The Quest for the Perfect Car

By Sarene Marshall, The Nature Conservancy

Topping the list of most common marital disagreements are usually things like money and children. But if the list were derived from my household, it would include cars and light bulbs.

I’ll leave the “great light bulb debate” for another day, but, with the Detroit Auto Show wrapping up recently and other events previewing models to come in 2012, it seems timely to explore my family’s struggle to find the perfect car.

It’s not surprising that my husband and I – like most men and women – come to many purchases, including car-buying, with different preferences and priorities. True, our situation may be made more complex by our vocations and interests.

My husband’s an engineer who works with other (mostly male) defense engineers. He also has a strong weekend warrior streak, so he wants a vehicle that has power (to tow things) and space (for 2x4s or a pressure washer). And he has to be willing to be seen driving it around other guys.

Given that I spend my working days fighting climate change, I’m looking for something that lessens our family carbon footprint. This means we’re drawn to different segments of the auto market, although, with two small kids we have to feed, clothe and eventually put through college, we both would like to reduce what we spend – on the car and the gas to power it.

Try as we might to find a compromise, few vehicles currently hit the mark. Hybrid SUVs get about 30 miles per gallon (mpg), combined city and highway, but that’s low compared with ultra-fuel-efficient Toyota Priuses (55 mpg), and electric Nissan Leafs or Chevy Volts. And the best-selling vehicle in America – the Ford F-series pick-up truck (which certainly provides power, space and macho cred) gets an appalling 14 mpg combined – bad both for the wallet and the planet.

Although marketers in other industries have found ways to satisfy both men and women with the same product (think: action-adventure movie starring Brad Pitt), there’s still some room for improvement in the car department. But hope may be on the way, thanks to rising fuel economy standards that would be good all around.

Despite dramatic improvements in technology, average fuel efficiency standards in America were stuck at about 27.5 mpg for more than 20 years. In 2010, these were improved some (to 34.5 mpg for new vehicles sold by 2016), and fueled (pun intended!) a spate of new, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

In November, the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration went further, putting out new fuel efficiency standards for new cars and light trucks (even the Ford F-150) sold between 2017 and 2025, reaching an average of 54.5 mpg by 2025. Now that’s a tremendous improvement, and it has some real, positive bottom-line consequences, including:

  • It will dramatically cut carbon pollution. Vehicles sold during the 2017 to 2025 period will emit 2 billion fewer tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes than they would if standards were frozen at the 2016 level. The average vehicle emissions of CO2 in 2025 would be equivalent to the average per passenger emissions for urban rail transit systems.
  • It will increase our energy security and reduce our national debt. Vehicles sold from 2017 to 2025 will use 4 billion barrels less oil than their 2016 counterparts, limiting our dependence on imported oil and saving the nation $400 billion in negative trade balances at current oil prices.
  • It will save consumers money. Although the 2025 vehicle is projected to cost $2,000 more than the 2016 car to meet these standards, 2025 car or truck owners will save $5,200 in fuels costs over the life of the vehicle. Fuel savings fully offset the added vehicle cost within four years.
  • It will support auto industry jobs. In recent hearings on the standards, some auto dealers cited consumer interest in improved fuel efficiency. Auto manufacturers mostly support the standard, while noting the need for additional technological advances (creating opportunities for engineers).  An auto workers’ union also called the standards “sensible, achievable,” and “good for the broader economy.”

And the standards may, just may, spur new models that help bridge the gender divide in family car-buying pursuits everywhere.

Just last month, in its article about “12 New Cars That Are Worth Waiting For,” the ultra-macho Popular Mechanics included five highly fuel-efficient models (at least by today’s standards) on its list.

Maybe we won’t have to wait until 2025 to find a vehicle that will please everyone in my household.

Sarene Marshall is the managing director for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team. She holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and an MA in International Studies from University of Pennsylvania, and is fluent in Spanish. Sarene, a mother of two, enjoys gardening and gourmet cooking.

[Image: Traffic in Singapore. Credit: Flickr user via a Creative Commons license.]


Eternal Gardener
Eternal G5 years ago

One that goes telepathically without the use of any finite resource would fit the bill!

Sandi C.
Sandi C6 years ago


Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran6 years ago


Walter G.
Walter G6 years ago

Here in the Philippines the population has only really been exposed to mass car ownership since the marcos revolution. The roads are over-crowded with cars, and scooters, accompanied by corrupt traffic cops. Anywher in teh country one can gt local door to door transport in motorcycle side cars, or rent a car, van, truck or public transport "Jeepney" reasonable, and for long distances teh best family car is an air conditioned bus. In Manila, gridlocked traffic every day fosters the use of the very ugly but practical elevated, air conditioned railway system, which beats a car to any general destination in time saved and money spent. I note that in many european countries public trasnport is available almost anywhere.

Teresa Cowley
Teresa Cowley6 years ago

The "perfect car"--I'm happy with one that gets me where I need to go!!

Will Rogers
Will Rogers6 years ago

Rather than having to wait for the batteries to be charged we should just have a machine that can swap new ones for old, it may take a minute or two and may even be quicker than filling a tank. I would love to see formula 1 adopt electric vehicles, that would be very good for innovation.

KS Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

And maybe cars are not the answer at all.

Sue H.
Sue H6 years ago

I guess that questing sometimes means waiting.

Robert O.
Robert O6 years ago