Hybrid & electric cars gain traction in fuel economy

Automakers attempt to meet high mileage goals without making significant sacrifices

The formula for better fuel economy in cars has long been a simple equation: The smaller the vehicle, the farther it goes on a gallon of gas.

Fuel-conscious consumers have been forced to make trade-offs. More size and interior room translated into heavier vehicles and larger engines and increasingly expensive trips to the pump. Saving on gasoline meant choosing narrower, shorter and less powerful vehicles, whether it was a compact pickup truck or a little sedan with a token back seat and minimal creature comforts.

But a quiet revolution has been taking place in the design studios and engineering centers of the world’s major automakers, one that is allowing drivers to select vehicles in virtually every market segment without compromising on fuel economy.

It’s all happening under the hood, where improvements in engine technology are turning gas-guzzlers into relative fuel-sippers, yet still delivering the horsepower, acceleration and utility that U.S. consumers crave.

Government mileage regulations will force automakers to produce fleets that average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly double the current standard.

And while that target seems lofty, the car companies are steadily inching toward the goal by improving the mileage achieved by traditional gas engines as well as introducing more hybrid and electric models.

“The average car in 2025 will get the kind of mileage that today’s Toyota Prius hybrid gets, but we’re not talking about some futuristic technology,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, a Washington organization that promotes efforts to mitigate global warming. “Most of the changes will be invisible to the consumers and achieved with better engines, transmissions and aerodynamics.”

The U.S. auto industry has endured a rough ride in recent years. The economic crisis in 2008 pushed the Detroit automakers to the brink of insolvency. Sales withered, and the car companies were forced to slash unsustainable costs and payrolls. General Motors and Chrysler were forced to seek government aid and go through bankruptcy to survive.

But Detroit emerged from the recession leaner, more competitive and intensely focused on delivering cars and trucks that are fun to drive and practical to own, but also cheaper to fill up, with gas prices that have hovered around $4 a gallon.

Consumers are discovering cars that meet their needs without busting their budgets on fuel. Bradley Herring, an engineer from Dubuque, Iowa, was recently in the market for a roomy, family-size sedan with the fuel economy of a compact car.

He found exactly what he wanted in, of all places, a Buick showroom. The GM brand has historically offered larger vehicles with cushy rides and mediocre fuel economy. But by choosing a Buick LaCrosse with a small, four-cylinder engine equipped with a direct-injection system, Herring got the space and comfort of a bigger car with a combined city and highway mileage of nearly 25 mpg.

“I didn’t have to downsize to a compact car to get decent mileage,” he said. “I’m saving about $15 a week on gas with a full-size sedan that runs on regular gas. It’s not going to make or break me, but every little bit helps.”

Direct-injection technology pushes fuel into the combustion chambers of a traditional engine to create more horsepower at greater efficiency, resulting in better fuel economy and lower emissions. While hardly an automotive breakthrough, the system allows consumers like Herring to enjoy improved mileage without compromising on size.

“Buying a compact car would have been a big step down from the sedans I’m used to,” he said. “Now I’m able to get pretty good mileage and still have the space I need.”

Fuel economy is among the chief considerations for consumers looking for a new vehicle, according to the auto research website

“It’s one of the most important factors that people consider when buying a new car,” said Jeremy Anwyl, the chief executive of Edmunds. “But they want to make as few trade-offs as possible, whether it’s the size of the vehicle or the price.”

Several new models entering the market will broaden the choices for drivers weary of rising fuel costs. Toyota is expanding its Prius hybrid line with a wider, more spacious version, and introducing a new generation of its top-selling Camry sedan. General Motors is rolling out a U.S.-made subcompact, the Chevrolet Sonic, that it hopes will captivate younger buyers with a sticker price under $15,000. Hyundai has a sporty, compact car, the Veloster, on tap that will get nearly 40 mpg.

But it’s not just small and midsize cars that are grabbing the interest of mileage-sensitive consumers. GM, for example, is marketing a new electronic system, called eAssist, that improves the fuel economy of its larger sedans. Ford Motor Co. has won raves for its EcoBoost technology, which employs direct injection and turbocharging to improve fuel efficiency in a variety of vehicles.

Ford executives have been pleasantly surprised at the success of the EcoBoost version of its F-Series full-size pickup, the best-selling vehicle in America. “The company felt we could change minds about V-6s in trucks if we delivered fuel economy without sacrificing performance,” said a Ford spokesman, Said Deep.

Still, skeptics wondered whether truck buyers would choose a pickup with a six-cylinder engine rather than the traditional V-8. But the F-Series equipped with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine now accounts for about 40 percent of Ford’s F-Series sales, proving that even stalwart pickup owners will downsize their engines to shave fuel costs.

One such convert is Thomas Beattie of Chandler, Ariz., who bought an F-150 with an EcoBoost V-6 engine in May. Beattie wanted a rugged truck that could go off-road on camping trips with his 5-year-old daughter, but burn less fuel on long drives.

The EcoBoost engine improves fuel economy by about 10 percent over the conventional V-8. Beattie proudly compared the mileage of his metallic-blue F-150 to that of older-model large sport utility vehicles like the Chevrolet Suburban.

“All those Suburbans are getting between 10 and 13 miles to a gallon,” he said. “But I can set my cruise control to 70 miles an hour and get between 20 and 28 miles per gallon on the highway in my pickup.”

The recent increase in future fuel-economy standards is setting the stage for the next leap forward in pickups — a hybrid truck. Ford and Toyota recently announced plans to jointly develop a hybrid gas-electric system for trucks and large SUVs.

Hybrids will be an integral part of the industry’s plan to meet the stringent new fuel-economy regulations. Only a small percentage of drivers have embraced hybrid technology, but attitudes are changing as carmakers install hybrid systems in a wider variety of models.

“The hybrid is slowly becoming a mainstream technology,” said Becker of Safe Climate Campaign. “I suspect there are some people who will never be comfortable with them, but their numbers are growing fewer and fewer.”

Becker also estimated that all-electric vehicles would compose about 5 percent of new-vehicle sales by 2025. “The automakers are going to need that number to reach the overall fleet average,” he said.

The market for electric cars remains questionable. Nissan’s electric Leaf has gotten off to a slower-than-expected start since being introduced last year, although its debut was hampered somewhat by problems related to the tsunami in Japan. GM has taken a deliberately patient approach in its rollout of the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric sedan that runs primarily on battery power but has a small gasoline engine so it can recharge on the fly.

The Volt gets the equivalent of 93 mpg in fully electric mode, but at a price of more than $40,000. Even with a $7,500 federal tax credit, the car is pushing the limits of consumer acceptance because of its high cost.

“There is clearly a curve on which consumers are willing to pay for better fuel efficiency,” Anwyl said. “At some point, the improvements in technology cost more than people are able to justify.”