So I've got some good news and some bad news for people who like frugality and would like to see more of it among American drivers. First, the good news: The fuel economy of the American auto fleet set an all-time record of 22.4 mpg in 2009, according to a report by The Detroit News.
That's 1.4 mpg more than the 2008 average and the highest average since the government began tracking the number in 1975. The biggest reason for that sizeable gain was a drop in the average auto's weight, from 4,085 pounds to 3,917 pounds, and horsepower, from 219 hp to 208 hp.
That's thrifty, right? Maybe people are finally realizing they don't need a huge vehicle with a 400 hp V8 to take one person to work?
So now for the bad news: Overall fuel economy is expected to drop next year.
"How could this be?!" you might be exclaiming. "After all, new hybrid technology and electric cars are coming online all the time, including the Chevy Volt, and the cost of hybrid cars is dropping. How could we be going backwards?"
The answer will probably depress you. Fuel economy and the performance of the U.S. economy are inversely correlated. That means that when we're in an economic slump, fuel economy improves, and when the economy recovers, fuel economy tanks.
Yes, that's right: Americans didn't suddenly start caring about being smart with their fuel budget or being green in 2009, they just didn't have the money to buy and fill up the huge cars and SUVs they actually wanted. Now that the economy has recovered somewhat, it's time to go buy an Escalade for the daily commute.
This, to me, shows the type of fundamentally flawed thinking that helped get Americans into the economic funk we're in now. Just because you can afford to spend extra money buying and filling up a huge, gas guzzling auto, doesn't mean that money wouldn't be better spent elsewhere.
That's why when people were complaining about the high price of gas a few years ago, I wasn't all that sympathetic. Sure, some drivers, especially tradespeople and large families, needed a big truck or SUV to move people and tools, and so when gas goes up, they suffer through no fault of their own, and that stinks.
But if someone buys a huge gas-guzzler in 2010 because they look good in it, that's a luxury item. They don't have the right to fill it up and drive it cheaply. And when gas goes up, and they're hit with the double whammy of high gas prices and high depreciation because no one wants their huge gas guzzler, they'll have only themselves to blame.
The writing is on the wall, people. China is now the largest market for new autos in the world, and India is picking up the pace, and all those new cars are going to need gas, too. As soon as the world economy recovers from its current slump, gas prices are going to be over $4. When that happens and all the crying about high gas prices begins, I for one am going to suggest a quick trip to "Waaah-mart" to get some tissues, because I won't want to hear it.