Home » The 75 MPG Geo Metro Experimental Aero Car Is What You Get When An Engineer Wants To Send A Message

The 75 MPG Geo Metro Experimental Aero Car Is What You Get When An Engineer Wants To Send A Message


Currently gracing the pages of Facebook is a little car with a fun story to tell. The 1989 Geo Metro Experimental Aero Car is the brainchild of an inventor who had some novel solutions to a few problems faced by normal, everyday people. It looks like a spacecraft and rolls by fuel stations as it sips on gas at a rate of 75 miles-per-gallon. This car is one man’s message to automakers that they could do better.

Not just one, but three readers sent in this lovely creation. Thank you all, Alexander, Cory, and Joshua. It’s easy to see why this little car is causing a stir. I mean, it’s not everyday that you see a creation like this just pop up for sale. Sadly, by the time that you read this the Metro has been sold. Whoever bought it got a decent deal, I think. It was just $3,200 and it still ran, but had bad brakes. Not bad for a neat one-off car.

But I think that it’s still important that the world knows about this car and the man who created it. And I think a 1993 issue of the Syracuse Herald American newspaper summarizes what you’re looking at here perfectly: “Kirkville man cut car in half to make a point.”

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The Geo Metro “Experimental Aero Car” is the work of Douglas M. Heffron. While not much has been said about Heffron’s early life, his adult life was reportedly full of adventure. In that newspaper clipping it’s revealed that Heffron worked as a machinist and a welder. During his time in the Army, he used his skills to keep Medevac helicopters flying. And at home, he let his gearhead side flourish as he hot-rodded and restored cars.

So, what was a hot rodder doing making a hypermiler’s dream? As the newspaper wrote, it was his daily 50-mile work commute that turned into part of the inspiration. Another part was when he arrived at work, he noticed that most people had arrivee by themselves in their car. Of course, using the family car (or worse, SUV) to drive just a single person can be wasteful, and it’s something that automakers and governments alike talk about today. But while a government may want you to carpool, Heffron had a different idea. What you just drove a hyper-efficient car to work? The newspaper said that Heffron called it the “working man’s car.”

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In an interview with Metro MPG about the car, Heffron said that he spent two years (the newspaper says three) researching and designing the car. He even built clay models before doing the real thing. Heffron was going to make his working man’s car by shaving off a ton of weight from a donor car while making it more aerodynamic, too. In the interview, he noted that he had experience as a flight instructor and that he built his own experimental aircraft. That experience was going to be used to make this car.

Heffron bought a 1989 Geo Metro for the project. Metros weigh in at roughly 1,600 pounds and in 1989 they were rated at 52 mpg on the highway. And of course, they can be had for cheap.

According to the newspaper, Heffron worked on the car like it was his job. He spent 16 hours a day on the car over the course of four weeks during his vacation. And what you see here is all his work. He did everything from the custom metalwork to cutting the glass. He even modified the Metro’s fifth gear to be taller on his own.

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And it’s all road legal. Assuming that he worked every day of those four weeks, his over 450 hours of work and $1,300 of investment culminated in a vehicle that passed state inspection. In the Metro MPG interview, Heffron said that he drove the Metro mostly on the highway and didn’t employ any special driving tricks. But what he did to the car allegedly got it to average 75 to the gallon, a solid 23 mpg improvement over stock.

How did he do it?

A huge part comes down to the fact that Heffron just hacked away much of the car. Shedding much of the interior and metal shaved off 300 pounds, a pretty significant amount of weight in any car, let alone one this small. That weight reduction involved reducing the cabin to just a sliver on the left side.

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Inside, the car is really basic, with just those uncomfortable lightweight buckets fashioned in a tandom seating layout. But the end result is a smaller frontal area for the car to push through the air.

The rest of the body is smoothed over for aero, including wheel well skirts. And thankfully, Heffron made sure to use the now dead space for practicality. He said to Metro MPG that the right side has covers that flip up, revealing a cavernous storage area. It could carry 16 grocery bags or a bunch of 2x4s. Sure, you lose space inside, but you gain practicality.

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And I bet that you’re wondering about that hoop in back. Heffron said that hoop is functional, offering some roll protection while helping to keep the car stable at speed.

As both the newspaper and Metro MPG noted, part of Heffron’s goal was to send a message to automakers that they could be doing so much better with fuel efficiency. He noted that he sent out 18 letters to various state governors in hopes that the government would pitch the idea to automakers. Sadly, Heffron said that the reply was that “it was something they were not set up to handle.” It’s unclear if that reply was from the governors or automakers.

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Either way, Heffron’s creation really stands on its own. Later, Honda would do something somewhat close to this idea with its first-generation Insight. And you cannot forget Toyota’s Prius and Volkswagen’s wild XL1. But Heffron showed what was possible with early 1990s technology. And as Metro MPG noted, he could have done even better. His aero design wasn’t super optimized. For example, even more frontal area could have been removed and he could have added a flat pan under the car to clean it up further. Still, 75 mpg would be impressive even today.

Heffron went on to build other inventions like a self-driving lawnmower that followed a wire. He also thought up a little airplane that flew inside of a lightbulb. Heffron passed on July 20, 2021 at the age of 77. He’s remembered for his inventions, a number of which we may never know about. As I noted before, this incredible car did sell today. The seller only answered a single question that I asked, and revealed that the car was in running shape, but the brakes weren’t working. Hopefully, the new owner gets the car back on the road and enjoys this creation for the wonder that it is.

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78 Responses

  1. Great article and God bless Mr. Heffron for having fun and imagination. For some reason this reminds me of all those oddball experiments that use to show up for the Indy 500. Sidepod mounted drivers, weird bodywork, six wheeled cars, and the like.

