The Campaign Spot

Sorting Out Obama, Japanese Cars, and Miles Per Gallon

The easily-agitated folks at Media Matters have seen fit to fill my e-mailbox with accusations of making a false accusation against Obama, for mentioning a Chicago Tribune column that disputed Obama’s assertion that “Japanese cars now getting an average of 45 miles to the gallon.” Tribune columnist Jim Mateja quoted Toyota spokesman Mike Michels as saying, “I’m not sure where he got that figure…No carmaker gets 45 m.p.g. Ours is closer to 30 m.p.g.”

The Obama campaign points to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s December 2004 “Comparison of Passenger Vehicle Fuel Economy and GHG Emission Standards Around the World.” Note that at the top of page 13, the report states in the section covering Japan:

Assuming no change in the vehicle mix, these targets imply a 23 percent improvement in 2010 in gasoline passenger vehicle fuel economy and a 14 percent improvement in diesel fuel economy compared with the 1995 fleet average of 14.6 km/L. According to the Japanese government, this improvement will result in an average fleet fuel economy of Japanese vehicles of 35.5 mpg by 2010.

However, the Pew Center points out that countries use different test cycles to measure fuel efficiency; the tests can have great differences in “average speed, duration, distance, acceleration and deceleration characteristics, and frequencies of starts and stops.” The Pew Report concludes, “to roughly convert a fuel economy rating based on the Japanese cycle to one based on the U.S. CAFE cycle, one multiplies by 1.35.”  35.5 x 1.35 = 47.925, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 mpg.

 

But the Toyota spokesman accurately describing the miles per gallon of Toyota vehicles sold in the United States, separate from Toyota vehicles sold in Japan. Looking at the Department of Transportation figures for 2006, you see miles-per-gallon figures for Toyota and most other Japanese cars that are much closer to 30 than to 45.

 

Toyota domestic passenger cars (meaning made by Toyota, but produced in the U.S.) had a CAFE standard that yielded 34.7 miles per gallon; imported passenger cars rated 34.6 miles per gallon. Toyota light trucks rated 23.6 miles per gallon. And Toyota is the highest among cars; for comparison, Honda domestic passenger cars had 33.2 miles per gallon, imported passenger cars, 32.4 miles per gallon, and light trucks, 24.5 miles per gallon. The lowest Japanese import for a passenger car was Nissan at 24.2 m.p.g..

Obama was accurate if his term “Japanese cars” referred only to cars sold in Japan; while from the context that seems like a safe bet, it might have helped if he had clarified [to the audience of automakers before him] that he wasn’t referring to Japanese cars sold in the United States. The Toyota spokesman was accurate in describing Japanese vehicles sold here, but not in Japan.
One can wonder, however, whether the senator was comparing apples and oranges. Japan is small, heavily urban, and has extremely high population density; the vast majority of the population will only need, and want, small, light, highly fuel efficient compact cars. The United States is much bigger, more rural, and people travel much longer distances, both on a day-to-day basis and for, say, the family vacation or driving to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. For many American consumers, the cars that meet the needs of the Japanese market just aren’t a good option for them, no matter how much we may envy their miles per gallon.

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