The EPA listed the most fuel-efficient cars built since 1984. Of course the Prius is on there, but so are many cars that are some 20 years old. So why are the old cars so good at sipping fuel?
By Larry Webster
Jun 9, 2010
1984 chevy sprint on the street
According to the EPA, the most fuel-efficient car sold since 1984 is the first Honda Insight, built in 2000, with an EPA rating of 49 city, 61 highway that's unmatched today. The Prius is second on the list. Neither of these are surprises, but No. 3 could raise some eyebrows: the 1984 Chevy Sprint, a car that achieved 44/53 mpg without a hybrid–electric drivetrain or any other fancy hardware.
So how does this 25-year-old car beat so many modern ones and why don't we have more like it today?
The Sprint was a rebadged Suzuki that was originally designed for the Japanese market. It was Chevy's attempt to supplant the unloved Chevette. Barebones doesn't begin to describe the car, but it was light, around 1600 pounds—about 1500 pounds less than a similar car weighs today—and had a tiny 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine.
That's a recipe for dynamite fuel economy. Unfortunately, there wasn't room for anything else, like, for example, acceleration. The Sprint needed over 15 seconds to reach 60 mph, which made merging a real exciting endeavor. If that wasn't enough of a safety risk, the words "tin can" do a pretty good job describing that car's structure. You don't get 1600 pounds and side-impact door beams, crush zones or, of course, airbags. Neither did it have power steering, cup holders, power windows, sound deadening or any of the other amenities we take for granted these days.
Thanks to a combination of tougher emission and crash regulations and higher buyer expectations, the Sprint has no chance of resurfacing. Nowadays, carmakers try to deliver the same or better fuel economy as the Sprint but without the unacceptable sacrifices. They do it with technology such as hybrid–electric and diesel powertrains.
There's a point to be made that a modern car is a tad overbloated and could stand to lose a few pounds. In the future they will, but weight reduction costs money. The top car on the list, the 2000 Honda Insight, had an aluminum unibody that cut weight to 2100 pounds. No modern car, save for the Lotus Elise, matches that figure. But an aluminum unibody is expensive, which is why only premium cars employ it for the entire structure. Yes, the Insight had it, but Honda lost money on every one it sold, which is why the current Insight uses steel.
Maybe some folks would endure the Sprint's spartan interior, dreadful road noise, and dubious safety for high mileage, but we'd bet that figure is small. And if you're one of them, you can probably still find a few Sprints out there. Here's a tip: It continued as the Geo Metro and it'll be worth what you paid.
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