The Free Market
In Praise of Guzzlers
The Free Market 14, no. 6 (June 1996)
Normal people look right past the tiny cars beloved by environmental groups, self-appointed consumer advocates, and the federal government. These are joyless machines like the three-cylinder Geo Metro XFi and Honda Civic VX, ugsome little pods designed not for comfort, utility, or performance, but rather to eke the most miles out of a gallon of gas.
Each was capable of going 50 miles on a gallon of gas. Yet despite aggressive marketing and loads of free PR, neither Honda nor Chevrolet (which sells the Geo line) could give these pint-sized Edsels away. It turn out that the views of the fuel-efficiency killjoys and the general population sharply diverge.
That makes perfect sense. Neither automobile (I use the term loosely) could be ordered with even rudimentary creature comforts. Air conditioning? Roll down the windows, amigo. An automatic transmission? Forget it. Worse, the machines were devoid of personality or character. And they could be outrun on foot from a standing start by couch potato.
The result? Predictably, after just a short time on the market, the Civic VX and Metro XFi—the government's idea of the cars you should be driving—were mercifully discontinued. Unfortunately for you and me, however, the millions of dollars invested in manufacturing these cars—not to mention the losses incurred by Honda and Chevrolet/Geo in trying to unload them—have lowered company profits, making the firms less able to serve actual consumers.
Before models like the Metro XFi and Civic VX came to market, the likes of Joan Claybrook and her mentor Ralph Nader claimed that the masses were being denied the opportunity to drive truly fuel-efficient cars because of the machinations of the Big Three and the oil cartel.
Congress eventually accepted this ludicrous premise and passed legislation establishing Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (CAFE)—which spawned automotive flops like the Metro XFi and Civic VX—as well as most of the other micro-blobs you see on the highway.
CAFE requires that each vehicle manufacturer's combined fleet of cars in a given model year achieve a collective fuel efficiency average of 27.5 mpg. Failure to meet the standard unleashes big fines and other nastiness, including the alarums of Ms. Claybrook & Co. about America's profligate waste of energy.
In order to meet the CAFE average while still building cars that are marketable, the automakers must produce and offer for sale subcompact economy cars to offset the relatively poorer fuel economy figures of their larger, more powerful models.
Now, if Ms. Claybrook and her cohorts were correct about Americans champing at the bit to buy cars designed solely to maximize fuel economy, then models like the Metro XFi and Civic VX should have sold like banana sandwiches.
But past sales data show that the top ten fuel efficient cars represented less than 2 percent of passenger car sales and less than 1 percent of overall car and light truck sales. That's what happens when gasoline is cheaper than bottled water.
Such talk drives the busybodies nuts. Even today, they are aggressively lobbying for an increase in the CAFE standard, so it would be much harder for the automakers to produce large cars with large engines. Failing that, they would dearly love to see a substantial increase in motor vehicle fuel taxes passed into law.
The arrogance of these types prevents them from recognizing that people spending their own money should have the right to buy the kinds of cars and trucks they—not public-interest mountebanks—prefer. If that means powerful sport utility vehicles or fast and roomy family sedans, that's how it ought to be.
Today's cars and trucks are roughly twice as fuel efficient (on average, 20 mpg or more on the highway) than their pre-CAFE counterparts of 20 years ago. But this has meant smaller cars, which has made them less safe in accidents, resulting in 2,000 to 3,000 deaths and countless thousands of serious injuries every year.
But the government and its defenders have other priorities. They want to cram people into a U.S. Yugo or better yet, herd them into public transportation. Underneath it all lies a profound hatred of the privately owned automobile and of the individuality and freedom it represents.
That's the real target. If it weren't, gas misers would have long ago thrown in the towel after the free market provided fuel economy, negligible emissions, and safety in a car that's as comfy as a living room.