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The Geo Metro as dream machine

Modern cars strain for 30 mpg, but a '92 Civic hatchback gets 60. The super-efficient economy cars of yesteryear are making a comeback.

September 09, 2008|Ken Bensinger | Times Staff Writer

Darius Tarman dreams of roaring engines. He owns three classic muscle cars, races on weekends and sells exotic racing pistons for a living. He is what is known as a car guy.

Tarman's vehicle of choice these days? A 92-horsepower, 16-year-old Honda Civic hatchback with a fading teal paint job that takes about 15 seconds to reach highway speed.

Then again, it does get 61 miles per gallon -- and when your daily commute, from Rancho Cucamonga to Irvine, is 100 miles round trip, that's huge.

"There's nothing like driving a big, black 440 with a four-speed. But . . . this Honda is the best car I've ever owned," Tarman says. "I would cry if anything happened to it."

Tarman's love affair with a slow, undersized Civic shows the tremendous effect soaring gas prices have had on the way everyone, even hot-rodders, thinks about driving. And the fact that he turned to a creaky old 1992 model serves as a stark reminder that it's nearly impossible to buy a new car today that gets the kind of mileage many automobiles got 15 or 20 years ago, despite the industry's insistence that it's focusing on efficiency again.

"In the 1970s, '80s and '90s, carmakers all offered super-high-efficiency cars," says Eric Noble, president of the Car Lab, an auto industry research and consulting group. "Now that consumers are clamoring for them, those cars are pretty much all gone."

For the 1992 model year, car buyers had the choice of 33 cars that had a combined city and highway EPA rating of at least 30 miles per gallon. For the current model year, there are 12. And though the 1990s had its share of gas guzzlers, it's notable that the two-wheel-drive Ford Explorer from 1992 had better fuel efficiency (17 mpg) than the same model in 2008 (which gets 16).

With demand for efficiency surging, carmakers are racing to improve their lineups. General Motors Corp., which currently doesn't have any cars that top 30 mpg combined, said last month that it would spend $500 million to produce a new compact car for 2011, the Cruze, that would reach 45 mpg on the highway. That's about 13 mpg below the rating for its most fuel-efficient Geo Metro 14 years ago.

(Last year, the government adjusted the way it calculated fuel economy, but even under the new rating system, the Geo beats the Cruze by 6 mpg.)

Ford is bringing six efficient European models to the U.S., while Honda and Toyota are promising newer and better iterations of hybrids. Yet of all the cars on the market today, only the Prius (46 mpg) and the Civic hybrid (42 mpg) post better mileage numbers than a 1989 Ford Festiva (41 mpg), which retailed for $6,000.

Despite the mileage gap, nobody in the industry is promising a return to the days of inexpensive, simple, extremely efficient economy cars: Nobody's going to dust off the plans for the 48-mpg 1994 Pontiac Firefly or the 35-mpg Ford Escort from 1991.

"In today's market, to be competitive, those cars just aren't possible," says Al Manzor, the program engineer on three GM vehicles, including its most efficient car, the Chevy Cobalt, which gets 29 mpg.

He and other industry experts cite more rigorous safety standards that require side air bags and crumple zones, as well as more features such as power windows, which add to the weight of a vehicle. Another big factor, Manzor says, is power. "If you're not under 10 seconds in zero-to-60, you're not competitive."

Power has definitely gone up: A 1983 Toyota Camry took 12.6 seconds to get from a dead stop to 60 miles per hour. Today, Toyota makes a Camry that, despite weighing 1,000 pounds more than its predecessor, arrives at 60 mph in less than 7 seconds.

Yet there's no technical reason that a little bit of power couldn't be traded for thriftiness, says Dennis Virag, president of the Automotive Consulting Group.

"They could definitely make these kinds of cars again. Just look at Europe and Japan, where they have tons of highly fuel-efficient vehicles," says Virag, mentioning models such as the Volkswagen Polo, a diesel available in Europe that gets 62 mpg. "It's just a question of business priorities."

An October conversation with a colleague who speculated that gas would top $4 shocked Tarman into changing his ways.

For most of his 36 years, Tarman has been obsessed with big, powerful American cars. He owns a 1968 Plymouth Valiant, a 1966 Plymouth Roadrunner and a 1970 Dodge Dart.

For years, he drove to work in his turbocharged Dodge Spirit, leaving home at 5:30 a.m. to avoid traffic and rarely dropping below 75 mph.

But in November, worried by the water cooler discussion "with a girl from finance who was sure gas was going to keep rising" and exasperated at how much it cost to fill his tank, he searched the website Craigslist and found the five-speed 1992 Civic with 155,000 miles for $2,500, offered by its original owner.

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