The New Age Economy Car

By Tony Costa

Over the past two months we have seen a steady but predictable rise in gas prices. This sudden rise in oil prices goes largely unexplained given there is no shortage.  Some of the reasons given include unrest in the Middle East, our unwillingness to develop domestic oil resources, and a lack of refining capability.  The most intriguing explanation is the Wall Street commodities traders unrestricted ability to speculate and on oil futures. Speculating is simple, just buy a boat load of oil, if you buy enough of it and keep it off the market prices will climb.  When the price of your hoard increases be the first to sell it at a huge profit.  After the price drops buy another boat load and repeat the process.

When people complain about the high price of gas they inevitably bring their choice of transportation into the conversation. Over the past fifteen years the SUV became the preferred choice of transport to the American public. These all purpose urban assault vehicles have served as the mainstay of American transportation. They and many of the cars that tickle the American fancy excel in storage and seating space and are extremely versatile. Some of these urban wagons are get pretty good gas millage. Lighter vehicle weights and the switch to turbo four bangers has really helped the situation. If on the other hand you opt for the big heavy V8 luxury models your SUV will need to be fed several times a week. Thats not too much of a problem with three dollar per gallon gasoline but if the price jumps to say five or six dollars you may have second thoughts about those needless trips.  

The current vogue in auto conversation is now shifting towards gas mileage versus power and size. When people ask me what my economy car preference is I give them an answer that they normally would not expect. My choice for the perfect economy cruiser is a late model Corvette.

A well tuned C5 or C6 or C7 are all capable of getting  30 mpg on the highway. I chuckled the other day when a local news team was doing an investigative report on the latest small cars that can get over 30 mpg. The list included a very short list of foreign and American economy cars that are basically one step up from a golf cart. If the news team had included the Corvette on the list they would have been laughed off the air. 

Most people don't have a clue as to how efficient this modern day muscle car really is. The popular notion is that a small four cylinder engine placed in a small car is the magic formula for high gas mileage. Those expectations are unrealistic when equipping an underpowered four banger in a vehicle that has the aerodynamics of a brick.

Case in point; we were recently forced to take a long drive in a Japanese economy rental car. Three of us had to take a trip across Florida's Alligator Alley while covering an event in Miami. The car rental people at Hertz told us that because it was tourist season in South Florida there were only a few cars available. The car that we were assigned to was a four cylinder Corolla. As economy cars go it was not that bad. There was plenty of luggage space and the seating was adequate, the FM radio even worked. The agent at the Hertz desk told us that he would let us take a brand new Vette for the same price as the rice burner. During the family tourist season they can't give these things away. The problem was that there were three of us. We should have made our sales rep take a bus.

The little rice burner was actually fun to drive around town, zipping in and out of traffic was a breeze. The problems associated with an underpowered vehicle became all too apparent when we dove onto the Alley.

The "Alley" for those of you not familiar with South Florida, is a notorious stretch of highway that connects the West and East coasts of Southern Florida. This road is America's answer to the Autobahn. The posted speed limit is 70mph. in reality average speeds are not all that average. Most people drive the Alley at a leisurely pace of about 85 mph. At this speed the State Troopers won't really take too much notice. There are only four to six FHP cars assigned to the one hundred plus miles of this road at any one time so people tend to get a little carried away when it comes to obeying the speed limit.

As I said our rice burner was perfect at speeds under 40 mph. The "Alley" with its 85mph plus flow of traffic presented us with a very different opinion. At 80 mph the little motor was screaming for dear life. The end result of this outing was an average highway gas mileage figure of  24 mpg. If we had obeyed the 70mph speed limit the little wonder would have squeezed out a few more miles to the gallon.

The high gas mileage figures that are advertised for these economy cars are at what the manufacturers call highway speeds. Highway speed is 55 mph. When was the last time you saw anyone driving 55mph. 55 may be the average speed on congested urban roads like the Long Island Expressway in NY. 55 is not the norm however for other parts of the country.

The moral to this story is that smaller and underpowered is not always better. We took the same trip in a C5 and we averaged 29 mpg doing an average of 80 mph. The car we drove had an automatic and the standard 2:73 rear end. At 80 mph the tach was barely at 2000 rpm.  Want to talk about having your cake and eating it, we took the same trip across the Alley in our  ZO6 and averaged 28 mpg. 

Yes folks the best economy car in the world is made in Bowling Green not Tokyo. The Corvette can attribute its miserly thirst for fuel to its overall sleek shape and a big efficient V8 that does not have to strain once it gets rolling. The Vettes low coefficient of surface to air friction, high torque and top end gearing makes it the perfect highway economy car. Talk about having your cake and eating it. So the next time you get into a conversation about economy cars tell it like it is, even if you get laughed at.


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