  2. Damn, but that tiny airplane in the bulb is cool! I’m curious as to how he powered the propeller.
    Just what I need: another internet rabbit hole.

  3. Of course, a few years ago, Hyundai and Bisimoto modified a standard Ioniq to get 80mpg, which remained a normal 5-seat hatchback. At the SEMA show, they originally said they were going to make at least some of the mods available for the aftermarket as a kit, but that never happened, apparently due to a deafening lack of consumer interest. If there wasn’t a business case for just selling some bolt-on fender skirts and a body kit for an Ioniq, there certainly wasn’t going to be a business case for that Metro

  4. This story immediately brings to mind the 2017 Elio motors concept and their 84-mpg-highway car. Their whole concept was, in effect, “It’s not magic, there’s just half as much car going through the air, with only three wheels.”

    It was a nice idea, and the plan was even to use Geo Metro engines.


    I was a concept I liked, but the money evaporated before they got them built. Now they’re like “Oh, we’ll make them electric…”

    I say what I’ve always said: put one at a dealer near me and we’ll talk.

    1. Elio definitely had a variety of issues. Partly, they spent a lot of money and effort lobbying so it could end up in a special category of motorcycle exempt from safety regulations but also from helmet requirements. The founders also went to market rate salaries before making a single car, which is an unusual strategy for a cash-strapped startup. As was the decision to design their own engine rather than use something off the shelf.

      Jumping straight to low-margin volume manufacturing like that is rough, and they definitely fell well short of the capital it requires, but I’m not totally sure they would have managed it even with a couple billion.

    1. To be perfectly honest it’s probably the best truck layout one can have. One side of the “truck” is just payload. You could have an 8ft bed in an 8ft long truck. The other side can be single seat with lots of covered storage, two seat with covered storage, 3 seat with almost no covered storage.

      I normally hate asymmetrical cars but I’d love a compact (actually compact, not Ford Maverick pickup “compact”) AWD or 4WD pickup made this way.

      Give it a low deck height and a ramp option and it would make a great tiny motorcycle hauler with the possibility to be smaller than a Smart Car.

      1. I disagree. It’s a terrible layout for a truck bed. You can’t haul anything like a sheet of plywood. Or anything that would block vision out the side window. This is like having a ridiculously big trunk on your car. And hauling things in a car trunk doesn’t provide the versatility of a truck bed no matter how big it is…

    2. I hadn’t thought of it like that…and omg you’re right. Now, imagine putting tie-downs and a motorcycle ramp on that thing. Roll down the highway with a motorcycle perched right next to the cockpit.

        1. I’ve seen motorcycles that aren’t much smaller than a Geo Metro so I’m not sure how this would actually work. Maybe a scooter or a child’s dirt bike…

    3. Also, plenty of cars are 2-seaters, but the simple idea that a 2-seater car could be far more efficient with tandem seating rather than side-by-side seating is something automakers could actually consider, especially if the seats were mounted cockpit-style in the center of the car’s mass (like the Lamborghini Egoista) instead of off to one side as seen here. (Sure, ingress/egress could be an issue, but auto engineers solve tougher problems than that all the time.)

      Not only would you have huge efficiency gains by ditching a lot of frontal area, I assume you could also drastically improve crash safety by having much bigger crumple zones around the cabin.

      1. Plenty of cars are two seaters. But look at the cars that are. No one who owns such a car wants to be a chauffer for thier passenger.
        Also, such cars tend to have thier engines in the back because there’s more room for a massive engine and it makes for a more aerodynamic vehicle. Rear engines is the reason many two seaters only have two seats. This isn’t a design feature, it’s a compromise…

      2. Center cockpit car designs lose practicality at drive thrus. Not to mention, as you did, ingress and egress. Plus, parts and manufacturing are already tooled for left-hand drive here.

      1. I got coal-rolled in my Prius shortly after diesel hit $5/gal. I mostly just laughed because it was basically watching an idiot light dollar bills on fire. 😉

  5. Can we please start dispelling the belief that weight is even a remotely important factor in fuel economy while cruising? It sort-of matters in city driving (much less than is credited), and if a heavy car means using an otherwise oversized/tuned engine, then it absolutely matters… but take 2 of the exact same car on an flat interstate moving 75 mph, throw an extra 800 lbs in one of them, I’m willing to bet 99% of cars have the exact same *or better* fuel economy. The better part is because suspension compression improves aerodynamics. US EIA data suggests reducing rolling resistance by 10% (which is proportional to weight) only gains 1-2% fuel economy fleet average, which naturally skews towards non-hwy driving.

    In this case, reducing side-wall drag, and drastically reducing frontal area were the improvements that matter.

    Weight is even less important in fuel economy (yes I will call electrons fuel) for an EV because acceleration and deceleration are incredibly more efficient across a wide torque band, as long as you can decelerate using regen alone anyways.

    There are a number of good reasons to push for lighter cars. They do less damage to roads, they use less materials to create, they generally handle better etc etc. “More fuel efficient” simply is *not* a valid one of those reasons.

    1. I would say that it depends on the car. I can load my Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI to the gills and it’ll get the similar fuel economy no matter what. Heck, I climbed through the Rockies last year and barely lost two mpg. Likewise, I took a day trip in a Ford Excursion V10 and was amazed at how persistent it was at getting 9 mpg. Empty? 9 mpg. Towing a race car? 9 mpg.

      But, if I load my workhorse 2012 Smart up to its payload it will get measurably worse fuel economy than empty. Those little engines already work hard and you can feel them working harder with more weight. I suppose if I made the car do 55 mph on flat ground the loaded car and unloaded car would get similar fuel economy. But even my work commutes of the past rarely worked like that. It can climb hills empty in fifth gear, but with a heavy load I have to drop to fourth, and sometimes even third.

