The fuel economy of the U.S. automotive fleet fell flat in 2021, according to newly released federal data, and Detroit’s Big Three automakers were largely responsible for any lack of improvement.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the adjusted real-world mileage of new 2021 models came in at 25.4 miles per gallon. That was the same as in 2020, marking one of the rare shortfalls since mileage standards were enacted more than 50 years ago.
The EPA is expecting to see the numbers increase for 2022, forecasting the fleet average will reach 26.4 mpg.
Winners and losers
As an all-electric manufacturer, Tesla topped the EPA fuel economy list of 14 automotive manufacturers. Subaru ranked second, at an average 28.8 mpg for the 2021 model year. Kia was third, at 28.7 mph, while Nissan ranked fourth, at 28.6 mpg.
At the bottom of the chart was Stellantis, the global giant formed by the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and France’s Groupe PSA. Its fleet averaged just 21.3 mpg. While the automaker does have some fuel-efficient models, such as the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, a 30 mpg plug-in minivan, it is heavily dependent on gas-guzzling products like the Jeep Wrangler and Ram 1500 pickup.
In a statement, Stellantis indicated it is working to improve its mileage numbers, saying in a statement the 2021 results “do not reflect our current or future product plan.”
EVs could change the game
The automaker has introduced several plug-in hybrid products over the last several years, including a version of the fuel-slurping Wrangler. And it is getting ready to roll out an assortment of all-electric models, including the Dodge Daytona muscle car and Ram Revolution pickup. Worldwide, Stellantis plans to invest $35 billion to electrify its line-up, with 25 BEVs coming to the U.S. alone by 2030.
The Euro-American automaker’s Detroit rivals are also heavily reliant on light trucks. As a result, General Motors ranked second from bottom in the EPA list, at 21.6 mpg, Ford doing only slightly better at 22.9 mpg. Both carmakers are expecting to post improvements as they introduce their own fleets of electrified vehicles, including GM’s new Cadillac Lyriq crossover and Ford’s F-150 Lightning pickup.
The industry’s weak showing in the 2021 fuel economy report nonetheless triggered a harsh response from environmental groups.
“Automakers won’t slash pollution and improve gas mileage unless strong standards make them do so,” said Dan Becker, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Safe Climate Transport Campaign.
That was echoed by Chris Harto, the senior policy advisor at Consumer Reports. “Our data consistently show us that consumers want more efficient vehicles that save them money,” he said in a statement. “Yet time and time again automakers refuse to deliver cost saving efficiency technology unless they are forced to do so by strong standards.”
Fuel economy targets tightened
The weak industry performance came at a time when the Trump administration moved to relax federal fuel economy standards. But it also reflected the rapid market shift from sedans, coupes and sports cars to less efficient SUVs, CUVs and pickups. Ford, for example, eliminated all passenger car models but the Ford Mustang from its U.S. line-up.
Under the Biden administration, fuel economy mandates were increased this past April. The finalized fuel economy numbers will require an 8% annual increase in 2024 and 2025, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standard rising by 10% in 2026.
Higher mileage will provide “people the freedom to get to where they need to go more affordably,” Transportation Dept. Secretary Pete Buttigieg said when the new targets were revealed.