The typical car today will take you about 26 miles on a gallon of gas, or the electric equivalent, but that wasn't always the case.
The General used data from the Environmental Protection Agency to find the most fuel-efficient car and truck every year since 1975. For this analysis, years represent the model year of the vehicle; the EPA determined the most fuel-efficient vehicles by their overall miles per gallon.
Manufacturers have made great strides in fuel efficiency over the past half-century. The typical fuel economy of a passenger vehicle in 1975 was about 13 miles per gallon, while in 2022 it has doubled to more than 26 miles per gallon. Based on February 2023 urban gas prices, that efficiency saves drivers about $13 per 100 miles. Typical vehicle carbon dioxide emissions have also dropped off about 61% in that time period, from 661 grams per mile in 1975 to 256 grams per mile in 2022, EPA data shows.
Drivers who wanted to travel the farthest on every buck they poured into gas tanks in the 1970s were likely looking at buying a boxy Volkswagen or a Honda sedan. And in the 1980s the two-door GM Sprint was about as efficient a vehicle as you could find, according to EPA data. But in the last decade, it's hybrid and electric vehicles that have increasingly stolen the spotlight from traditional automakers who were previously top of their class for fuel efficiency.
Still, Honda and American automaker General Motors had the most cars on the list, which dates back to 1975. GM's trucks also dominated in fuel efficiency alongside Ford.
The Department of Transportation was created in the 1960s, though by that time U.S. highway construction was well underway. And by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the federal government was ready to get serious about regulating the safety of vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was created to enforce federal motor vehicle safety standards. Regulations instated over the next decade included requirements for seat belts, lower tailpipe emissions, front and rear bumpers, and labels for fuel efficiency.
Those regulations forever changed the way vehicles were manufactured. Today, vehicle fuel efficiency is front-and-center in advertising, and most manufacturers' model lineups feature fewer combustion engines than ever before, favoring hybrid or all-electric drivetrains. For electric and hybrid electric vehicles, fuel efficiency is measured in miles per gallon of gasoline-equivalent (MPGe) which uses the kilowatt-hour equivalent to gasoline for generating the heat needed to fuel a vehicle engine. Here, it's reported as the EPA does, using MPG for both MPG and MPGe.
The Biden administration proposed the strictest regulations on automobile emissions in history in April 2023. The proposed regulation would apply to tailpipe emissions from 2027 to 2032 and would effectively force automakers to produce even more electric vehicles.
Keep reading to take a spin through the history of fuel-efficient vehicles in the U.S.