      And when all is said and done I usually get about 37 mpg loaded while unloaded I can easily score 40+.

      At any rate, you’ve inspired me to one day take my sizable fleet and do payload fuel economy testing!

      1. Both the Touareg and the Excursion have way more power for their weight than a Smart, and generally, the engines fuel consumption improves as load increases (until you get into WOT or boost fuel enrichment to prevent knock in a turbocharged or high-compression SI engine). Therefore, for the trucks, if you’re at the same speed but require a bit higher torque due to any additional rolling resistance, the engine will actually be a little more efficient, helping to minimize any hit to fuel consumption because of the higher load. For the Smart, the load increase will be enough to force the transmission to downshift so that the engine is spinning faster for worse efficiency (more friction, likely pumping, and heat losses), making the fuel consumption notably worse

      2. Yeah, with those bigger engines people almost never have to rev high to get extra power out of them to do the speed limit. Little engines? Not so much.

        It’s a very fine balance between having enough displacement to be able to drive the speed limit with a given load and having a low enough displacement that you’re maximizing MPG.

        I love little cars and trucks with a passion but little engines, high speeds, and heavy loads rarely go well together unless you got some pretty dang good aero and or a ton of gears.

        CVTs and 7+ Speed Manual transmissions should be the norm.

      3. In total fairness, smart might be the only modern cars *that* incredibly underpowered, particularly in the US. I definitely conceed any loading that results in lower gear is a rather signficant loss. In an era when starter cars seem to have 150 hp minimum (and rarely less than 200), it’s become overkill with or without the load.

    2. Here’s the thing though, how often are you going at a single speed on a perfectly flat roadway? As soon as you get an incline, weight matters. As soon as you have to accelerate, weight matters. Those are important things! You’re constantly accelerating and going up inclines!

      1. Most people don’t drive on 10%+ grades. A percent or two evens out quite well on roundtrips. With EVs, even large % evens out well.

        I only made the caveat about “flat” because yes, technically speaking it has “some impact”, but until you are having steep enough inclines where the gear selection is different due to torque requirements than it would be for a flat surface at the same speed, the difference is not very large. As clearly evidenced by a 1:10 tradeoff in fleet averaged fuel economy gains relative to weight savings (ala rolling resistance).

        The point remains that weight is hugely overblown as a relevant factor for fuel economy. Reducing tire thickness by 20% on the same compound does more to save gas than shaving 800 lbs in a 2 ton car. As does not lifting cars into crossovers for ‘muh offroad’. Though Mercedes absolutely knows at this point how much a light small car can achieve despite ‘paltry’ ground clearance. [There are tests showing ~2% energy improvement for a Model S at low vs normal air suspension, and that gap would be larger for less aerodynamic cars in general.]

        1. Guy, I’m in Florida.
          Let me repeat that, I’m in Florida.

          I’ve got a ~40 mile commute one way. 90% of it is interstate. I go from semi-inland to about a quarter mile off the Gulf. There is enough of an incline across that distance that I notice a difference in MPG one way. I’ve tested it. Its about 2MPG difference in my truck.

          Not sure why you think incline doesn’t affect anything, but you’re wrong. Even if you stay in the exact same gear, just a hundred RPMs to maintain the same speed will cause a difference.

          1. Yea, but every hill you go up, you come back down, so it averages out. You’ll burn a little more coming up the hill, but burn less going down. These amounts are not going to be exactly equal, but they’ll be close.

          2. That wasn’t what I was saying. I was saying that for small inclines, round trip averages to pretty darn close to what the same distance would be flat. And saying you notice 1/2mpg difference, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. Not ‘extra 50% reduction in fuel use because you removed 300 lbs’.

        2. Okay, so 10% was overblown. But the OP in question said he had a 50 mile commute, at which he got 75 mpg. One generally does not drive 50 miles in stop-n-go traffic. Or 50 miles canyon carving every day. That kind of commute lands squarely in the field of freeways, or at least state/county hwys which are single speed, pretty flat, with regulated maximum grades significantly below 6% for most of the country (unless you are in/around the rockies or appalachian regions).

    3. This is plain misinformed. Weight, aero, rolling resistance all affect MPG, yes. But weight can make a bigger difference in a severely underpowered car. Look at Smart cars, speed and loading one up. Small horsepower motors don’t have to work as hard.

      On a bigger car with a massive motor, you won’t notice it of course.

        1. Weight matters when accelerating or braking, but not so much when coasting or cruising along. Street cars on the highway mostly cruise at a set speed. Race cars rarely do, outside of flags and cooldown laps.

      1. I’m not an engineer, but my understanding is a lot of it has to do with how hard the engine has to work. Something marginal on power will take a greater economy hit, as opposed to an engine that is more powerful.
        Anecdotal data time: Years ago I daily drove a 986 Boxster, which consistently got near 30mpg (imperial) simply because it was a relatively large engine in a light-ish car. Later my base NC MX5 (1.8) got slightly less simply because I was wringing it’s neck all the time.

      2. I literally caveated motor sizing constraints on that statement. For the extreme majority of vehicles on sale today in the US, where almost every single one is massively overpowered, it doesn’t matter. Weight in racing also works rather differently given the lateral loads being applied, and the very large wastes through braking. And *even then*, it is only a few percentage difference for Indy/F1 on the basis of weight alone. The difference ofc with racing is that a few percent is first or last.

    4. I’m going to disagree, this coming from my own car which shed nearly 3000 lbs.

      The drivetrain used maybe pushed 20 on the best of days easily hit 30 now. And I daily drive it. While in town is just slightly better, interstate it just sips gas as it effortlessly flies at 80mph.

