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The Geo Metro as dream machine

Times Staff Writer

Darius Tarman dreams of roaring engines. He owns three classic muscle cars, races on weekends and sells exotic racing pistons for a living. He is what is known as a car guy.

Tarman’s vehicle of choice these days? A 92-horsepower, 16-year-old Honda Civic hatchback with a fading teal paint job that takes about 15 seconds to reach highway speed.

Then again, it does get 61 miles per gallon -- and when your daily commute, from Rancho Cucamonga to Irvine, is 100 miles round trip, that’s huge.

“There’s nothing like driving a big, black 440 with a four-speed. But . . . this Honda is the best car I’ve ever owned,” Tarman says. “I would cry if anything happened to it.”

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Tarman’s love affair with a slow, undersized Civic shows the tremendous effect soaring gas prices have had on the way everyone, even hot-rodders, thinks about driving. And the fact that he turned to a creaky old 1992 model serves as a stark reminder that it’s nearly impossible to buy a new car today that gets the kind of mileage many automobiles got 15 or 20 years ago, despite the industry’s insistence that it’s focusing on efficiency again.

“In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, carmakers all offered super-high-efficiency cars,” says Eric Noble, president of the Car Lab, an auto industry research and consulting group. “Now that consumers are clamoring for them, those cars are pretty much all gone.”

For the 1992 model year, car buyers had the choice of 33 cars that had a combined city and highway EPA rating of at least 30 miles per gallon. For the current model year, there are 12. And though the 1990s had its share of gas guzzlers, it’s notable that the two-wheel-drive Ford Explorer from 1992 had better fuel efficiency (17 mpg) than the same model in 2008 (which gets 16).

With demand for efficiency surging, carmakers are racing to improve their lineups. General Motors Corp., which currently doesn’t have any cars that top 30 mpg combined, said last month that it would spend $500 million to produce a new compact car for 2011, the Cruze, that would reach 45 mpg on the highway. That’s about 13 mpg below the rating for its most fuel-efficient Geo Metro 14 years ago.

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(Last year, the government adjusted the way it calculated fuel economy, but even under the new rating system, the Geo beats the Cruze by 6 mpg.)

Ford is bringing six efficient European models to the U.S., while Honda and Toyota are promising newer and better iterations of hybrids. Yet of all the cars on the market today, only the Prius (46 mpg) and the Civic hybrid (42 mpg) post better mileage numbers than a 1989 Ford Festiva (41 mpg), which retailed for $6,000.

Despite the mileage gap, nobody in the industry is promising a return to the days of inexpensive, simple, extremely efficient economy cars: Nobody’s going to dust off the plans for the 48-mpg 1994 Pontiac Firefly or the 35-mpg Ford Escort from 1991.

“In today’s market, to be competitive, those cars just aren’t possible,” says Al Manzor, the program engineer on three GM vehicles, including its most efficient car, the Chevy Cobalt, which gets 29 mpg.

He and other industry experts cite more rigorous safety standards that require side air bags and crumple zones, as well as more features such as power windows, which add to the weight of a vehicle. Another big factor, Manzor says, is power. “If you’re not under 10 seconds in zero-to-60, you’re not competitive.”

Power has definitely gone up: A 1983 Toyota Camry took 12.6 seconds to get from a dead stop to 60 miles per hour. Today, Toyota makes a Camry that, despite weighing 1,000 pounds more than its predecessor, arrives at 60 mph in less than 7 seconds.

Yet there’s no technical reason that a little bit of power couldn’t be traded for thriftiness, says Dennis Virag, president of the Automotive Consulting Group.

“They could definitely make these kinds of cars again. Just look at Europe and Japan, where they have tons of highly fuel-efficient vehicles,” says Virag, mentioning models such as the Volkswagen Polo, a diesel available in Europe that gets 62 mpg. “It’s just a question of business priorities.”

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An October conversation with a colleague who speculated that gas would top $4 shocked Tarman into changing his ways.

For most of his 36 years, Tarman has been obsessed with big, powerful American cars. He owns a 1968 Plymouth Valiant, a 1966 Plymouth Roadrunner and a 1970 Dodge Dart.

For years, he drove to work in his turbocharged Dodge Spirit, leaving home at 5:30 a.m. to avoid traffic and rarely dropping below 75 mph.

