1980 Era VW Rabbit (Golf). Image credit: VW Vortex
American car makers would have us believe they have an intense struggle to develop new designs and to capitalize new operations in which to make more efficient cars, suitable for the Climate Age. What a line of propaganda that is.
Back in 1980, amidst a serious oil shortage, I bought a cheap (for the era) VW Rabbit, as pictured, which consistently got over 40 mpg. Among the models introduced to meet the US' increasingly stringent emissions standards, Rabbit did this with fuel injection instead of the cobbled Detroit-style carburetion schemes prevalent at the time. It also had European style bucket seats - then a novelty, believe it or not - and, best of all, would reliably start in the 20-below temperatures common to where I lived in Wisconsin. Look below for a list of all the affordable, high-mileage, small- and mid-size models available, circa 1980.MPG@matic has the full table of high mileage vehicles available in the period of 1978 - 1981. Datsun then is what we call Nissan, now. See Super Cheap High MPG Cars: 1978-1981 for details. Here's an excerpt from the table.
Horsepower reduction is the most critical priority.
Nobody needs a 600 HP car. Unless you are going to pull a trailer, you don't even "need" a 100HP car. America's love affair with ever more horsepower was always about symbolizing social status and personal power - showing passersby how powerful and wealthy we are. Car makers seem to remain convinced that only by letting customers continue to buy new cars designed as show-and-tell toys will sales pick up again. Why wouldn't they think so? They had 30 years to habituate themselves on this idea - and it worked beautifully for them.
Any mechanical engineer worth his salt understands the fundamental importance of HP to weight ratio. Return that ratio to average 1980 specs, while keeping the car as light as possible, and high mileage will be at hand, along with a much lower price tag. That means 4-cylinder engines with low displacement. It worked in 1980, and it can work again. That's why I call it nostalgic pragmatism.
Important note: I went for the 80 Rabbit as my final choice because, at the time, it was assembled in the USA - Pennsylvania.
High mileage, low horsepower, car posts.
Earth Day Plea: "Un-Pimp My Ride"
Realistic Gas Mileage Figures -- by Consumer Reports