      Nothing scientific…just real world hot rodding shit

    5. I’ve been wondering how much ditching the spare tire has done for modern mileage improvements. I also see the Honda Accord Hybrid is rated 47mpg highway for the 17 inch wheels, and 41mpg for the models which provide “sport mode” and 19 inch (probably grippier) wheels.

      I agree with the poster who said if you want optimal gas mileage, ride a motorcycle.

  6. Mercedes, if you’re looking for something fuel efficient, the one-off Aero Civic is for sale:


    I once read that it got 95 mpg @ 45 mph and 45 mpg @ 95 mph. The drag of the Civic has ben cut in half, and is has the advantage of a lean-burn engine to help increase thermal efficiency.

    More info/pics here:


  7. I bought it. And attacked it with an airbrush loaded with paints inspired by 90’s pastels. I plan to refrigerate the passenger side storage. Turn them into chest freezers and peddle ice cream in sunny cul-de-sacs across the west coast. With that kind of mileage I’ll be selling cones and popsicles in every beach town on the 101 all summer.

  8. Interesting. But these were a death trap/ penalty box when new. From a practical pos, my concern is the structural stability lost by this Frankenstein creation. But I am old, and afraid…Seriously since the first “gas crisis” I have always driven for max mpg whether it was a 69 Dodge Super Bee or friction Pinto. Was always amazed how much could be gained by some thoughtful behavior and self restraint. Both my current cars can easily exceed their EPA estimates with little effort. Thanks Toyota. But then some asshole will get in front of me and all is lost as I blow by them doing 37 mph in the fucking 50 mph zone. But then I always feel better when I tell them they are #1 with the arm out the window as we proceed to pass them. Am I playing this game right?

  9. As the owner of a Honda Insight Gen 1, its amazing the work he did. Its funny how my car drops mpg from 70 to 50 just using the AC. Driving behind a semi I can see 100mpg easily, I don’t even remember when was the last time I filled up the tank (Not my daily driver, right now its just for the dog errands lol)

  10. Mercedes, if you want to talk more about fuel efficient aero mods, hypermiling, and motorcycles please write up an article about Craig Vetter. That man did a lot for the Motorcycle community and hypermiling community.

  11. Was it Top Gear who took a Toyota Prius on a track and ran it balls-to-the-wall, and then drove a BMW M3 at the same speed (relaxed for the M3), and got within 2mpg for each of them?

    In the end, it still depends upon how you drive the car and the gearing for the situation. I always wondered how accurate the EPA ratings are for manual transmissions, since they are assuming the driver is shifting at higher RPMs.

    I agree that his 75mpg claims are useless, since that was likely obtained at an impracticably high cruising gear on a flat road. Even a heavy car can get high mpg once they are up to speed in a high gear on a flat road.

  12. As a quick note (and I’ll have this fixed ASAP), but I did an incorrect number multiplication. He spent 4 weeks, not months, building it. That would translate to an impressive 448-hours of build time, assuming that he spent just about every day building it.

  13. Totally off topic (apologies, Mercedes), but does anyone know if there’s a way to get notifications for comment replies? As much as I hate what happened to Kinja and Jalopnik, its comments section was a rare place for good conversation, but here it’s hard to manually check back on old articles for replies. 

    1. There is not right now, but they’re aware of the shortcoming and have promised to address it at some point. Given that this is not Kinja I even might believe them. 😉

  14. So, this is impressive. But … a one-seater vehicle that saves on gas by reducing weight … it occurs to me that isn’t this, functionally speaking… just a motorcycle? Aside from the form factor …. feels a lot like you could save some work by just buying a bike.

    I guess it’s less prone to falling over. And it’s more weatherproof. And has cargo space. So it’s like a motorcycle, but good.

    1. Except most motorcycles don’t get 75 mpg. You’d be surprised how bad the aerodynamics of a motorcycle are, and that kills their highway mileage.

  15. Do you think we should tell him, that you can get more than 70 MPG from a bone stock BMW G 310 GS, and also have a hell of a lot more fun on your daily commute? After all this pointless effort?

    1. “Pointless effort” is a laughable phrase for this man. No one needs an airplane in a lightbulb. The guy just liked designing and building stuff.

      Also, no one wants to ride a motorcycle in the rain or sleet or snow.

      1. I have a nice all weather riding suit, so it’s no big deal. Snow and sleet are a pain, true. But I live in Memphis, so that’s maybe 5 days out of the year I have to drive my Tacoma because of snow/sleet. I think the biggest ‘nope’ for me on this design, is that so many others have done it better.

        The original Peraves Monotracer used a BMW motorcycle engine, and got about 65MPG, all while performing like a superbike. The new one, (which you can actually buy now, and legally drive) is electric, and can drive at Autobahn speeds.

      2. I’m one of those crazy people that doesn’t really mind riding in the rain. I have a nice all weather riding suit, so it’s no big deal. Snow and sleet are a pain, true. But I live in Memphis, so that’s maybe 5 days out of the year I have to drive my Tacoma because of snow/sleet.

        I think the biggest ‘nope’ for me on this design, is that so many others have done it better.

        The original Peraves Monotracer used a BMW motorcycle engine, and got about 65MPG, all while performing like a superbike. The new one, (which you can actually buy now, and legally drive) is electric, and can drive at Autobahn speeds. Here’s one in the rain:


        Toyota did the ‘iRoad’ electric inner-city three wheel commuter:


        Nissan did the ‘Land Glider’ in a similar vein:


        If you simply just want a car, then VW did it better with the XL-1:


      3. I’m one of those crazy people that doesn’t really mind riding in the rain. I have a nice all weather riding suit, so it’s no big deal. Snow and sleet are a pain, true. But I live in Memphis, so that’s maybe 5 days out of the year I have to drive my Tacoma because of snow/sleet.

