Automotive Trends 1975-2010, Part I: More SUV’s, More Power, More MPG’s!

26 Apr

As gas prices continue to rise across the Country and we slowly, possibly begin what could loosely be described as the late-spring/early-summer driving season, I thought it high-time I started running some car and gas numbers.  Before we get into the price of gas at the pump and how it is likely to affect driving/car-buying behavior, I’d like to take a look at the composition of the U.S. vehicle fleet and how it’s changed over time.

Confirming the anecdotal experience of everyone who’s spent any time on the roads over the past decade or two, SUV’s are in fact slowly taking over.  Additionally, as I explained back in June, 2009, Americans simply are not fans of the small car, even when gas prices rise exponentially (I’ll be re-visiting this sometime in the next few months).  Allow me to share some additional facts in greater detail:

Per EPA data, in 1975 cars and station wagons represented over 80% of all vehicles produced, while trucks & SUV’s accounted for less than 15%.  Fast forward three and a half decades, and cars (including wagons) only represent less than 60%, while trucks (including SUV’s) represent almost 40% of vehicles produced. The following chart shows the production share of (in order from top to bottom) Cars, Wagons, Vans, SUV’s, and Pickups by size (small, medium, large) in years 1975, 1988, and 2010, including their average fuel efficiency (by miles per gallon).  The chart also shows how these numbers have changed over time.  Numbers in red (on the right three columns) are decreases, while numbers in dark green are mild (<10%) increases, and numbers in light green show more drastic (<10%) increases.

What’s immediately clear is the shift away from cars of virtually all sizes/type towards SUV’s, as evidenced just by looking at the distribution of red, dark green, light green in the columns to the right.  From 1975->2010, the production share of small cars dropped by over 40%, while the share of large & small SUV’s (combined; small SUV’s were the same in both years) jumped over 1,700%!

Many – if not most – people assume that the shift towards SUV’s and away from small cars has severely reduced the overall fleet-wide fuel efficiency, however such is not the case.   Since 1975, fleet-wide average fuel efficiency has increased 71.8%, and even the low-end fuel efficiency has increased 33%.  When we use weighted-averages (% share of each segment times its average fuel efficiency), fuel efficiency has increased almost 77% over that time period, which indicates that preferences have shifted towards types of vehicles that have experienced greater than average fuel efficiency gains such as midsize cars and midsize/large SUV’s.

Tree-huggers can whine all they want, but the facts speak for themselves: vehicles have gotten MUCH more fuel-efficient over the past few decades, even though large SUV’s account for significantly more vehicles on the road today than ever before!

While efficiency gains are certainly a good thing by every measure (except oil company profits), the best part about advances in technology for drivers – especially those with a bit of a lead foot – is that not only are cars more efficient, but they are significantly faster and more powerful, too!  For cars & trucks combined, horsepower is up over 60% while power efficiency (hp/cid, or horsepower produced divided by engine block size) is up over 120%!!!!!!  Think about that: technology has advanced so much, so fast, that not only are effectively all vehicles significantly more efficient, but they’re even MORE powerful, too!

One thing that I’m only going to touch upon in this series (at least that’s the plan) is how government standards/classification and changes thereof affect these numbers.  Over the years, vehicles that were once classified as small SUV’s are now classified as midsized and vice versa.  Cars like the Toyota RAV4 (Lexus RX330) and the infinity FX are based on car platforms instead of truck ones in-part because of how the government measures Auto manufactures offerings.  I’ve seen a number of essays and studies, but for quick-reference, either hit up the google machine, or pick up one of the major auto magazines (Car & Driver, Motortrend, Autoweek, Road & Track, etc) there’s likely to be at least some discussion every month on the topic.

This is only part I in a series of at least 3 articles.  Stay tuned later for more later this week!


One Response to “Automotive Trends 1975-2010, Part I: More SUV’s, More Power, More MPG’s!”


  1. Americans Still Don’t Like Small Cars | - May 4, 2011

    […] trend won’t last. Although fleet-wide fuel efficiency has increased in the last few years, consumer preferences have shifted away from cars toward SUVs in the last 20 years.  As this chart* shows, small car […]

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