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The miles per gallon crisis

Last updated on February 3, 2023

On our recent visit to Florida, I made a last-minute decision to select the Chrysler Town and Country minivan — complete with third-row seating — over the more reasonable-sized options in National’s Emerald Aisle. It made sense. After all, we would need to go to the beach and the spring training game with Grandma and Grandpa in the car, and you can’t fit two adults and a car seat into the back seat of most vehicles. This was a vehicle that was rented purely for functionality, not for looks or enjoyment.

I’ve never driven anything so large. We made jokes about “The Bus,” and how I was sure that I could now qualify for a CDL to drive the car rental shuttle at most major airports. And then came the biggest horror of all: the mileage.

Ordinarily, I drive a moderately sized Subaru Outback. As I’ve lamented before, it gets horrible gas mileage, usually between 20-21 MPG; its all-time best performance was an all-highway route to and from Tahoe that scored me just over 23 MPG. Granted, I know that AWD cars don’t do as well in terms of fuel economy, but surely The Bus would fare worse.

Oh, how wrong I was. When I filled up the first time, I realized that it got 20.4 MPG: effectively the same as my Outback. But in actuality, the story was worse than I thought. That calculation was based on how many miles I’d driven since picking it up at the airport, not since the last fueling. The second tank: 22.4 MPG. The third tank: 22.6. The Bus was more fuel efficient than my little Subaru. I was more than a little bit horrified.

This started me down a dark path of car research and obsessing over fuel economy. What I discovered was that there seems to be no direct correlation between the overall fuel economy (combined city/highway) and the size of the vehicle. While it used to be that the smaller the car, the better the mileage, that’s not necessarily the case anymore.

Here are some of the surprises that I found:

  • Honda Accord, 4-cyl: 25 MPG
  • Chevy Equinox 2WD 4-cyl: 26 MPG

My first car was a 1988 Accord that routinely got 35+ MPG in combined driving. To discover that even the smallest Honda, the Fit, gets less than that now (31 MPG) 22 years later, seems absolutely absurd. And how can the Equinox — a mid-size SUV — get better mileage than a more aerodynamic Accord sedan?

When it comes time to buy my next car, I’ll be careful not to rule out any vehicle without checking the numbers first. It appears that the results are going to surprise me.

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