We’ve all thought it or heard someone ask it. “I remember cars in the ‘80s getting 50 mpg. Why can’t they do that today?”
To some it is a conspiracy by OPEC, the Bush Family, Big Oil and the Illuminati. To others it signifies the problems in Detroit and the decline of the auto industry in the US.
Well, today we are going to take a look at one of those cars from the ‘80s and compare it to one of the most fuel efficient cars today.
According to fueleconomy.gov, the 1989 Honda CRX HF gets 41 mpg city and 50 mpg highway. The 2009 Toyota Prius, on the other hand, gets 48 mpg city and 45 mpg highway. Why does it take a hybrid to just come close to matching the fuel economy of a 20 year old car?
There are several contributing factors, but it all comes down to weight. The CR-X HF weighs in at 1,834 lb. The Prius, like many of its contemporaries, tips the scale significantly higher at 2,932 lb. Where does that 1,100 lb. come from?
One of the key reasons why cars weigh more today than they did 20 years ago is safety regulations and consumer demand for safety features and characteristics.
In the early ‘90s the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began rating the safety performance of new cars and publishing the reports to the general public. Because of this new awareness on crash safety, consumers have been shunning cars with anything lower than an Acceptable IIHS rating or a 3-star NHTSA rating, and the carmakers have responded by striving to achieve Good and 5-star ratings for all cars.
Airbag systems, required for both driver and front passenger, add weight with the not just the actual airbag module, but also the sensors, computers and wiring between it all. Other safety systems like ABS, stability control, and traction control also add weight to a vehicle for the same reasons. All of this adds weight.
The 2009 Toyota Prius gets a 4-star rating all around from NHTSA and a Good rating from the IIHS. It offers standard curtain airbags for the front and rear seats. The front seats also get standard torso bags. ABS is standard on all four wheels, as is traction control and TPMS. Stability control is optional.
The 1989 Honda CRX HF had seatbelts. That was it for safety equipment. It would fail probably every test in the NHTSA and IIHS programs. However, even without all of the safety features of the 2009 Prius, only 111 injuries were recorded by the IIHS in Honda Civics (all trim levels) between 1989 and 1991, which was average, compared to 84 bodily injury liability recordings for the 2005-07 Toyota Prius (the latest data is available), which was also in the average range.
We’re spoiled. Let’s face it. Our cars now have amenities that were not common even 5 years ago. You can now get factory-installed infotainment centers with DVD input, iPod controls, SatNav, and a 6-disc in-dash CD changer. Air conditioning is standard on virtually every new car sold in the US. Power windows, seats, and mirrors are more common than not. Have you ever taken a 6-way power seat out of a car? They are frickin’ heavy.
The 2009 Toyota Prius comes standard with an LCD display to show how many electrons or fuel molecules you’re using, as well as control the climate control system and stereo. The standard stereo is an AM/FM CD system with 6 speakers, but buyers can upgrade all the way to a 9-speaker JBL system with 6-disc in-dash CD changer, satellite radio, and Bluetooth. A SatNav system is also offered for the directionally challenged. Power windows and door locks are standard. Center and overhead consoles are also standard for storing all the crap we feel we need to take with us everywhere. Both sun visors are illuminated so the driver can put her makeup on while cruising at 70 mph. There is more, but my hands are cramping up.
The standard equipment list for the 1989 Honda CRX HF was much more limited. It has power brakes, a rear defroster, and the aforementioned seat belts. Yup, that was about it. Air conditioning, fog lights, and an AM/FM radio or AM/FM Cassette system complete the options list. The HF didn’t even offer a slushbox. Navigation was provided by Rand-McNally. Storage was limited. There was no LCD infotainment center. You had a few gages and the feel of a driver forced to pay attention to his car and the road. The radio, if equipped, had maybe 4 speakers.
Again, all of this adds weight to the car. The equipment itself has weight, and the wiring connecting all that equipment together adds weight. So one must ask oneself, “Self, do I really need a 9-speaker stereo with satellite, SatNav, and 6 CDs available at my whim? Do I really need hands free cell phone controls, 55 gallons of storage in consoles and bins and pockets? What’s wrong with driving and paying attention to the road? What’s so wrong with looking out the front window and making sure that person in the lane next to me who’s talking on their phone while reading a book and drinking their Starbucks doesn’t swerve unexpectedly into my lane?” The answer is, “No you don’t” and, “Nothing is wrong with that.”
Another contributor to weight is the physical size of a vehicle. The Honda CRX HF measures out at 147.8 in. long, 65.7 in. wide and 50.1 in. tall. The Toyota Prius, a small car by today’s standards, is whale compared to the little CRX. It measures 175 in. in length, 67.9 in. wide, and 58.7 in. tall. That’s over 2 feet longer, 2 inches wider and 8.6 inches taller, for those playing at home. I’ve ridden in several CRXes, and I can tell you they did not feel all that cramped inside. Now, granted, the CRX is only a 2-seater and the Prius seats 5. Still, why the extra width and height? I’ve ridden in several CRXes and never once felt cramped.
Because of the extra weight of the Prius, it needs more power to be able to carry it’s lard-ass around. In order to get close to the CRX HF in fuel economy, Toyota engineers had to put a gas/electric hybrid system in the Prius. Power comes from both a 1.5L 4-banger putting out 76 hp and 82 torques as well as an electric motor adding another 67 hp and 295 torques for a net power output of 110 hp. The CRX HF makes due with a 1.5L I-4 making 62 hp.
As any engineer will tell you, the extra torque of the Prius is most useful in starting from a standstill. Well, with an extra half ton to propel down the road, that torque is needed. Most engineers will also tell you that the simplest solution is often the best solution. Rather than dealing with a gas/electric hybrid system, the batteries, regenerative braking, associated cooling systems, etc., why not just have a lighter car with a smaller engine? It seems like it worked for the CRX.
What about performance? Well, 0-60 times aren’t exactly what you buy an economy car for. If you must know, the Prius makes it to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds. The CRX is only marginally slower at 12 seconds. With 48 fewer horses under the hood and without the benefit of the near-immediate torque of an electric motor the CRX manages to basically pace the Prius down the dragway.
There you have it. Now when someone asks you why car companies can’t build a 50 mpg car today without fancy hybrid systems you can tell them. All the crap we think we need, but somehow managed to survive without for so long, adds weight which requires more power which sucks more gas. Diesel-powered vehicles also get outstanding gas mileage, but that’s a whole other conversation.
Sources: MSN Autos, CRXSI.com, Toyota, NHTSA, and IIHS
Photos courtesy of Crunchgear.com and Toyota