Is the line between gas-electric hybrids and small internal-combustion-only cars starting to blur?
On Monday, Ford announced that the 2011 Ford Fiesta equipped with the 6-speed automatic transmission will be rated at 40 miles per gallon on the highway. It’s not official yet, but the Chevrolet Cruze Eco is also expected to join the 40-mpg club later this year. Look Ma, No hybrid! And still delivering better than 40 miles per gallon on the highway.
Ford’s advertising tag line for the Fiesta brags: “The Fiesta gets 40 highway miles per gallon. That’s more than 21 hybrids.” Ford’s spinmeisters are correct that most hybrids, including expensive models from BMW, Lexus and Mercedes, as well as the mid-market Toyota Camry Hybrid, don’t reach 40 mpg on the highway. What Ford omits is that all five of Ford’s own hybrids don’t hit the 40-mpg mark on the highway.
Ford also don’t highlight the city numbers for the Fiesta—29 mpg for the automatic version. That’s a far cry from the Fusion Hybrid’s 41-mpg rating in the city or the Toyota Prius’s 51 miles to the gallon. Of course, the comparison between the Fiesta and Prius on mileage is not entirely fair. The Fiesta, starting about $14,000, costs half as much as the Prius. The more apropos comparison is other compacts. On the highway, the Fiesta is 5 miles a gallon better than Honda Fit and 4 miles a gallon better than Toyota Yaris.
An Emerging Trend
To get a better handle on the new trend of 40-mpg small gas-engine cars, we reached out to John German, who was Honda’s manager of Environmental and Energy Analyses for more than a decade and is now a senior fellow and program director for the International Council for Clean Transportation.
HybridCars.com: How are the Ford Fiesta and Chevy Cruze Eco able to break the 40-mpg mark without diesel engines or hybrid systems?
John German: Load reduction and improved engine efficiency. Another way is to reduce performance, although I doubt that has been done with these vehicles. It really isn’t all that hard. Note that Honda had the Civic VX in 1994 that was rated at 47-mpg city and 56-mpg highway under the old labeling adjustments. Even under the new, updated label adjustments, that vehicle would have been rated at 39-mpg city and 50-mpg highway. Of course, by today’s performance standards it was a real dog, but still.
Also note that they are advertising the highway MPG value. This is easier to increase than the city value, as aerodynamics play such a large role in highway fuel economy.
Do you expect 40-mpg gas-powered cars to become a trend?
Absolutely. Upcoming improvements to internal combustion engines, transmissions, aerodynamics, tire rolling resistance, and lightweight materials will enable large numbers of vehicles to surpass 40 mpg without hybrids or diesels. By 2016 all small cars like Fiesta, Fit, Yaris, etc., and most compact cars like Civic, Corolla, and Focus should be over 40-mpg on the highway. A few mid-size cars might make it as well.
What are the economics of making these types of cars, rather than hybrids and diesels?
The improvements will be done at moderate cost—less than a thousand dollars for a smaller car. Of course, hybrids also provide a huge boost in city fuel economy, which is more important for most customers. But the improvements coming to the gasoline engine at moderate cost will make it harder to justify the additional cost of a diesel engine.
Can the same strategies that enable 40-mpg gas cars be applied to hybrids, pushing them to 50 or even 60 MPG?
Absolutely. Hybrids provide a relatively constant percentage efficiency improvement over a baseline vehicle. So, any engine improvements and load reductions—aerodynamics, tire rolling resistance, vehicle weight—will have similar benefits on both standard gasoline and gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles.