door Mazda!)

The point being, they’re both beefy.

The Morris – and the Beetle – were not. As a result, they were capable of posting gas mileage numbers almost as good as a current-era Prius hybrid, but without all the folderol. And far better than non-hybrid cars like the Mazda2 and Fiat 500.

Here’s some factory data about the Morris Minor’s fuel consumption:

At 60 MPH it is capable of returning 40.1 MPG. Around town, at speeds below 40 MPH, the Morris is capable of 53-54 MPG.

Now, the Morris was not a speedy car. About 75 MPH is as fast as it goes. So it would not be the ticket for sustained highway driving today. However, as a city car or commuter car, it – or something like it – would certainly be viable. People already buy far less viable cars – like the (so-called) Smart car, for instance. It maxes out at 38 MPG on the highway – and 34 in city driving – both numbers lower than the Morris Minor’s. In the case of the city-driving numbers, much lower. And the not-so-Smart car is barely more viable on the highway than the Morris. Its top speed of 90 MPH is only nominally higher than the Morris’ – and its extremely short wheelbase and tall profile make it much more susceptible to being knocked around – or off the road – by crosswinds.

Meanwhile, the Morris is arguably more suitable as a city car. It’s a sedan, for openers – so it can seat four people – vs. just two in the Smart. And by dint of having a back seat area – and a trunk – it has more usable room to carry groceries and so on than the not-so-Smart car.

The larger point being: The 40-something-year-old Morris makes more sense – and costs a lot less – than a modern micro-car like the Smart. Which, by the way, also weighs more than 2,300 lbs.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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