A fuel gauge on a car almost at empty

When buying a new car, there are many factors to consider—among them purchase price, comfort, safety, and potential maintenance costs.

But according to a new, nationally representative Consumer Reports survey (PDF) of 3,879 Americans, most think fuel economy is either "extremely important" or "very important" when purchasing a new vehicle.

Forty-two percent of prospective buyers said that fuel economy left the most room for improvement on their current vehicles, and 89 percent of all Americans agreed that automakers should continue to improve fuel economy in new models.

“It appears many automakers hit the brakes on rolling out fuel-saving innovations, even though drivers expect new vehicles to be more fuel efficient,” says David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports. “Drivers need the new (Biden) administration to give automakers a jump-start by quickly setting stronger standards so that stalled progress picks back up again.”

While this survey shows that fuel economy matters to consumers, it also suggests that the higher purchase prices that often come with more fuel-efficient vehicles matter, too.

Specifically, when asked how quickly fuel savings would need to offset the cost of a higher purchase price, only 10 percent of Americans planning to purchase or lease a vehicle in the next two years would be willing to spread the added cost of efficiency upgrades over the life of the vehicle.

Forty-three percent wanted to see the payoff within the first year, 29 percent said they would wait one to three years, and only 6 percent said they would wait three to five years for savings to materialize. Thirteen percent said they would buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle regardless of whether or not they would make up the initial cost difference in fuel savings.

MORE ON FUEL ECONOMY

CR’s survey showed that fuel economy concerns among consumers are wide-ranging. Eighty-four percent of Americans agreed that it is important for manufacturers to improve fuel economy on larger vehicles like trucks and SUVs.

Eighty-three percent of Americans agreed that they expect each new generation of vehicles to be more fuel efficient than the last, and 74 percent agreed that automakers have a responsibility to continue improving gas mileage.

Regarding government fuel economy standards, 73 percent of Americans agreed that the U.S. government should continue strengthening standards; 30 percent agreed that state governments should be prevented from setting more stringent emissions standards than the federal government.

Half of Americans agreed that automakers are doing a good job building fuel-efficient vehicles, and 30 percent thought automakers care about consumers saving money on fuel costs.

Consumer Reports supports instituting stronger federal greenhouse-gas standards, which Friedman says automakers have the capability to meet, and which would save consumers money and reduce the impact of transportation on the climate and air quality. 

“The auto industry has the technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions of new cars and light trucks 60 percent by 2030,” Friedman says. “This can be achieved through a combination of significantly improving fuel economy, and by shifting to electric and other alternative fuel vehicles.”

An in-depth study CR released last year shows that electric vehicles cost less to fuel than equivalent gasoline-powered vehicles, and can also save consumers money on repairs and maintenance.

“Stronger standards mean people can buy new cars and trucks that will save them more money while clearing the air,” Friedman says. “Your mileage is better, and you’re making fewer trips to the gas pump, or eliminating the trips altogether with a money-saving electric car that you can plug in at home.”