When gasoline prices blew past $3 a gallon last week, the highest level in 26 months, it was tough news for consumers but a marketing boost for automakers trying to sell pricey new technology needed to meet tougher fuel economy rules that took effect Jan. 1.
The new era will raise fleet fuel economy standards, in annual steps, to 35.5 mpg for 2016 models, a 30 percent rise from the 27.3 mpg of the 2011 model year.
The first step is a total fleet average of 30.1 mpg for 2012 models, which officially can go on sale this week. Automakers already are accelerating their use of costly lightweight materials and advanced powertrains on the way to 2016.
The latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the 2010 model year show that some companies -- including Toyota, Honda, Hyundai-Kia and Mazda -- are at or above the 2012 standard and are well positioned with their product mix.
For others below the 2012 standard -- such as Chrysler, BMW, Daimler and Porsche -- the requirements will mean an acceleration of steps to slash weight, shuffle products and shrink powertrains.
Those changes don't come cheap. And when gasoline prices are low, the pricey technology is a tough sell.
Transitioning to the new standards is "a tough task, but we're facing it as grown-ups," said Rick Spina, who leads development of full-sized trucks for General Motors Co.
Spina said GM plans to trim 500 pounds from its light trucks by 2016, and by the early 2020s, might need to cut as much as 1,000 pounds per truck.
"We're going to do everything we can to keep the customer from realizing we've had to make changes in a fundamental way," Spina said.
The industry will meet the CAFE challenge with some sophisticated technology: eight-speed automatic transmissions, variable valve timing, electric power steering, stop-start systems, turbochargers, direct injection, hybrid systems and diesels, primarily in light trucks. The technologies are migrating into smaller segments, and smaller engines are moving into larger vehicles.
For 2016 models, the standard for cars rises to 39.5 mpg. But the light-trucks standard for 2016 models -- 29.8 mpg -- will be the greatest challenge. Automakers are scrambling to strip hundreds of pounds from future pickups without sacrificing strength or towing capability.
Ford, like GM, has only one design cycle to make significant changes to its pickup line. And Ford is working quickly to revamp its engine and model offerings.
Next month, Ford will launch a turbocharged engine in the F-150 alongside the recently introduced, naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V-6. 5.0- and 6.2-liter V-8 gasoline engines. Ford says the F-150's turbo, based on the 3.5-liter, V-6 direct injection turbo engine in the Ford Taurus SHO sedan, will still meet truck durability requirements.
Overall, Ford says, fuel economy will improve 20 percent across the F-150 range.
Ford says it will offer EcoBoost turbocharged engines with direct injection on 90 percent of its North American cars and trucks within a couple of years.
Ford will offer four-cylinder EcoBoost engines on smaller vehicles such as the Focus ST, due in 2012. In addition, the 2011 Explorer initially has two engines available, a normally aspirated 3.5-liter V-6 and the new 2.0-liter EcoBoost inline four-cylinder engine. Each of the engines is expected to provide a 30 percent boost in fuel economy over the outgoing body-on-frame Explorers.
Here are other ways automakers are improving fuel efficiency to get to the 2012-model requirements of 25.7 mpg for light trucks, 33.8 mpg for cars and 30.1 mpg for fleets. NHTSA's fuel-economy figures for the 2010 model year indicate how far they have to go.
Chrysler: Help from Fiat
(2010: Trucks, 24.1; Cars, 28.0)
Under the management of Fiat and helped by its technical know-how, Chrysler Group promises a fleet of more fuel-efficient cars. But most of them will not hit the market until 2012.
Chrysler's goal, outlined in its Nov. 4, 2009 business presentation, is to improve fleet fuel economy 25 percent by the end of 2014.
The Pentastar V-6, which first appeared last year in the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, is replacing seven V-6 engine families over a two-year period. The Pentastar alone will improve Chrysler Group's overall fuel economy by 2 mpg, according to company spokesman Vince Muniga. The Pentastar will account for about 40 percent of all Chrysler Group engines by 2014.
