LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Washington — New cars and trucks averaged a record 24.3 miles per gallon last year, but falling gas prices and America’s rekindled love affair with SUVs could endanger future fuel economy gains.

The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that fuel economy rose in 2014 by 0.2 mpg, from 24.1 mpg the year before, as the positive impact of technical improvements were nearly offset by resurgent consumer demand for larger vehicles.

That’s a second straight year of modest gains after efficiency improved a more robust 1.2 mpg between 2011 and 2012. Still, automakers exceeded overall federal targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions by a healthy margin.

“It’s clear that our standards are working, spurring technology and innovation, and we are on track to achieve significant greenhouse gas reductions,” said Chris Grundler, director of the EPA’s Office of Air Quality and Transportation.

The Detroit automakers, which rely heavily on pickup sales, continue to trail their foreign counterparts regarding average fuel economy.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV had the lowest adjusted fuel economy of 20.8 mpg for the 2014 model year, followed by General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. tied at 22.8 mpg.

Mazda had the highest adjusted fuel economy for model-year 2014 of 29.4 mpg. Four manufacturers closely followed the Japanese automaker — Subaru, Hyundai, Honda, and Nissan—with adjusted fuel economy values between 27 and 27.6 mpg.

For the 2015 model year, Fiat Chrysler is expected to increase to 21.8 mpg —nearly tying GM at 21.9 mpg but trailing Ford at 23.5 mpg.

Fiat Chrysler, in a statement, said it continues “to invest in relevant and effective technologies” as it maintains its “commitment to developing and producing vehicles that are increasingly fuel-efficient and compliant.”

“We have made significant strides — often exceeding industry averages — in improving the performance of those types of vehicles most preferred by our customers,” the company said.

To help meet future fuel economy regulations, Fiat Chrysler continued to purchase U.S. greenhouse gas emissions credits from rival automakers.

Fiat Chrysler acquired 8.2 million megagrams of emissions credits from the 2010-2014 model-year, including 1 million from Tesla for 2014. Megagram — equal to 1,000 kilograms — is how credits are reported to EPA by the manufacturers.

Fiat Chrysler had a credit balance of 13.8 million credits through the 2014 model year – far less than other automakers such as Toyota Motor Corp. at 81.3 million; GM at 30.4 million; and Ford at 27.5 million.

The agency’s fuel economy calculations are based on cars and trucks sold in the U.S. each model year. Grundler predicted slow growth again for 2015, but still expects automakers to meet ambitious government standards requiring a fleet-wide average of 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Environmental activists were less optimistic about the new numbers.

“While the auto industry may crow that it is technically in compliance, the bottom line is that automakers are no longer improving mileage and emissions, threatening the success of the 54.5 mpg clean-car goals,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign. “The auto industry is exploiting the program’s loopholes to boost gas-guzzler production and thwart the rules. It is making more SUVs and other light trucks than cars because trucks have weaker standards.”

In 2013, 7.82 million new trucks and SUVs were bought in the United States, just over half the new vehicles sold that year. But in 2014, the truck and SUV market share grew 2.1 percentage points to 8.6 million, according to Autodata Corp.

Truck sales have accelerated even more through the first 11 months of this year as gasoline dropped below $2 per gallon in many parts of the country. Through November, 55.2 percent of the new vehicles sold were trucks and SUVs — 8.74 million through November.

Sales of fuel-sipping hybrids and all-electric vehicles have remained largely flat. Automakers said Wednesday they must meet government standards while responding to what their customers want.

“Looking ahead, keeping up this pace of increasing fuel economy will be challenging, especially since our compliance is based on sales, not what we put on showroom floors,” said Scott Hall, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “Consumer purchases of fuel-efficient vehicles still go up and down with the price of gasoline, and sales of our most energy-efficient vehicles will need to rise to meet future standards.”

Detroit News staff writer Michael Wayland contributed.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Read or Share this story: http://detne.ws/1YkQaUI