Why do European Cars Get Better MPG?


There are many differences between the US and Europe pertaining to everything from culture to diet to landscape. However one of the biggest differences that affects us on a more personal basis is the difference between European and US cars – which could almost be seen as an analogy for the differences between the two parts of the world and the people that live there.

Generally American cars are thought of as being large powerful machines that drive automatic, that don’t handle as well round corners, but that can get to higher speeds on a straight. But something that has often puzzled (and annoyed) US citizens is the fact that US cars are generally less efficient with a poorer MPG – which of course one would presume to mean that they expend more expensive fuel and produce more damaging CO2. So what’s up?

Differences in Tastes

Well the main reason for this difference is that, generally, American cars are thought of as being large powerful machines that drive automatic, that don’t handle as well round corners, but that can get to higher speeds on a straight. Yeah – like I said above. Bigger cars that need bigger engines of course are going to be less fuel efficient than smaller and lighter cars with smaller engines and that means simply that the cars that tend to get made in the US are always going to be a bit more fuel-hungry than the ones made elsewhere in the world.

If you want to look further into this, you might be interested to know why Americans like bigger and faster cars compared to their continental comrades. Well there are several reasons – a general US penchant for size being one of them of course (burgers are bigger in the US too…), but another being the fact that the US has bigger and straight roads. This then means that larger cars designed for going straight make a lot more sense. In Europe the roads are generally smaller and more winding with roundabouts and smaller parking spaces – so many American cars just aren’t as practical.

Another consideration is the fact that the US has fewer regulations, partly because they don’t answer to the EU. The EU has a number of regulations regarding engine sizes, which is why Aston Martin were forced to release a mini in the form of the Cygnet – so that they could improve their ‘average’ fuel efficiency as a manufacturer. With no such regulations in America, car manufacturers are free to cut loose.

Finally it’s important to think about the cost of fuel in Europe. Much, much higher taxes on fuel mean that they have to pay a lot more to go on long journeys. The road trip culture just doesn’t exist in the same way in Europe because petrol is too expensive to make it a viable option. Don’t feel hard done by then if your car isn’t as efficient – you’re still paying a fraction of the cost for fuel you just have to stop a bit more regularly. In Europe then fuel efficiency is critical for the success of a car and thus manufacturers will focus on it.

The Technical Bits

But that can’t be the whole reason for the difference, because even cars of the same model by the same manufacturer will be listed as having different MPGs for each region when you look at the catalogues. A Honda Jazz in the UK for instance has about 50mpg whereas the Honda Fit (the same car with a different name) in the US has around 30mpg. So what’s going on?

Well for one it’s important to remember the difference between the imperial and metric gallons. A European gallon is actually 20% larger than a US one, so that’s already a big part of your answer.

Then there are differences with the testing. The EPA mileage tests in the US are more realistic than those in Europe and take into account things like acceleration and air conditioning. The MPG you see on a European car will tell you how much juice you can get out of your car on a very, very good day, whereas the US estimate will tell you how much you can actually get out of it. Again then, you’re actually better off in the US.

But finally it once again comes down to the engine as well – because even in this example the Honda Jazz model has a 1.2 liter engine whereas the Honda Fit has a 1.5. This is simply a matter of supply and demand. Americans prize power over efficiency so they can go on long road trips whereas in Europe it’s the other way around because they can’t afford to drive to the shops… Which paints an interesting picture of the differences between the two regions as a whole…