        I think the biggest ‘nope’ for me on this design, is that so many people have done it better:

        The original Peraves Monotracer used a BMW motorcycle engine, and got about 65MPG, all while performing like a superbike. The new one, (which you can actually buy now, and legally drive) is electric, and can drive at Autobahn speeds. Here’s one in the rain:


        Toyota did the ‘iRoad’ electric inner-city three wheel commuter:


        Nissan did the ‘Land Glider’ in a similar vein:


        If you simply just want a car, then VW did it better with the XL-1:


    2. I love a good motorcycle, but I won’t lie that this thing looks stupid to drive…in a good way. I was actually about to offer the seller his asking price but apparently someone else beat me to it.

      1. Am willing to provide both you and DT free consulting on financial management. Before either of you end up living in a van down by the river…just an honest offer from a concerned bystander. There is help.

  16. I let the Ecomodder community know you quoted an interview from one of its regulars, MetroMPG.

    Getting good fuel economy really isn’t rocket science. In fact, we could have had 35-40 mpg V8 musclecars in the 60s and 70s if there would have been an emphasis on streamlining. We could have had them during the 70s fuel crisis, but the auto industry gave us power-starved 14-16 mpg 4-cylinder Pintos, Vegas, and Pacers instead. Their fuel economy was still crap, because their aerodynamics were crap, they were heavy, and their gearing wasn’t optimized.

    In my profile, I have pics of an electric microcar/bicycle type vehicle that I built. It can do 150-200 miles of range at 30-35 mph on only 1.5 kWh of battery. This is the equivalent of nearly 4,000 mpg. I currently have it taken apart and have installed rear suspension, and took it for a test ride yesterday over a bumpy road. It now rides as comfortably as an economy car from the 1990s, which for a sub 100 lb vehicle, is more than acceptable. It’s getting a bunch of upgrades to prepare it for sustained highway speeds. After taking the body off but before hacking the frame apart to add the rear shock, I hooned it about the neighborhood. With only 4 horsepower, it can effortlessly do donuts in parking lots. It will eventually have 13 horsepower, or more, which in something so light and aero, it will perform like a car. An actual single-person car could be build off of the same design principle.

    My dream is to make a 120 lb car with AWD and 120 or more horsepower via electric motors. Imagine 0-60 mph in under 2 seconds, 0-120 mph in under 5 seconds, with a vehicle that costs tenths of a cent per mile to run.

    Anyhow, there’s plenty of proof the auto industry isn’t trying when it comes to fuel economy. Massive gains were possible many decades ago, without the consumer really having to give anything up to get them.

    The Vehicle Research Institute of Western Washington University made some interesting concepts in the 1970s. The 1978 Viking IV was powered by a 1.5L 4-cylinder diesel from a Volkswagen Rabbit, producing 48 peak horsepower. The car weighed a mere 1,250 lbs. In 1981, the Viking IV was able to average 87.5 mpg during a rally that spanned the continental United States. According to the car’s builder, Professor Michael R. Seal, it was safe enough for the occupants to survive a 50 mph head on collision. In 1982, the car was tested at the GM proving grounds and the Transportation Research Center of Ohio, yielding 73 miles per gallon at a steady 70 mph. It was later upgraded to make use of low rolling resistance tires, a 5 speed transmission with overdrive, and a 1L, 3-cylinder turbo diesel. This allowed it to achieve 100 mpg at a steady 50 mph.

    The Viking VI was built to achieve high fuel economy while exceeding the crash safety standards that were in place; it achieved 118 mpg at a steady 50 mph.

    The Viking VII took this concept even further, proving that high fuel efficiency, safety, and high performance could exist within the same vehicle. It was able to accelerate from 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds, achieve over 1G on a skid pad, and still manage 50 mpg highway. It was driven to a top speed of 186 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. It made use of a 4 cylinder DOHC Boxer engine which produced 133 horsepower. These features of high performance, adequate safety, and high fuel economy could coexist within the same vehicle due to a low drag coefficient of only 0.26, a small frontal area, a lightweight composite body, and an aluminum chassis. The performance of this car rivaled some the fastest production cars of the era; for comparison, the legendary Ferrari Daytona did 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds and had a top speed of 175 mph.

    None of the Viking Research Cars have ever reached production. The Avion, modeled off a previous Viking Research car and designed by former VRI student Craig Henderson, was perhaps the closest any of the cars came to being produced. While the car only achieved 40 mpg combined, it could reach a top speed of 135 mph and accelerate from 0-60 mph in under 6 seconds using a 4-cylinder engine from a 1980s model fuel-injected Audi. This combined performance and fuel economy was possible thanks to a 0.27 drag coefficient and a curb weight of only 1,500 lbs.

    The major automakers also demonstrated concepts that were at least equally as impressive.

    Renault unveiled their EVE concept car in 1980. The EVE was built on a Renault R18 chassis, used a supercharged 1.1 L inline 4-cylinder supercharged diesel engine, and had a 0.239 drag coefficient. This engine output a maximum of 50 horsepower. The curb weight of the vehicle was 1,900 lbs. The combination of these traits allowed it to achieve 70 mpg combined fuel economy.

    Expanding upon the previous concept, the Renault EVE+ concept car was revealed to the public in 1983. It used the same 50 horsepower diesel engine as the EVE, but had reduced the curb weight to 1,880 lbs, had reduced the drag coefficient to 0.225, and achieved 63 mpg city, 81 mpg highway.

