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CAFE (Fuel Efficiency) Standards for Passenger Cars and Light Trucks


24 August 2005 - Updated: 28 April 2006
The United States leads the world in oil consumption; two-thirds is used to fuel our transportation system. In the wake of the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, Congress passed the Energy Policy Conservation Act (EPCA), which established corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards for passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States. The goal was to double fuel economy by 1985.

Fuel economy is the average mileage a vehicle can travel per gallon of fuel as measured by the protocol developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The CAFE standard is the minimum average mileage per gallon (mpg) a vehicle class must meet. The EPCA set passenger car standards from model year 1978 to model year 1985. The 1985 standard was unchanged until 2003. Note that these standards represent an average for all vehicles in a specific class produced by a specific manufacturer.

The "light truck" category includes sports utility vehicles (SUVs), minivans and pickup trucks; light trucks that exceed 8,500 lbs gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) do not have to comply with CAFE standards.

Whereas in 1975 Congress set a 1985 goal of 27.5 mpg for passenger cars, it delegated the light truck requirement to the Department of Transportation (DOT), using a "maximum feasible level" standard. Until 2003, the light truck standard was 20.7 mpg.

Total fleet fuel economy peaked in 1987 at 26.2 mpg.

From 1995-2001, Congress prohibited the DOT from raising light truck (which includes SUVs) fuel standards.

Latest Developments

In 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a final rule which raised the CAFE standard for light trucks. The rule set standards at 21.0 mpg for model year 2005, 21.6 mpg for model year 2006, and 22.2 for model year 2007.

In August 2005, President Bush proposed breaking the light truck category into six sub-categories and setting mpg standards for each, ranging from 28.4 for the 2011 model year for the smallest "truck" to 21.2 for the largest.

In March 2006, NHTSA published the final rule, which slightly increased fuel economy standards for SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks for 2008-2011. It did not affect heavy trucks, such as the Ford F-250, or passenger cars.

In April, in the wake of a new record price for oil and gasoline prices over $3 per gallon across the country, President Bush asked Congress for authority to investigate raising CAFE standards for cars.


At the time that Congress passed the EPCA, cars and light trucks were energy inefficient: cars averaged 13.5 mpg and trucks averaged 11.6 mpg.

Light trucks were primarily used as commercial and agricultural work vehicles and accounted for only one-in-10 vehicles sold in 1979 (9.8% share of total fleet). Today, "light trucks" account for half of all vehicles sold in the United States (50.1 percent of total fleet in 2003) and are primarily "passenger cars" rather than commercial work vehicles.

The US fleet average peaked in 1987 at 26.2 mpg. In 2003 (latest data available), the average new vehicle (fleet) mpg was 25.0. Why? The proliferation of inefficient SUVs and the increase, as a market share, of light trucks.

In 1990, Sen. Richard Bryan (D-NV) and Slade Gorton (R-WA) tried to reverse the downward trend in fuel economy by introducing a bill to raise fuel economy standards for passenger cars and light trucks over a 10 year period (just like the 1975 bill). The 1990 bill called for a 40 percent increase in CAFE standards. Had this bill become law, cars sold today would average 40 mpg and light trucks, 29 mpg.

For model year 2003, DaimlerChrysler had the best domestic passenger car mileage at 29.7 mpg, followed by GM at 28.9 mpg and Ford at 27.9 mpg. The "domestic" imports (foreign manufacturer but domestic production) had superior mileage: 34.4 mpg for Honda, 28.9 for Nissan and 28.1 mpg for Toyota. For imports, the leader was Suburu at 33.0 mpg, followed by Suzuki (32.4), GM (31.9), and Honda and Hyundai (30.4). Turning to the light truck category, Suburu again proved outstanding, at 26.3 mpg. It was followed by Honda (24.7), Hyundai (24.4), Isuzu (22.3) and DaimlerChrysler (22.2). Some manufacturers earned CAFE incentives by selling alternative fuel vehicles.
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