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Fuel economy push goes mainstream

On one stage of the Los Angeles Auto Show, BMW shows off "the cars of tomorrow," concepts powered by electricity. On another, Audi touts four new diesels. Ford, meanwhile, displays a tiny gasoline motor with an unprecedented mix of power and economy.

With consumers and the government demanding ever-higher fuel economy, automakers are tripping over one another at this year's auto show to trumpet technologies that squeeze more miles out of a fuel tank or an electric charge.

Until recently, peak fuel efficiency demanded a trade-off in performance and comfort. But the increasingly varied entrants in the miles-per-gallon race now offer substantial power and comfort.

"Instead of having a couple of electric vehicles, which are really only suited for a few people, you have mainstream vehicles that get you what you want and have the fuel efficiency you need," said Jake Fisher, automotive test director for Consumer Reports.

With gasoline prices above $3.50 a gallon in much of the nation, auto companies now market themselves more on fuel economy than horsepower, but their engineers are getting better at combining healthy doses of both.

Fuel economy has taken on greater importance with President Barack Obama's re-election, which automakers believe will cement federal regulations that require nearly doubling the average gas mileage for passenger vehicles to 54.5 mpg by 2025. If there's a lesson about fuel economy emanating from the auto show, it's that there are many roads to the new fuel economy standards.

At the L.A. Auto Show, Audi showed off a line of vehicles equipped with turbocharged V-6 diesel engines that are expected to achieve as much as 30 percent better fuel efficiency than the gasoline counterparts the German automaker now sells.

Ford unveiled a gas-sipping, turbocharged, three-cylinder engine that packs more punch than the base four-cylinder now standard in its small cars. Depending on fuel economy tests, the Fiesta equipped with this engine may become the first nonhybrid gasoline vehicle to meet the 2025 gas mileage standards.

Chevrolet introduced the electric version of its Spark that it will bring to market next year, hoping to attract customers with an electric car priced at less than $25,000, after a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Some of the cars on display, including the Ford Fusion hybrid, already meet the 2025 standards. The 54.5 mpg standard is based on a technical regulatory formula; in real-life driving, it's expected to translate to 37 mpg to 40 mpg.

The new technologies go well beyond engine types. They include eight- to 10-speed transmissions; improved aerodynamic body shapes; lighter-weight body panels and chassis components; tires with lower rolling resistance; start-stop systems that shut off the engine at red lights; and turbocharging, which creates a denser air-fuel mixture in the engine's cylinders.

Fuel economy push goes mainstream 12/08/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 8, 2012 3:31am]
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