Gas may be less than two bucks a gallon right now, but that doesn't mean that automakers aren't working hard to make cars use less fuel. Through 2025, U.S. fuel-economy regulations get increasing stiffer, requiring automakers to get to a fleet-wide average above 40 mpg combined on the window sticker.
That's not the highway figure, it's what the EPA views as a combination of urban and extra-urban driving. To say that it will be a challenging goal to meet is an understatement. We're already starting to see evidence of how these regulations will change cars over the next few years—and we'll see countless more soon.
Even with cheap gas, cars of the future will drink far less fuel than they do today. Note that while electric cars are certainly here to stay, they're not subject to similar efficiency standards (because, obviously, they don't use any fuel!).
Here's a quick look at what you can expect to see in cars over the next few years as manufacturers work toward that lofty fuel-economy goal.
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2017 Nissan Altima
1. Vastly improved aerodynamics.
Only a part of the EPA's test has to do with high-speed driving, but that's one of the places where car manufacturers can gain the most ground. Reducing wind resistance at speeds over about 40 mph helps save a tremendous amount of fuel. We can expect new cars to be far more slippery than current ones—and that's something likely to pose a challenge for trucks and SUVs.
Example: In 1997, a Nissan Altima's coefficient of drag was 0.35. Today? It's as low as 0.265.
2017 Volvo S90 T6 AWD Inscription
2. Smaller, more efficient engines.
The turbocharger has been around in passenger cars since the 1960s, but never before have there been more options. Today's turbos are durable and have been engineered to reduce lag so much that many drivers aren't even aware that they're in a turbocharged car.
There isn't a single mainstream automaker without at least one turbocharged engine in its lineup today, and some—like Ford—have nearly bailed out of non-turbo engines. Turbocharged engines benefit from reduced gasoline consumption, but only to a point. If the turbo is spooled up—under hard acceleration, for instance—it may guzzle at a faster rate than a non-turbo.
Example: Volvo squeezes 316 horsepower out of a 2.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged 4-cylinder. A decade ago, 150 horsepower out of a 2.0-liter engine was decent.
2017 Ram 1500
3. Self-lowering suspensions.
Perhaps no automaker has experimented with air suspensions that drop a vehicle down at highway speeds as much as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, but we can expect others to follow suit.
These systems, once reserved for costly electric cars, quickly and silently lower a vehicle to reduce the amount of air turbulence underneath at highway speeds; they have a massive impact on aerodynamics. The downside? Even relatively simple systems like those used in the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 are costly, although adding them to more cars will reduce their price tags.
Example: Just about every SUV over $50,000 now has an air suspension. It's not just there to provide a softer ride.