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Conventional gas-powered cars starting to match hybrids in fuel efficiency

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 8:56 PM

The new Chevrolet Cruze Eco can reach eye-popping fuel economy levels of more than 50 miles per gallon on the highway, which even in this era of hybrid-electric cars stands among the best.

But here's the real trick: The Cruze Eco is neither a hybrid nor electric. It runs on that "old" technology, the conventional gasoline engine.

Although hydrogen, electric and other alternative cars have garnered more hype and significant federal subsidies, the best immediate hope for restraining the nation's fuel consumption might be some new vehicles that, although powered by conventional engines, run efficiently because they have been stripped of unnecessary weight, streamlined to move smoothly and equipped with gas-sipping engines.

This year, General Motors, Ford and Hyundai began selling cars with conventional engines that achieve 40 mpg or more on the highway, exceeding the fuel efficiency of some hybrids, because their mechanics and shapes have been optimized.

To achieve the efficiency of the Cruze Eco, for example, engineers dropped its weight by 200 pounds, installed shutters to close off part of the grill at higher speeds to reduce wind drag, added a rear spoiler, cut the car's height by one centimeter and adopted an efficient turbocharged engine.

The result is a car that, with a manual transmission, is rated at 42 mpg on the highway by the government but can achieve more than 50 mpg under the right conditions, reviewers say. Likewise, the new Ford Focus, with its "super fuel economy" package, is rated at 40 mpg and the Hyundai Elantra gets the same fuel economy, standard in all models.

With the recent spike in gas prices reawakening consumer interest in fuel economy, the new cars are expected to be particularly appealing, in part because they are typically less expensive than their hybrid counterparts.

"The buzz has been all about electric vehicles and hybrids, but to me, the real buzz should be about the old internal-combustion engine," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of Edmunds.com, an automotive Web site. "It ain't dead yet."

At least since the oil shocks of the 1970s, American politicians have been infatuated with developing alternative sources to power the nation's auto fleet. The George W. Bush administration pushed a hydrogen car; now Congress and the Obama administration are laying out billions of dollars for the development of electric cars.

But the new fuel-efficient gasoline cars, critics say, raise doubts about government efforts that favor any one technology over another. If subsidies are to be made, they argue, they should go to efficient cars, no matter what their power source. Moreover, when the fuel economy of a best-selling gas car is improved even incrementally, it can have much larger effects on the nation's oil consumption than an alternative-technology model that doesn't sell well.

Experts expect alternative fuel technologies to take hold eventually, but hybrid cars still represent only about 3 percent of U.S. car and truck sales. And the latest generation of electric plug-in vehicles hit the market only recently.

"When you take some of the most popular vehicles in the U.S. - say, the Ford F-150 pickup - and improve them by just a few mpg, the effects can add up very quickly," said John DeCicco, a faculty fellow at the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute at the University of Michigan. "Much more so than with a niche car."

The new crop of energy-efficient vehicles springs in many ways from the last time gas prices spiked, in 2007. Sales of small cars jumped. Support for higher fuel economy standards gathered momentum. And then during the automobile industry bailout, congressional critics demanded to know why U.S. car companies weren't selling more fuel-efficient cars.

It takes about three or four years for a car to be developed, and the results of those tumultuous times are now coming to market.

"The near-death experience of the auto companies when they got hit with the last gas-price spike finally convinced them to get off the gas-guzzling business model," said Roland Hwang, the transportation program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. As a result, "we're seeing 40 mpg become the new 30."

One of the biggest barriers to smaller fuel-efficient cars has been consumers, who just a decade ago were embracing sport-utility vehicles. But according to automakers and other researchers, the instability in gas prices has created an appetite for more efficient cars.

Even so, the auto companies are still wrestling with how to make money on their fuel-saving enhancements, or as some analysts put it, "how to bring green to the bank."

The most efficient Cruze Eco costs about $1,900 more; the super fuel economy package at Ford costs $495.

Hyundai, by contrast, offers a 40 mpg highway standard on the Elantra. It dropped 62 pounds from its predecessor and made engine improvements to get the higher fuel economy number.

"As a company, we are focused on getting high mpg across our lineup," said Mike O'Brien, a vice president at Hyundai Motor America. "We think it's what consumers want."

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