Weighing in on How Manufacturers Are Making Cars Heavier

What is the average car weight?

If you’ve researched auto values lately, you’ve probably noticed that the average car weight has increased through the years. But it wasn’t always this way. Changes in the global economy and concerns about the environment have driven the trends over time.

However, the picture isn’t black and white. Other confounding factors have come into play and driven the marketplace and the industry. It’s essential to view the entire landscape to understand where the course of the car’s weight may go in the long term.

Getting a Handle on Weight

If you look at the specs for a vehicle, you’ll see several terms to describe how much a car weighs. The curb weight is the number of pounds of the car alone. The gross vehicle weight adds in cargo and passengers. Finally, the gross vehicle weight rating gives the maximum that a car or truck can carry.

Other descriptors of weight include towing capacity and payload. The former is what the term implies, namely, how much a vehicle can pull. The latter is the total amount minus the curb weight. This article will focus on the average car weight to even the playing field.

Trends Over Time

Automobiles have come a long way since Karl Benz introduced the first gasoline-powered car in 1885. Ford’s 1909 Model T weighed in at 1,200 pounds. Vehicles steadily added pounds through time until 1975 with its average of 4,060. Then, this spec took a nosedive with 3,200 pounds in 1981, no doubt fueled by the energy crisis.

Then, what was old became new again, and manufacturers reversed the trend. In 2017, the scales tipped at 4,060 pounds, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Automotive Trends Report. These figures include all vehicle types.

If you’ve researched classic car values, this fact is evident. Manufacturers used steel for most components back in the day versus the abundance of aluminum you’ll see today. That explains part of the difference but also raises new questions. The consumer is part of the equation, too, with the evolving market playing a significant role.

Average Weight By Type

The purpose of a car or truck undoubtedly influences its average weight. However, in 1975, the difference between the five main kinds varied by only 215 pounds. Today, that figure is 1,650 pounds. Yet, the overall stat is only 1 percent higher than in 1975.

Specialization and marketing diversification have influenced the manufacture of vehicles. While sedans and car SUVs have decreased in weight, minivans, pickups, and truck SUVs have increased in size, reflecting the demand for luxury and a spacious interior. It is evident when you look at used truck values.

It can also reflect the trends in the average weight of people. Both men and women are nearly 10 pounds heavier than they were in 1999. The uptake in the car’s size may be a result of this change.

The average weight of cars by type according to the EPAs figures are as follows:

  • Car SUV: 3,778 pounds
  • Truck SUV: 4,438 pounds
  • Pickup: 5,217 pounds
  • Sedan/Wagon: 3,532 pounds
  • Minivan: 4, 485 pounds

There is a spike based on the number of passengers as evidenced by the minivan. The pickup, however, can point to other unrelated factors like towing capacity and the rising popularity of camping and fishing which often require a tow vehicle.

Other Factors Affecting Weight

Federal regulations for weight and fuel efficiency have also added to the mix. They have fueled changes that the manufacturers have had to make to stay compliant with the EPA’s GHG program. Time limits provide additional incentives for automakers.

Technological advances have also ensured their status. They have also influenced the market and the consumer base to drive changes for even greater savings and efficiency. A welcome consequence has been a marked improvement in safety. It may help explain the drop in vehicular fatalities.

Weight and Fuel Economy

Interestingly, fuel economy has also risen despite the extra pounds tacked on the cars thanks to advances in technology. The figures have skyrocketed since the late 1970s. After a downward trend that started in the mid-1980s, things changed with efficiency back in the driver’s seat with soaring numbers. It’s worth noting that the average car weight has leveled off during the same period.

The stats by type are as follows:

  • Car SUV: 26.2 MPG
  • Truck SUV: 23.0 MPG
  • Pickup: 18.9 MPG
  • Sedan/Wagon: 30.2 MPG
  • Minivan: 22.2 MPG

The improved performance has also coincided with nearly a 6-percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions between 2012 and 2017 alone.

While car and truck SUVs continue to dominate the marketplace at 43 percent, the most significant improvements also exist with these classes. It is the quintessential win-win for both the buyers and the environment.

However, technological improvements have also come at a price when it comes to safety. The challenges for automakers don’t end with making a vehicle more fuel efficient. The ramifications may overtake the concerns over fuel economy.

Implications for Safety

Common sense suggests that a larger object hitting a smaller one has a greater impact. Research supports this theory. Being hit by a vehicle 1,000 pounds heavier than yours increases your risk of a fatal accident by 47 percent. Height raises the chances even more. But other factors may play a role too.

Power and speed may also raise the stakes. According to the EPA, the average horsepower was 233 in 2017 with preliminary data for 2018 at 237 for all vehicle types. Moreover, the zero-to-60 mph time was 8.2 seconds in 2017 and down a fraction to 8.0 for 2018. Speeding and distracted driving remain the top causes of fatalities.

The trends in the average car weight show the role that the economy, consumer preferences, and concerns for the environment play in this spec. The leveling off of the figures in recent years points the way toward improved technology that will optimize these differences. Safety, after all, remains the top priority.