    While the diesel Renault EVE concept cars were being developed and tested, Renault was also working on their gasoline powered Vesta concept cars. The Renault Vesta was revealed to the motoring public in 1981. It had a weight of 1130 lbs, a 0.25 drag coefficient, and a top speed of 75 mph. The Vesta’s fuel economy is 78 mpg.

    Renault’s next generation of their Vesta concept car had reduced weight and reduced aerodynamic drag, which improved fuel economy and top speed. The 1987 Renault Vesta II weighed only 1,047 lbs, had a 0.186 drag coefficient, a 27 horsepower engine, and was able to return 78 mpg city, 107 mpg highway. Its top speed was over 80 mph.

    Not wanting to be outdone by Renault, Peugeot and Citroen began the ECO 2000 program. The 1981 Citroen SA103 was able to obtain 65 mpg, thanks to a 0.27 drag coefficient, 948 lb curb weight, and a rear-mounted 700cc 2-cylinder gasoline engine.

    The 1983 Citroen SA117 showed a remarkable improvement over its predecessor due to a drag coefficient of 0.21, front mounted engine with a front wheel drive configuration, and a curb weight of only 932 lbs; these improvements resulted in a fuel economy of 79 mpg. The SL117 used the same engine as the SA103.

    The 1982 Citroen SA109 used an upgraded engine to 750cc 3-cylinder gasoline engine. The car weighed in at 1,058 lbs and had a drag coefficient of 0.321, giving a fuel economy of 67 mpg.

    The 1984 Citroen SL110 was the first of the ECO 2000 vehicles revealed to the public. It made use of the SA109’s 35 horsepower engine, which allowed a top speed of 88 mph. The fuel economy was 76 mpg combined, and 112 mpg at a steady 55 mph. This was achievable due to a low drag coefficient of 0.22 and 992 lb curb weight.

    Peugeot also revealed its ECO 2000 concept car. With a drag coefficient of 0.21, 990 lb curb weight, and a 28 horsepower 2-cylinder gasoline engine, the Peugeot ECO 2000 returned 70 mpg city and 77 mpg highway.

    An effort by Peugeot from 1982 were its VERA and VERA+ concept cars. Unlike the ECO 2000, these cars used 50 horsepower turbo diesel engines. The VERA+ had a 0.22 drag coefficient, 1,740 lbs curb weight, and achieved 55 mpg city, 87 mpg highway. The VERA+ also had performance comparable to the commercially available cars of its time, with 0-60 mph acceleration in 13.2 seconds and a top speed of 100 mph.

    The 1981 Volkswagen Auto 2000 obtained 63 mpg city, 71 mpg highway, boasting a 0.25 drag coefficient, 53 horsepower diesel engine, and 1,716 lb curb weight.

    Volkswagen’s E80 diesel concept obtained even better fuel economy. Using a 51 horsepower supercharged 3-cylinder turbo diesel, the 1,540 lb Volkswagen E80 managed to obtain 74 mpg city and 99 mpg highway. It had a 0.35 drag coefficient.

    In 1983, Volvo was able to demonstrate that fuel efficiency, safety, practicality, and performance were possible in a production-ready car with its LCP 2000. First and foremost, the car was designed for maximum safety; not only were the rear seats facing backward so that the center of the car could be designed for added structural rigidity and increased resistance against side impacts, but the car passed a head-on passenger-crash survival test at 35 mph, which exceeded the 30 mph requirement of the time. Performance was excellent for the time period and is still comparable to the entry level compact cars sold today, with 0-60 mph acceleration in 11 seconds and a top speed of 110 mph. Fuel economy was rated at 56 mpg city, 81 mpg highway, and 65 mpg combined. The car weighed a mere 1,555 lbs, had a 0.25 drag coefficient, and was powered by an 88 horsepower diesel engine. In volume of 20,000 cars per year, the cost penalty would have been effectively zero over comparable production cars for the period.

    The 1982 GM TPC managed an astounding 61 mpg city, 74 mpg highway, using a lightweight aluminum body and engine; the curb weight was light at only 1,040 lbs, but the drag coefficient was an unremarkable 0.31. It used a 3-cylinder gasoline engine which only produced 38 horsepower.

    In 1983, GM had upgraded its Lean Machine concept to obtain up to 200 mpg. To obtain such stunning efficiency, the vehicle needed to be as light and as aerodynamic as possible, weighing in at only 400 lbs and having a 0.15 drag coefficient. A 38 horsepower, 2-cylinder Otto cycle engine was able to rocket this machine from 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds. Top speed was 80 mph.

    Not wishing to be surpassed by the American and European automakers, Toyota began experimenting with its AXV series of concept cars in the late 1980s.

    The first Toyota AXV was powered by a 56 horsepower direct-injection diesel engine; this combined with a low curb weighed of under 1,500 lbs, a 0.26 drag coefficient, and a continuously variable transmission allowed the AXV to achieve 89 mpg city, 110 mpg highway, and 98 mpg combined.

    Later incarnations of the AVX were not as fuel-efficient.

    In 1991, Honda developed the EPX, a tandem two-seater concept car that used a 1 liter lean-burn engine, weighed under 1,400 lbs, and supposedly returned a fuel economy of 100 mpg. Currently, the car isn’t in running condition.

    Continuing a trend of fuel efficient concepts, the Honda JVX was unveiled in 1997; using a 1.0 liter, 3-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor with a capacitor bank, it was able to manage 67 mpg. Designed for safety, the passenger and driver seat belts are configured to inflate during a crash to help protect the occupants from injuries normally caused by seat belts.

    The Big 3 U.S. automakers also demonstrated some interesting prototypes in the 1990s and early 2000s.

