Detroit and DC 2012 Auto Shows: It's all about Fuel Efficiency

The 2012 season for major American auto shows is in full swing, with the Detroit venue running through this weekend, and Washington D.C. starting next week.  Already, we are seeing the year’s auto theme emerging: higher fuel efficiency doesn’t mean sacrifice. And with the newly agreed to 54.5 mpg standard – nearly double today’s cars – consumers will have even more fuel efficient choices in the future.

In fact, the return of the great American car—exemplified by the redesigned 2013 Ford Fusion and 2013 Dodge Dart—demonstrates higher fuel efficiency comes in stylish packages with great performance. Downsized, gasoline turbocharged four-cylinder engines—getting 40 MPG on the highway—are now common. Hybrids are just another powertrain option. And for consumers that want to go oil-free, there are hybrids that can charge batteries from the grid, and a growing number of pure electric cars. 

We’re entering a period of engine and fuel diversification that the auto industry hasn’t experienced in a century.  Moreover, auto engineers are in the midst of a creative renaissance—a period of innovation spawned by the need to maximize the performance and efficiency of smaller engines, sometimes combined with or replaced by electric motors.

Return of the American Sedan: This Time, It’s a Gas Sipper

After decades of neglect of the car market, the stars of the Detroit Auto Show – the midsize Fusion and compact Dart -- are emphatic statements that the great American sedan is back. No longer are American automakers dependent on gas guzzling trucks and SUVs for their profits.

Ford hammers another nail into the era of big-displacement, six- and eight-cylinder cars.  The Ford Fusion can only be purchased with a four-cylinder engine, and the most fuel-efficient version will get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon (it’s a hybrid that can be plugged into the grid).

The Dodge Dart is the first product from the Fiat/Chrysler marriage. It will get up to 40 mpg, and will help transform the image of Chrysler as solely producing gas-thirsty trucks, full-size SUVs, and hemi-powered vehicles.

Look Ma, Less Cylinders (but Same Power and Less Gas)

There was a time, not long ago, that most car shoppers had three simple choices when selecting what comes under the hood of their new ride: four, six or eight—as in the number cylinders of their gasoline internal combustion engine. 

A new industry-wide focus on fuel efficiency—driven by consumers seeking to save money at the pumps, and automakers seeking to meet raised environment standards—has meant the demise of V8s and a reduction in the number of V6s.

 But don’t think for a second that the grand epoch of four-cylinder engines means a reduction in performance or consumer choice: Just the opposite. With less cylinders, consumers get more technology, such as turbochargers, direct injection, and variable valve timing. Same or more horsepowers and torque, but burns less gas. 

Ford vehicles using the company’s “Ecoboost” brand of small yet powerful engines—joined by new releases from Hyundai’s “Bluemotion,” Mazda’s “Skyactiv,” BMW’s “EfficientDynamics, and others—signals plenty of attractive new models.

Big News is that Hybrids are No Longer Big News

What about hybrids?  They continue to roll out.  Prime examples in Detroit were the Toyota Prius C compact, Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, BMW ActiveHybrid 5, Mercedes-Benz E300 Hybrid, and Acura NSX concept hybrid. 

So, the big news for 2012 and beyond is that hybrids are no longer big news.  The good news is that more cars will have hybrid options, as one of many different choices of engineering strategies that push the market to new levels of fuel savings and reduced environmental impact.

 Ford Fusion: The Future of Engine Options

The new Fusion exemplifies the growing fuel-efficient powertrain choices being offered to consumers. Like the Hyundai Sonata, there is no six or eight cylinder option available, a current rarity in the midsize market, but the soon to be the new norm.

The 2013 Fusion will be offered with one normally aspirated four-cylinder engine, two turbocharged engines, one hybrid and one plug-in hybrid option.

  • The most fuel-efficient gasoline engine option, the 1.6-liter turbocharged, uses a stop-start system—meaning the car’s engine won’t waste gas by idling at stoplights—to deliver 26 mpg city and 37 highway.  
  • The hybrid version is expected to yield a city/highway fuel economy combo of 47/44 mpg, besting its arch rival, the Toyota Camry Hybrid.

The plug-in hybrid version, dubbed the Fusion Energi, goes even further, because it can take a charge from household electricity to deliver an MPG-equivalent of more than 100 mile to the gallon. 

You see, the headline here is not that there’s a new hybrid or electric car hitting the market.  It’s this: there’s a hot stylish ultra-popular family sedan that has all kinds of fuel-efficient options, ranging from the direct-injected turbocharged pure gas version, to the hybrid, and finally the plug-in variety. 

 For decades, some auto industry executives have argued that higher fuel economy targets would limit choice.  What we’re seeing in 2012 proves just the opposite: American car shoppers have never had so many compelling options that combine performance, comfort, innovative features and new higher levels of fuel efficiency.