So What Will Those 42-MPG Cars Actually Look Like? (Hint: Not Golf Carts)

May 19, 2009
2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

No, we won't all be driving golf carts. We won't all have to drive a truncated 2009 Toyota Yaris either. Relax and chill, folks. Let's do a little reality-based projecting on what 2016 might look like.

In 2016, the new mileage and emissions rules announced today by the Obama administration require cars to average 42 mpg and trucks to achieve 26 mpg, for a combined average of 35.5 mpg across all light-duty vehicles.

We already contributed an analysis of three key points on GreenCarReports. And our colleague Rex Roy has already weighed in with testimony from Eric Fedewa of CSM Worldwide.

But let's look at what this night mean for vehicle design.

Former Congressman Dave McCurdy [D-OK], who now serves as president of the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, said that the new targets could be met with a combination of known technology and new models to be launched between now and 2016.

And that's important. Automakers have known for several years that sooner or later, mileage would have to rise. This hasn't come out of thin air. How will they do it?

Smaller, More Efficient Engines. Most of us love big torquey V8s, but their maximum power is used very little of the time. European and Asian cars already have smaller engines that can develop almost the same power but use a lot less fuel.

Example: Ford's new fun-to-drive EcoBoost engine uses direct injection and twin turbos to let a V6 develop V8 power. They're now using it in large cars like the 2010 Lincoln MKS and 2010 Ford Taurus SHO; the same system will soon make fours perform like V6s.

Lighter Weight. Ford CEO Alan Mulally came from Boeing, where airliner weight reduction was a religion. Cutting vehicle weight by up to 25 percent is one of Ford's five ways to sustainability; Ford and other carmakers will use a combination of high-strength steel, aluminum, and perhaps even carbon fiber along with rigorous design to remove material where it's not needed.

Example: The new Mazda2, an Asia-only model, is more capacious, more capable, and better equipped than its predecessor--and more than 200 pounds lighter. The best news: The 2011 Ford Fiesta is based on it.

Mild Hybrid Systems. Using the smallest and least expensive battery pack that can do the job, mild hybrids don't allow full electric running as any Toyota Prius does. But they do add kick when smaller engines need more power, and move the car away from stops while switching the engine back on. Total savings, 10-15 percent.

Example: The first generation of GM's Belt-Alternator-Starter system didn't make many waves on the 2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid and two Saturn models. The second generation, to be launched in 2010 or 2011, switches to a lithium-ion battery and a more powerful electric motor. GM considers this to be a global technology; , with higher volumes should come lower costs. Do mild hybrids work? Consider the 2010 Honda Insight, which offers 40-plus MPG for only $20,400.

Diesels. German automakers staked their future on adapting European-spec diesels to more stringent US standards several years ago, though we think that's risky unless you're Volkswagen. But there's no denying that diesels get far better fuel economy than gas engines of equivalent power, not to mention oceans of enjoyable torque. And diesels often exceed their EPA ratings substantially.

Example: The 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, a handsome compact sedan with great handling and high-quality interior that the EPA rates at 30 mpg city / 41 mpg highway. Independent tester AMCI did better in "real world" road mileage: 38 city / 44 highway.

HOWEVER ... there will be downsides, no question about it. The main one will be cost; each of these technologies adds costs to the base price of a conventional, gasoline-engine car.

President Obama said in his address that any cost increase would be paid back by reduced fuel cost within three years: "So this is a winning proposition for folks looking to buy a car. In fact, over the life of a vehicle, the typical driver would save about $2,800 by getting better gas mileage."

Until we see the president's math, we'll reserve judgment on that one.

Meanwhile, the auto industry's McCurdy told The New York Times that 130 current models already get 30 miles a gallon or better on the highway. By our count, that's a bit less than half the 300 or so models on the US market. Of those, just nine get better than 30 mpg in the city as well.

Raise the bar to 35 mpg or better in both city and highway tests, and only two cars qualify:  the 2009 Toyota Prius (48 city / 45 highway) and the 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid (40 city / 45 highway). The 2010 Toyota Prius does better yet, with a combined 50-mpg rating, and the 2010 Honda Insight gets a combined 42 mpg.

That list of high-mileage cars was always destined to grow. The new regulations ensure it will grow much faster.

Note, by the way, that the 2010 Prius counts as a midsize car based on interior space. Not quite a golf cart, hmmmm?

2007 Honda Civic Hybrid 4dr Sdn w/Navi exterior front upper left

2007 Honda Civic Hybrid 4dr Sdn w/Navi exterior front upper left

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