Why the planet wins in the race to 40 mpg

If you've been shopping for a car lately, you've probably seen the signs advertising an EPA fuel economy of 40 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway. But while automakers reach for ever-higher mpg, a recent Edmunds.com test revealed that many aren't quite getting there.

Edmunds.com released results last month from its test of six cars in the so-called 40 mpg club. Only half of the vehicles passed the 40 mpg highway threshold in at least one of the three testing scenarios, and just one -- Volkswagen Passat TDI -- exceeded 40 mpg in all three, including the city scenario, where driving tends to be less fuel efficient.

So what's with the hype surrounding 40 mpg? And will the race to 40 mpg have much of an impact on the environment?

It turns out the excitement surrounding 40 mpg may have as much to do with the advancements made in auto engineering as its does with marketing, according to Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with Edmunds.com.

"Two years ago, there were only a couple cars that achieved it. Now we're seeing more and more. Next time it will be 50 (mpg), then it will be 60. It's just a natural evolution of constantly striving for higher and higher fuel economy," Krebs said. "It also has great marketing cache. It looks great in advertisements, especially when gas prices are on the rise and spiking."

The good news is that road to 40 mpg may also be paved with benefits for the environment in the form of reductions in global warming pollution -- if consumers buy into it.

"These vehicles will only have an environmental impact if they're sold," said Jim Kliesch, research director in the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). "What manufacturers need to do is make their green cars popular and their popular cars green. By selling their efficient vehicles in volume are they going to make a difference, as far as the planet is concerned."

Photo of dashboard provided by Nicha via Shutterstock.

Next page: The race to 40 mpg