Want to See What Automakers can Do To save The Planet and our Wallets? Go to Europe.

A recent week driving around the U.K. underscored the education I already have about the foolishness of the American consumer economy when it comes to driving.

As I drove the M4 from London to Cardiff, I was consciously looking at the cars around me. I have heard, read, written and observed that the European car-park is much different than the American car-park. But it’s always healthy to take a look with fresh eyes.

Ninety-percent of the vehicles I saw were small and mid-sized cars, from Vauxhall Astras and smaller, up to Ford Mondeos. I also saw some Chrysler minivans, a handful of Range Rovers and Land Rovers, and Toyota Land Cruisers. Parking lots were amazing. I stopped at a castle in Wales where there were about 125-150 cars parked. Among those vehicles were just four vehicles that could be called an SUV by American standards. There were three Chrysler minivans. The vast majority of the vehicles were small. In the U.S., the same parking lot would have 60%-70% SUVs and minivans.

On the flight home, I grabbed a magazine at the airport, called What Car? It’s a review of cars, but one of the services it provides is an attempt to recommend specific vehicles to specific readers with specific needs and wants.

As I perused the magazine, check out these fuel economies of vehicles sold in the U.K. Even when you do the conversions from U.K. gallons to U.S. gallons (A US gallon is 3.8 liters, but a UK one is 4.5 liters) the differences are eye-opening.

Volkswagen Tiguan: 33.6 mpg for the 1.4 litre engine, and 39.2 mpg for the 2.0 diesel. Audi A4: 1.8 litre gets 39.8 mpg. The 2.7 litre diesel gets 43 mpg. The Suzuki Splash: 50.4 mpg for the 1.2 litre version. The Subaru Impreza: the 2.5 litre gets 38 mpg, and the 2.0 litre gets 33.6 mpg. The U.S. gets a 2.5 liter engine with worse fuel economy. The MINI Clubman: The 1.6 liter diesel is to get 68.9 mpg. The Mazda2 (pictured above), a car that the U.S. is not destined to get: 52.3 mpg. The new Mazda6: 41.5 mpg for the 1.8 litre, 35 mpg for the 2.5 litre and 50.4 mpg for the 2.0 diesel.

These fuel economy numbers are head-spinning for the U.S. car buyer looking for higher fuel economy vehicles. It also shows that the car companies know how to produce vehicles that get much better fuel economy that what we are used to.

I have been blogging about how I am shopping for a new car, and that fuel economy is my primary concern and desire. I don’t want to drive a dog. But I’m not apt to choose styling or power over fuel economy. I want both.

And yet, when I look, the best I can find in non-hybrid vehicles are: Toyota Yaris, 4 cylinder, 1.5L.—29/36 mpg. Toyota Corolla, 4 cyl, 1.8 L—28/37 mpg Honda Fit, 4 cyl, 1.5L—28/34 mpg Ford Focus, 4 cyl, 2 L, Regular—24/35 mpg.

The discrepancy between what we can get in the U.S. and what Europeans are buying has to do with the size of the engines in the European cars and the availability of diesel versions.

The lack of fuel efficient vehicles in the U.S. is not…I repeat…NOT…because the automakers don’t know how to create the vehicles.

Americans, you see, have to have more powerful engines. Have to? Try, want. I talked to a lot of Europeans while I was on my trip, and none of them reported feeling listless or deprived from driving smaller, more fuel efficient engines. They aren’t breaking out in sores. They haven’t lost height. I spoke to women about the diesel vehicles they drive and none of them complained about the smell ( a frequently cited “problem” with expanding clean diesel cars in the U.S.). Are the women in the U.S. that much more prissy than English women?

I wish I could send every Lincoln Navigator loving car buyer to Europe for a week just to hang out, drive a European car and talk to people about their thinking about fuel economy and transportation. Of course, now is a bad time to go. With the weak dollar, it cost me about $120 to fill the tank of a Ford Mondeo diesel sedan ( a terrific cara that got me well over 40 mpg). That’s the oil economics that will be here soon.

That’s why I am betting that “Small is the new Big.”

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