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The fuel economy revolution: 100 years in the making

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As one of the biggest outgoings of running a car, it’s in all motorists’ interests to understand fuel economy. Today’s vehicles use far less fuel than their counterparts of even 10 years ago, let alone 100.

In straightforward terms, fuel economy is the relationship between the distance travelled and the amount of fuel consumed by a vehicle. Many countries now impose specific requirements as regards fuel economy, with a view to reducing air pollution, and because the importation of vehicle fuel represents a substantial part of a nation’s foreign trade.

From 1885, Karl Freierich Benz introduced his Benz Patent Motorcar, which is considered the first production car because several identical models were built. As revolutionary as it was, in terms of fuel economy his machine was rock bottom. But Mr Benz was more concerned about getting it to run at all, as opposed to how much gas it would use.

By 1908 Ford had introduced its famous Model T car, one of the first truly mass production vehicles available to the public. In terms of fuel economy, a test by the Telegraph in 2010 gauged it at 13.8mpg. The Model T may be more charming than many modern motor cars, but in terms of fuel efficiency it was the ultimate gas guzzler.

In the 1930s the Tatra wowed motorists with its sleek, futuristic looks – and impressive fuel economy. The T87 managed a very decent (for the time) 20mpg, while boxier competitors were delivering 6 to 9 mpg. The Czech-made wonder’s fuel efficiency showed how important aerodynamics were to keeping a car’s running costs down.

In the 50s, 60s and 70s smaller, mass production cars led the way in keeping fuel bills down. Prime among these were the VW Beetle and the Mini. However, most models would not breach the 30mpg mark.

The fuel crisis of the 1970s spurred consumers to seek out cheaper-to-run, smaller cars – even in the USA where big cars were favoured. Japan’s Honda Civic became hugely popular in this decade, delivering great build quality and low fuel consumption.

Over the years, achieving high fuel economy ratings from the various assessment bodies in Europe, the US and elsewhere, has been a prime goal for all carmakers. Consumers have become far savvier regarding this all-important figure.

Today’s most fuel efficient cars easily breach the 80mpg mark. Considering that three decades ago 30mpg was a decent figure, the improvement is nothing less than revolutionary.

But no matter how efficient manufacturers can make their petrol or diesel cars, the future of the petrol engine has always been on shaky ground. Concerns over the effects of combustion engines on our air quality were never going to go away. As a result, the UK and France will ban the sale of new petrol/diesel cars by 2040, while Germany may ban them earlier. Other nations are sure to follow.

The initial death knells of the petrol/diesel car arguably rang out in 2000, when the revolutionary Toyota Prius appeared as the world’s first hybrid. No other car has done so much for the petrol-electric hybrid vehicle, turning it from a novelty to a genuine consumer option.

In the 2010s Tesla proved, with its Model S, that electric cars could be useful everyday cars, and importantly deliver decent range – an issue that had so far stunted take-up of electric vehicles.

For manufacturers, the trick will now be to make electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars that deliver the performance – and the range – of the combustion engine.