    In 1992, the GM Ultralite demonstrated that it was possible for a four-seater sedan to get an EPA-rated 88 mpg, and obtain 100 mpg at a steady 50 mph. It could also do 0-60 mph in under 8 seconds and top out at 135 mph using a 111 horsepower 1.5L 3-cylinder engine. It had a drag coefficient of 0.19 and weighed in at 1,400 lbs.

    GM, Ford, and Dodge were each given taxpayer funds as part of the Project for a New Generation of vehicles to develop midsized sedans capable of triple the fuel economy of the existing offerings.

    In 1999 GM developed the Precept, a midsized sedan capable of seating 5. It weighed 2600 lbs and had a 0.16 drag coefficient. It was capable of 82 mpg city, 103 mpg highway. Using a diesel-electric hybrid drivetrain composed of a 1.3L 54 horsepower Isuzu turbodiesel and a 10 kW 3-phase AC motor, it could accelerate from 0-60 mph in 12.2 seconds and was governed at 85 mph.

    The 1999 Ford Prodigy had a drag coefficient of 0.2, weighed 2,400 lbs, and got 72 mpg. It also had a diesel-electric hybrid powertrain with a 1.2L 74 horsepower turbodiesel and a 46 horsepower electric drive system, and was capable of accelerating from 0-60 mph in 11 seconds.

    Dodge built the ESX concepts, lightweight, all three of them streamlined midsized sedans. In the year 2000, this effort culminated in the ESX3 prototype. Using a 1.5L 74 horsepower direct injection diesel engine and a 20 horsepower electric drive system, it could accelerate from 0-60 mph in 9.5 seconds. Drag coefficient was 0.22, weight was 2,250 lbs, and combined fuel economy was 72 mpg.

    Frustrated that the automakers seemed to be dragging their feet on improving fuel economy, Greenpeace re-designed the 1996 Renault Twingo. Their version was called the Renault Twingo SMILE. They were able to double the fuel economy over the stock Twingo by downsizing the engine to a 3-cylinder 360cc design running a 10:1 compression ratio making 55 horsepower, cutting the drag coefficient of the car to 0.25, reducing mass to 650 kg, and some gearing changes. The result was 69 mpg US, a reduction of fuel consumption by 50% versus the stock Twingo. Performance also improved, with a 0-62 mph time of 10 seconds and a top speed of 107 mph.

    In the early 2000s, Audi and Volkswagen sold two subcompact cars outside of the U.S. that were never available here. They both got excellent fuel economy.

    The VW Lupo 3L used a 1.2L 3-cylinder TDI engine making 60 horsepower. Weighing in at 1,770 lbs, it was capable of 65 mpg city, 87 mpg highway, and 78 mpg combined. 0-60 mph was 14.5 seconds and top speed was 103 mph.

    The Audi A2 1.2 TDI used the same engine as the VW Lup 3L, but weighed 1,880 lbs and had a more slippery 0.25 drag coefficient. Fuel economy was 65 mpg city, 87 mpg highway, and 81 mpg combined. 0-60 mph was 14.9 seconds with a top speed of 104 mph.

    In 2001, Honda made a concept of a supercar called the Dualnote. It was capable of 42 mpg. It used a hybrid drive system capable of 400 combined horsepower with a 3.5L V6. 0-60 mph was 4 seconds.

    The 2001 Opel Astra ECO4 got 53 mpg, using a 1.7L 4-cylinder DTI engine making 74 horsepower. 0-60 mph was 14.5 seconds with a top speed of 110 mph. Curb weight was 2,600 lbs and drag coefficient 0.3.

    The 2001 Toyota ES3 got a combined fuel economy of 87 mpg. Its turbocharged 1.4L 4-cylinder direct-injection diesel engine made 74 horsepower. The car weighed 1,543 lbs and its drag coefficient was 0.23.

    The 2002 Opel Eco Speedster was a reinterpretation of a record-setting Opel GT streamliner from the 1970s. The Eco Speedster used a 4-cylinder 1.3L CDTI diesel engine making 112 horsepower, which was capable of accelerating it from 0-62 mph in 8.9 seconds, allowing it to top out at 160 mph. Its top speed was high thanks to its 0.20 drag coefficient. It also only weighed 1,500 lbs. This combination of factors allowed it to get 93 mpg combined.

    In 2003, Volkswagen showed its Wundercar II concept. It got 117 mpg US, was capable of 0-62 mph in 12 seconds, and had a top speed of 113 mph. Weight was 1,500 lbs. It was powered by a 1.2L TDI engine.

    The 2003 Daihatsu UFE got 129 mpg. It weighed 1,388 lbs, had a drag coefficient of 0.25, and was a parallel hybrid powered by a 660cc 3-cylinder direct-injection gasoline engine assisted with an synchronous AC drive system.

    The UFE-II was shown that same year. Weight was reduced to 1,256 lbs, drag coefficient was reduced to 0.19, and fuel economy increased to 141 mpg.

    The 2005 Daihatsu UFE-III saw further economy gains by reducing its weight to 970 lbs and drag coefficient to 0.17. Fuel economy jumped to 170 mpg.

    The 2003 Honda IMAS got get 100 mpg, weighing in at 1,550 lbs and with a drag coefficient of 0.20.

    The 2003 Jetcar 2.5 prototype is said to be capable of 100 mpg, using a 11 horsepower 800cc 3-cylinder diesel engine making 41 horsepower. Weight is 1609 lbs. Top speed is 99 mph.

    In 2004, Toyota showed off its hybrid-electric supercar, the Volta. Getting 40 mpg of gasoline with its 3.3L V6 and electric drive, this AWD 2,756 lb beauty making 402 horsepower could accelerate from 0-60 mph in 4 seconds and was electronically limited to 155 mph.

