Hey Mr. Green,
Why do today's subcompact cars have such poor fuel economy compared with those made 20 years ago? Some people claim that safety requirements have added weight and lowered gas mileage.
--Robert in Wallkill, New York
U.S. automakers turned to power and speed because there's more profit in a big, fast luxury model than a rinky-dink Lynx or Sprint. Claims that safety rules add significant weight are wrong. By 2001, they had boosted weight by an average of only 125 pounds--less than some drivers have gained since Ralph Nader started hounding Detroit to make safer cars in the '60s. Air bags, seat belts, head restraints, electronic stability controls, and smarter frame designs don't weigh a whole lot.
Many of us buy bigger
vehicles because of the belief that sheer mass equals safety, resulting
in billions of gallons of wasted fuel. Sure, the laws of physics
dictate that a lighter vehicle is more likely to get squished than a
heavier one if the two collide, but design can make a world of
difference. While the fatality rate for SUVs is lower than for
subcompacts (about 12 fatalities per thousand collisions compared with
roughly 17 per thousand), research shows drivers are more likely to get
killed in these behemoths than in midsize cars. And depending on your
choice of wrecks, even a subcompact may be safer than a hulking SUV. If
you favor a rollover, for example, the SUV is the surest way to flip
your thrill-starved soul into the great beyond, because the fatality
rate in SUV rollovers is almost triple that in subcompact rollovers.
For more information about vehicle safety, check out ratings by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at iihs.org/ratings.