Fuel economy: What pickup makers once ignored is now a top issue for their customers

When I was a kid, $1.30 a gallon for gas was considered expensive.

Oh, how times have changed, and boy, they sure changed us.

I grew up working at my dad’s full-service gas station. I stocked pop when I was six, pumped gas when I was 8, changed tires when I was 12 and changed oil starting at 14.

For those early years, gas seemed to bounce around the buck-a-gallon mark, hitting about $1.20 or so in the winter and dropping to the mid-to-high .90s in summertime. Those were good times, and no one ever worried about fuel economy all that much. They drove giant pickups and massive sedans up to the pump, told me to “Fill ‘er up,” and then paid their bills.

Customers with a tighter budget would hand me a $5 bill and get just that much gas — and then they could actually get somewhere and make it back with that much fuel.

I have a clear memory of one summer day the history teacher at the middle school came by for gas and pointed at our sign, which said 87-octane unleaded gas was for sale at 88.9 cents per gallon.

“See that, Logan?” he said. “Mark my words. You will never see gas that cheap ever again.”

He was right.

A few years later, I bought my first car right before I turned 14 (you read that right) and, not-so-lucky for me, gas prices started going up right about that time. I remember paying $1.80 a gallon that summer to fill my tank and feeling like I was getting robbed.

Each year after that, gas prices got even higher. My dad had to get a new gas-price sign because the old one didn’t even have a “2” for the dollar amount. We had to be careful to run the gas pumps at their slowest setting because running them at full tilt would push the mechanical computers inside to spin so fast we were scared the gears would break.

Fourteen years later, I’m paying $3.60 a gallon at the pump and grateful I’m not paying $4 or more. What I’d give to see a pump charging $1.80 a gallon.

But the rise in gas prices has led to a sea change in automotive design. I never saw pickups advertise their fuel economy figures when I was a kid, but today you’ll see every automaker touting their improved fuel economy numbers with their trucks. You’re also seeing a lot of R&D going into better diesel engines, hybrid powerplants and alternative fuels.

Just look at what each truckmaker says: Ram claims “Best in class 25 HWY MPG.” Ford is proud of its 3.5L V6 EcoBoost with dual turbochargers. Chevrolet/GMC pickups have the EcoTec3 V8. Nissan and Toyota, it seems, haven’t caught on.

2014 GMC Sierra with ACCESS® Lorado® Roll-Up Cover

It’s easy to be wowed by each bump in mileage for tiny little cars, but pay close attention to the improvements coming in new pickup models. The gains made in those numbers will really save a remarkable amount of fuel.

Imagine two vehicles that have to make a 1,000-mile trip: a coupe that gets 35 mpg, and a pickup that gets 18 mpg. If you boost the coupe’s fuel economy to 37 mpg, it’ll save 1.5 gallons. But if you boost that pickup to 20 mpg, it’ll save 5.5 gallons of gas for that trip.

Now add up those kinds of numbers and consider the number of miles those vehicles will travel in their lifetimes.

There are some cool ideas coming out of our automakers, and with demand for fuel efficiency likely to keep growing, I expect they’ll keep improving.

My first truck was a gas hog – it got maybe 14 miles per gallon on a perfect day but was more like 8 mpg in winter. The one fuel-economy fix that did work with that truck was when I left it parked and ran my errands by bicycle. I’d tell you the mpg I got then, but I’d have to divide by zero.

My second truck does a much better job. It’s 12 years newer than my first pickup, has a bigger engine displacement and weighs about 2,000 pounds more. But it gets much better mileage. I get about 14.5 mpg on average, and in perfect weather, I’ve broken 20 mpg.

This happens because my current truck has a decade more of research and development in it compared to my first one. It’s got a newer design and variable cam timing.

It also came with a tonneau cover — something my first truck lacked.

A 1997 study by a pair of students at Western New England College found that adding a tonneau to a pickup cut its coefficient of drag by close to 12 percent. A 2007 SEMA study also found that tonneau covers make pickups more efficient.

To get an idea of how much a tonneau cover can save you on fuel, check out this calculator. According to this calculator, my cover is saving me more than $200 in gas each year.

I was curious about whether the tonneau made such a difference, so I removed it and drove around without it for a few weeks earlier this year, and the decision cost me. My fuel economy dropped nearly a whole 1 mpg. I was glad to get a tonneau back on that truck right away.

Have you tried a tonneau cover and noticed a change in fuel economy? Let us know in the comments.