CAFE lights fire, but carmakers deliver

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Automakers and suppliers are rapidly improving the fuel economy of cars and trucks to meet consumer demand. That’s encouraging because there is concern in some corners that the industry doesn’t yet know how to meet the mandated corporate average fuel economy standard of 54.5 mpg by the 2025 model year.

In a market economy, the most significant changes come the old-fashioned way when manufacturers compete for the hearts, minds and disposable income of car-buying Americans.

After decades in which vehicles got heavier and more powerful but not more fuel-efficient, most mainstream vehicles now are coming to market with much higher fuel economy than their predecessors — with improvements ranging from 10-30 percent or more — and most without the costly, complex realities of electrification.

Critics of the proposed CAFE rules have projected that the tough requirements will inflate the cost of light vehicles by several thousands of dollars. But so far there is little evidence of that.

By using technologies that include advances in materials, aerodynamics and powertrains, engineers and designers are being amazingly clever at reducing friction and cutting weight — or at least installing more content without increasing vehicle weight. That has allowed carmakers to improve fuel economy while maintaining or improving the performance and features demanded by American consumers.

Success has spread across the industry. As Lindsay Chappell wrote in a recent special report in sister publication Automotive News:

* The Audi A6 improved from an EPA-rated 21 mpg combined city/highway in 2008 to 28 mpg this year.

* The 2012 BMW 528i promises 27 mpg combined, including 34 mpg for highway driving.

* The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco employs stop-start technology and better aerodynamics to get a 37-mpg highway rating.

* Ford’s redesigned midsized Fusion has an optional direct-injection engine that boosts highway fuel economy to a projected 37 mpg.

* The redesigned Nissan Altima sedan goes on sale this month with claims that it achieves 38 mpg on the highway, the top highway rating among gasoline-powered midsized sedans.

* The 2012 Subaru Impreza gets 30 mpg combined, a gain of 36 percent over the 2008 Impreza.

Improved fuel economy is becoming an acquired taste; the more miles per gallon automakers deliver, the more consumers will want.

The competitive challenge is making each automaker want to beat the last one’s achievement. That’s good for everybody.

This column appeared in the June 11 edition of  Automotive News.

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