What a change from the accursed days of the Powerglide
Fuel-saving ideas are all around
The first modern mass-market electric cars will cause a sensation when
the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf go on sale later this year, but a
quiet revolution in engines and transmissions promises to save vast
amounts of oil in the decades before electric vehicles rule the road.
Even electric vehicles' ardent supporters concede EVs will only be a
tiny slice of the total vehicle fleet for years to come, but Chrysler,
Ford, GM and Volkswagen are poised to deploy fuel-saving systems in
millions of vehicles. Some are already on the road. Many more will be
within a year.
Here are a few of the technologies to watch for:
• Direct gasoline injection
• Diesel engines
• Automatic transmissions with eight speeds and more
• Dual-clutch transmissions
None of those gizmos provides the surreal EPA ratings Chevrolet and
Nissan expect when the Volt and Leaf electric cars go on sale later this
year -- 230 m.p.g. and 367 m.p.g., respectively.
The technologies are here today, though. Vehicles that offer them now or
will by the end of this year include the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Fiesta
and Taurus and VW Jetta. Others that will hit the road shortly include
the Buick Regal, Cadillac XTS and ATS, Chevrolet Aveo and Spark,
Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Fiat 500 and Ford Edge, Explorer and F-150.
Before 2015, you can reasonably expect that every new car and truck will
feature some of these technologies.
The result will be fuel economy no one dreamt of as little as a decade
ago, including midsize sedans that achieve better than 40 m.p.g. and
compacts to reach 50 m.p.g.
Even Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn -- electric vehicles' most outspoken and
optimistic booster -- predicts EVs will account for no more than one in
10 new cars by 2020. By that time, smarter, more-efficient engines and
transmissions will be common.
Here's a primer on where they'll show up first.
• Eight-speed transmissions. Already available on BMW and Jaguar luxury
cars, they'll go mainstream next year when Audi starts installing them
in nearly every vehicle it builds. In 2013, Chrysler is to begin
building them in Indiana. Look for them in Ram trucks and the 300 and
• Dual-clutch transmissions. Already available in the Fiesta, coming
soon to Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep. A six-speed dual-clutch gearbox helps
the subcompact Fiesta get 40 m.p.g. on the highway. They use computer
controls to change the gears of a transmission that has most of the same
parts as a manual gearbox. There's no clutch pedal, however. The driver
can leave the selector in drive while the computer handles the shifting.
• Turbocharging and direct injection. Already available in the Ford
Taurus SHO, Lincoln MKS and a wide range of Audis and VWs, this
combination boosts the power of small engines. That lets automakers use
smaller and more fuel-efficient engines without sacrificing performance.
A DI turbo engine will lift the roomy Chevy Cruze's EPA rating to 40
m.p.g. Ford already uses the system with V6s and will add it to
four-cylinder engines to reduce fuel consumption in the new 2011
Explorer. Look for it to become common in all sizes of vehicles.
• Diesel. European automakers lead in this technology, which combines
good acceleration with excellent fuel economy. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz
and VW will promote their diesels heavily. American and Asian companies
have bet more heavily on electric vehicles and improving gasoline
engines' fuel efficiency. If electric vehicles do account for 10% of the
market by 2020, it's a safe bet that they'll outsell diesel cars here by
a wide margin.
The future may belong to electric vehicles, but there's plenty of
improvement yet to come from internal combustion engines.
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