But in November, worried by the water cooler discussion “with a girl from finance who was sure gas was going to keep rising” and exasperated at how much it cost to fill his tank, he searched the website Craigslist and found the five-speed 1992 Civic with 155,000 miles for $2,500, offered by its original owner.

Behind the wheel of the Honda, Tarman became interested in a different kind of high performance, scrupulously measuring how many miles per gallon his car got, taking notes and posting his averages online.

Within weeks, he was flirting with 60 mpg and comparing his stats with some of the most extreme fuel economy obsessives on the road. Known as hypermilers, they do everything within reason, and plenty outside of it, to go more miles on less gas.

Tarman’s Honda model, the Civic VX, was made between 1992 and 1996. It’s particularly popular among hypermilers, who prize it for its advanced, 1.5-liter engine with variable valve timing that gave it a combined government rating of 51 mpg. A 1992 New York Times review of the VX called it “the champ at passing gas stations” and calculated that it could get “654.5 miles of open road between fill-ups, making it the longest of the long distance runners.”

Even Civics with more than 200,000 miles can fetch upward of $6,000 today. A year ago, when gas cost $2.75, they wouldn’t have fetched half that.

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Another favorite among hypermilers is the Geo Metro, a bare-bones car sold by GM in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that came in an extremely efficient XFi version. That car, powered by a tiny, 1-liter, three-cylinder engine, had no air conditioner and came in one pony short of 50 horsepower. But it was rated at 55 mpg, it’s a snap to work on and parts are readily available.

This spring, Stephen Mills, a mechanic in Midland, N.C., spotted a surge in demand and began buying up Geo Metros to restore and sell on EBay.

His first restoration, a 1993 model with low mileage, sold in June for $8,075, an amazing price considering the car sold for little more than $6,000 when new. Since then, he’s sold one for $7,200 and another for $6,500 and has eight more Metros he’s sprucing up for sale.

“I started to think these would go out of sight once the price of gas went up,” says Mills, whose first customer was an attorney tired of pumping gas into a 16-mpg Honda Pilot.

According to Experian Automotive, 11,318 XFi models were registered in the U.S. in the first quarter of this year, a high number for a car that’s been out of production for nearly 15 years.

Rick Thompson of Kisler, W.Va., spent $1,600 for a 1993 Metro and hundreds of hours tweaking the car’s engine and aerodynamics. “I finally got it to 70 mpg. Then pretty soon after that, I moved on to the next car,” says the computer instructor, who is currently working on a convertible Metro, adding a false interior floor that will allow air to pass under the passenger compartment and cut wind resistance.

Like other hypermilers, Kisler also employs measures such as turning off the motor on long descents or accelerating to cruising speed, then shifting the car into neutral and coasting, a technique known as pump and glide.

In contrast, Tarman takes pride in not being a hypermiler. He made no real modifications to the car other than switching to synthetic motor oil and inflating the tires to 55 pounds per square inch. He employs only three driving techniques: He keeps his speed right at 60 mph and his RPMs below 3,000, and he makes acceleration and braking as slow and smooth as possible.

On the website where he compiles his averages, GasSavers.org, Tarman routinely makes it into the top 15 for fuel economy and occasionally cracks the top 10, rivaling a few other VXs, a few Metros and a scooter made by Honda.

“It’s not about crazy aerodynamics. It’s all about how you drive,” he says. “Drive an efficient car and just get it into top gear, and that’s it.”

For the hourlong commute, Tarman listens to audio books. Lately he’s been on a Dean Koontz kick. In the hot summer, he experimented with using the air conditioning and found that it hurt his mileage a bit -- down to the low-50-mpg range at full blast -- but he used it anyway.

“Mileage is only so important. I’m not going to sweat to death,” he says.

Cruising at 60 in the slow lane, he glances over at the cars racing by at 5 and 10 miles over the speed limit. “That used to be me,” Tarman says, grinning widely and explaining that he used to race other cars almost every day on his way to work.

Now, he gains his satisfaction in counting dollars saved. Driving nearly 30,000 miles a year, he calculates that the Honda will have paid for itself in just two years.

At home, his Dart, Valiant, Roadrunner and Spirit, not to mention his wife’s gas-guzzling Dodge Durango, sit in the baking summer sun, rarely used.

For now, at least, there’s no other car Tarman cares to drive.

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ken.bensinger@latimes.com


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