Are SUVs as terrible as we keep saying they are?

Cadillac Esclade
CC BY 2.0 Does this look fuel efficient? / Lloyd Alter

A new study by Michael Sivak looks at the fuel consumption per occupant mile, and they are still worse than cars.

This TreeHugger has never quite understood the need for giant SUVs, particularly in the city, and never had much of a problem fitting our family and dog and stuff into our 2000 Outback, which was a whole lot smaller than these things. I have also spent much of my career here at TreeHugger complaining about their terrible gas consumption.

But Michael Sivak, now managing director of Sivak Applied Research, reports on Green Car Congress that it is not so simple.

Vehicle occupancy vs fuel consumptioin© Michael Sivak via Green Car Congress

It is true that SUVs consume about 30 percent more fuel for a given vehicle distance travelled. However, much to my surprise, Sivak reports, using data from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (PDF), that they have a significantly higher occupancy rate, averaging 1.83 persons instead of the car's 1.54. Sivak concludes:

...taking into account the increased occupancy of SUVs, as well as the increased occupant weight, results in the average fuel consumption per occupant distance for SUVs being only about 10% higher than for cars. For example, the average SUV consumes 23.6 gallons of fuel per 1,000 occupant miles, compared with 21.5 gallons for the average car.

This is not to say that we suddenly approve of SUVs. Fuel consumption per occupant mile is an important consideration, just as we note that buses use a lot more fuel than cars per vehicle distance travelled, but use far less per passenger.

folks in volksLots of Folks in Volks/Promo image


Perhaps if car makers designed vehicles like Volkswagen did in the '60s we could get a happy medium: fuel-efficient vehicles that hold a lot of people, with a far lower fuel use per person.



And of course, people have better options today, such as Sami's Chrysler Pacifica, which is hauling his family around at about 54.6 MPG and which he says "continues to be a great choice for families wanting to significantly reduce their gas consumption while still enjoying the benefits of oversized American car culture."

I just worry that we will be hearing a lot about Michael Sivak's data, bandied around by politicians fighting carbon taxes like the ones just imposed in Canada, who will say that it is a tax on families and working people who need big vehicles. But there are a lot of other options beside RAM trucks and Cadillac Escalades.

Are SUVs as terrible as we keep saying they are?
A new study by Michael Sivak looks at the fuel consumption per occupant mile.

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