The future of performance
Automakers more prepared to adjust to fuel standards than in 1970s
BY MARK PHELAN • FREE PRESS COLUMNIST • April 27, 2008
A picture is forming of how automakers will build vehicles with power and performance in the face of upcoming tough fuel economy rules.
The first generation of fuel economy regulations in the 1970s ushered in a couple of decades of bad and boring cars, largely because Detroit-based automakers were unprepared for it.
"This is very different," Mike Accavitti of Chrysler's SRT performance group told me after a day driving the company's fast new Dodge Challenger in California. "We have time to strategize, and we have technologies that didn't exist then. People have been working on alternative powertrain systems for 10 years now.
"There's a way to do it. We don't know exactly how, but our engineers will do it. There's a way to serve our customers and serve the government."
A mosaic of new technologies -- some already on the road in limited numbers -- reveals the route companies will take to meet the new requirements and still build vehicles that can excite buyers.
The key technologies -- many of them spelled out in last week's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposal to hasten adoption of the new standards -- include direct injection of gasoline, turbocharging and supercharging, a variety of hybrid systems and new transmissions.
NHTSA's proposal doesn't give much weight to diesel engines, but those powerful and fuel efficient powerplants play a large role in some automakers' plans, too. As a rule of thumb, engineers generally figure a diesel needs 30% to 40% less fuel to produce the same amount of power as a gasoline engine.
Surprisingly, given their relatively low profile in environmental circles, General Motors and Volkswagen have the largest portfolio of the new technologies in use today. GM produces direct-injection gasoline engines, a variety of hybrids and diesels in production around the world today.
VW jumped on the direct-injection gasoline bandwagon early and uses it across its Audi and VW model lines to boost power and fuel economy. VW is also a leader in Europe's competitive diesel market. Diesels power 50% of passenger vehicles sold in Europe and account for 70% of sales of big, powerful luxury cars in the German market.
Toyota, which grabbed the mantle of environmental and fuel-efficiency leadership with its Prius hybrid, has more experience with hybrids. Toyota has some direct injection gasoline engines in production in models like its new IS-F performance sedan, but the automaker has little history with passenger-car diesel engines and has yet to offer a hybrid that works in pickups and large
Powertrain specialists expect direct injection and other technologies to raise the power and efficiency of gasoline engines' efficiency to unprecedented levels.
Audi, for instance, wrings 272 horsepower out of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with direct injection and turbocharging in the TTS sports car it is to introduce later this year.
GM already has a 260-horsepower 2.0-liter direct injection turbo engine on the road in its Chevrolet HHR SS compact wagon, Pontiac Solstice GXP and Saturn Sky Redline roadsters. (And Cobalt SS)
Engines like that could be adapted to replace big powerplants in larger vehicles and to boost fuel economy in small cars. Ford plans to offer direct injection turbo engines widely across its model line, even in its F-150 pickup.
A case in point is the new BMW X6 SUV, which features a 4.4-liter turbocharged V8 in its top model, replacing what would have been a larger and thirstier V8 in earlier days.
GM insiders also say the lithium-ion batteries the company announced at the Geneva auto show in March can be used in conjunction with very small direct injection engines -- think less than 1.5-liters -- to provide a power boost for quick acceleration and raise fuel economy substantially.
"We're not trying to get out of the performance business," Chevrolet boss Ed Peper told me. "We're going to continue to improve the fuel efficiency of every model we build. People are still interested in performance, and we're going to offer it."
Sport Compacts, 4cylinder DI Forced Induction is the future...Yay for Cobalt SS Turbo Solstice GXP and Sky RL!!! Bye bye American V8...