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You can have it all: EPA says power and fuel economy are at all-time highs

2011-Hyundai-Elantra-blue-frontMost gearheads think the golden age of the American car is long past. While it’s true that we’ll never see cars like the Plymouth Road Runner or Tri-Five Chevy again, new cars are still a major improvement over their classic forebears. According to a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency, modern cars are more powerful and more efficient than anything that has come before.

According to the EPA, fuel economy has been on the rise since 2005. The expected average fuel economy (all the numbers are not in yet) for 2011 is 22.8 mpg; in 1975 (the first year in the study), the average vehicle got 13.1. At the same time, average horsepower is at an-all time high. The EPA pegs that number at 228 for 2011 models, compared to 137 for 1975.

Those improvements result in increased performance across the board. New cars today are much faster than they were in the age of disco; the average 0-60 mph time fell from 14.1 seconds in 1975 to 9.3 in 2011. At the same time, new cars are much better for the environment. The average amount of CO2 emitted by a car in 1975 was 681 grams per mile, today, it is 391.

One reason for this major improvement is the amount of tech engineers are putting into new cars. In the 1960s and ‘70s, they were still relying primarily on engine displacement to make power, but big engines require more fuel. During the 1980s, electronic fuel injection made smaller engines more powerful, and the trend of using tech to make power has continued since then.

Technologies that used to be exotic are now commonplace. In 2004, only 39 percent of cars had variable valve timing, in 2011, 94 percent of cars had this important innovation. Turbocharging and cylinder deactivation are also more pervasive than ever. There are also more hybrids on the road than ever before, and 2010 saw the greatest number of diesels.

Manufacturers have also been making their overall fleets more fuel efficient. One green car can’t cancel out two gas guzzlers, so the fact that carmakers’ average fuel economy went up over the years is significant. Just in the last three years, ten of 13 best selling brands were able to increase their fleet average. How important are average? Nissan has the Leaf and Chevy has the Volt, but Hyundai topped the list of manufacturers, with an average 27.5 mpg for all of its 2011 models.

For once, the march of progress is clearly illustrated. This EPA report shows a specific technology, the car, being steadily improved over the long term. High gas prices and global warming make fuel efficiency more important than ever, but if automotive engineers can make the same improvements their predecessors did, that shouldn’t be a problem.