    The 2005 Mercedes Bionic was capable of seating 5 people and got 54.7 mpg, and 84 mpg driven at a constant 55 mph. Drag coefficient was 0.19 and weight was 2,425 lbs. Powered by a 2L 138 horsepower 4-cylinder turbodiesel, it was capable of 0-62 mph acceleration in 8.2 seconds with an electronically limited top speed of 118 mph.

    In 2006, Loremo unveiled two very interesting concept cars, the LS, and the GT. The LS got 157 mpg, weighing in at 992 lbs and having a 0.2 drag coefficient. Using a 20 horsepower 2-cylinder diesel engine, it can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 20 seconds and reach 100 mph. The GT version uses a more powerful 50 horsepower 3-cylinder diesel engine, allowing a 0-60 mph time of 9 seconds and a top speed of 137 mph, while still able to get 87 mpg when driven sanely.

    There’s the 2006 VW Ecoracer, which was powered by a 136 horsepower 1.5L turbodiesel, capable of getting 70 mpg. 0-60 mpg was 6.3 seconds with a top speed of 140 mph. The car weighed 1,875 lbs.

    We all know about the Aptera by now.

    I could rant on and on and list plenty more examples. The fact is the auto industry could have gotten better than the new CAFE mandate many decades ago, if it wanted to. A lot less CO2 would have been generated and a lot less money would have been spent on burning fossil fuels. And there would be plenty of space for enthusiast vehicles in that. Technology has only improved since, and so much better is possible.

    1. Is your brain writing comments as you read the first sentence of the article?
      Reading that reminded me of reading Derrick Jensen back when I thought I was helping to save the planet by recycling.
      Did I just read “A peoples history of the gas conscious automobile”?
      Written by

      1. Not quite. I know examples of efficient cars that embarrass even today’s offerings going back to the early 1900s. I could write a multi-hundred page book. But I’d rather spend my limited time building my own custom vehicles, now that I have the financial resources to do so.

        Also, fuel efficiency and performance do not have to be mutually exclusive. There’s some unwritten rule in the auto industry that if you want a fast sports car, you have to PAY OUT THE ASS for every aspect of operating it. That design philosophy is garbage. What we need is a modern take on a Little British Car. 2.5L inline-6 with 300+ horsepower in a car that weighs under 2,000 lbs, and make it a streamliner with a CdA of under 0.4 m^2. Minimal luxury features, maybe just heating/AC and roll-up windows. 6 speed manual transmission. Front engine, rear drive. Build it to Toyota’s reliability standards. Would probably get the best highway fuel economy of any car ever sold in the U.S., without the need for a hybrid drivetrain, and if the sub-$30k price point is targeted, it would be faster than cars that cost 10x as much.

        1. You got it, wow someone else who “gets” it.

          Small light cars are not always penalty boxes but rather just setup to be that way stock. The best sports car is the lightest thing on 4 wheels that hits your power to weight goals.

          A 1500lb car with a 250hp turbo 1.5 engine would destroy the modern day corvette while costing less to build and operate. With little 165 width tires my 1800lb Insight can absolutely *lose* any car that tries to follow me into on/off ramp tight circles. My favorite is getting an M3 or Porsche 911 to be on my tail right before I fling the car into the 270 degree turn at 65mph without breaking, but yes, actually accelerating away as I watch whatever behind me realize they aren’t breaking physics no matter how expensive their car was it is just too damn heavy.

          Then of course when the turn is over even though I put a few bus lengths on them obviously they come wailing by as if to show me their car is still good for something.

  17. “ Another part was when he arrived at work, he noticed that most people had arrived by themselves in their car.”

    This guy gets it. I used to play a little game when I was stuck in bad traffic that I called “one, two, or many?” The game is you try and guess if the vehicle in front of you has one, two or many people in it. Then when you pass em, a quick glance gives you your answer.

    I sat in so much traffic for so many hours that I had a notebook to keep score and eventually just to collect data for no particular reason beyond boredom and the fact that my phone always rides in the glove box.

    It had four main categories
    And within each category were the sub categories of

    I stopped bothering with my check marks after a week of the single occupant SUV’s drained my pen of all its ink.

    What I learned from this nonsense is that 90% of Seattle should be riding scooters, myself included.

    That was 2007. The Smart Fortwo. Has come and gone. The American city road scape has only become more congested, fuel prices have shot through the roof, and the bigger is better idiocy continues to this day.

    Stop it! Just stop it! Before I have to hone my welding skills on my poor Prism “just to make a point”.

    1. Many are likely following each other from the same suburb and end up in the same parking log/garage every work day. Asking them if they’ve ever considered carpooling a few of those days is akin to suggesting that they should have their children be a human sacrifice on the Seahawk’s 50 yard line next Sunday.

      1. (The human sacrifice on the Seahawks fifty yard line is gonna happen when Russel Wilson comes to town in his Bronco’s uniform for the home opener)

    2. Yeah, our neighbors had a full size pickup and a 2020 Civic 4 door. They had a 2nd child, the 1st is about 3. They got rid of the Civic and got… a brand new Suburban? WTF? Meanwhile my wife and I had twins in 2013 and got a 2014 Honda Insight, she had a 2 door Mini. No real issues. I sold the Insight because the kids are almost 9 now and got a 2020 Mini Clubman JCW. 300hp, AWD…. 31mpg avg for me, even modded. Her 2019 Cooper S gets about 34mpg. Sure, we could do better, but this is probably the last gas car I’ll ever buy new, so I figured I’d get something fun that I really wanted. We’re able to take week+ trips with the Clubman. I have a roof rack and box for those one or two trips per year rather than buy something huge to drive for 50 weeks a year just to only truly utilize it 2 weeks a year.

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