Beyond that, the company has announced plans to use a Fiat-designed six-speed dual clutch transmission and an eight-speed automatic for larger vehicles designed by supplier ZF Friedrichshafen.
Starting with the 2012 Fiat 500 minicar, Chrysler will begin using Fiat's MultiAir technology, which improves performance and fuel economy by regulating the intake valves. Fiat says the system improves fuel economy by 10 percent and torque by 15 percent compared with the same 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine without the system.
BMW: 8-speeds, smaller lineup
(2010: Trucks, 23.6; Cars, 28.7)
BMW has spent nearly $1.6 billion this year on fuel-saving technology. And it's about to get a complete makeover with multispeed transmissions, smaller crossovers and downsized engines.
Edmunds.com reports that BMW will have seven models with eight-speed transmissions in the 2011 model year, up from two in the 2010 model year. It also will increase the number of turbochargers from six in the 2009 to 15 this year.
BMW also is adding smaller products and engines. It will bring a new front-wheel-drive family of cars in a class known as UKL, a German abbreviation for lower-compact-class cars.
"It will be a relatively big segment because we have several body styles," Ian Robertson, BMW AG board member for sales and marketing, told Automotive News last fall.
The vehicles will be launched in the next few years, and will come to the United States with four-cylinder engines.
And BMW will concentrate on small crossovers in the next 18 months with a redesigned X3 and the new X1.
Both are based on the redesigned 3-series sedan, which will arrive in 2012 with a twin-turbocharged, direct-injection, four-cylinder gasoline engine which it has used in other markets besides North America.
In 2013, a new sub brand of electric and hybrid vehicles being developed by BMW's Project i group will debut.
EVERY YEAR, A LITTLE TOUGHER
Federal fleet-average mpg standards, by model year
2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Cars 33.8 34.7 36 37.7 39.5
Light trucks 25.7 26.4 27.3 28.5 29.8
Fleet 30.1 31.1 32.2 33.8 35.5
Daimler: 4 cylinders and small cars
(2010: Trucks, 21.5; Cars: 26.9)
Daimler AG nearly doubled its spending on fuel efficiency on its Mercedes-Benz vehicles in 2010, to $1.3 billion.
In Europe, Mercedes is rolling out an S-class sedan with a four-cylinder engine, a first in the model's 60-year history, and may add the vehicle for North America, dealers say.
Mercedes will ship three compact front-wheel-drive vehicles to the United States starting in 2012, including one with an alternative drivetrain.
Either a compact SUV or a coupe derived from the B-class platform will go on sale first. Neither will wear a B-class badge.
Mercedes will add an electric compact van. It's considering a fuel-cell model or an electric with a range-extending gasoline engine. Details aren't final.
Like BMW, Mercedes will also increase the use of multispeed transmissions. According to press reports, it is developing a nine-speed automatic (dubbed 9G-Tronic) that will debut in the 2012 S Class sedan.
Reuters contributed to this report
2010 MODEL YEAR CAFE RANKINGS
Domestic passenger cars
1. Tesla 346.8
2. Toyota 36.4
3. Nissan 34.8
4. Honda 34.7
5. Ford 32.3
6. Mazda 31.4
7. GM 30.6
8. Chrysler 28.0
Imported passenger cars
1. Toyota 44.4
2. Honda 40.9
3. Kia 36.6
4. Hyundai 36.0
5. Mazda 34.5
1. Hyundai 30.0
2. Subaru 29.9
3. Mitsubishi 28.3
4. Honda 26.9
5. Mazda 26.6
9. GM 25.4
12. Chrysler 24.1
13. Ford 24.0
The EPA calculates CAFE based on gas mileage estimates for each car in an automaker's lineup and the number of those cars produced that year.
The lineups are split into three groups: Domestic passenger cars, which includes cars built using mostly domestically sourced parts, for either an American or foreign nameplate; imported passenger cars, built mostly with parts from abroad; and light trucks, which includes everything from pickups and minivans to crossover SUVs, no matter where their parts come from.
Source: NHTSA, EPA