DETROIT - Hybrids, advanced diesels and “green” alternatives are pushing aside the traditional displays of speed and chrome at this week’s Detroit auto show, a nod to a new fuel-efficient reality for car makers.
Automakers, only weeks after Congress approved tougher fuel-efficiency requirements, are broadening their array of cars that get more on a gallon of gasoline, cutting carbon dioxide emissions and using alternative power sources.
Most of the vehicles and technologies have been in the pipeline for years, but the podiums at the North American International Auto Show should further signal a shifting direction for the industry after years of pushing more horsepower and speed.
“The industry all together has to show further and faster improvements on the fuel-efficiency side,” said Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of Daimler AG, which has pushed a diesel strategy to improve its fuel efficiency.
The auto industry has made vehicles more efficient in recent years, but much of the gains have been offset by increases in horsepower and vehicle weight.
In 1987, for example, the average vehicle could accelerate to 60 miles per hour in 13.1 seconds, weighed 3,221 pounds and had a 118-horsepower engine, offering about the same power as a 2008 Nissan Versa subcompact, at 122 horsepower.
By 2007, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average vehicle weighed 4,144 pounds, boasted a 223-horsepower engine and did zero to 60 in 9.6 seconds.
President Bush signed an energy bill in late December requiring the industry’s total fleet of vehicles to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 40 percent increase and the first major change since the 1970s.
With gas prices surging past $3 a gallon and calls for lawmakers to address global warming, the new law will challenge the industry and heavily influence future vehicles.
General Motors Corp., which created a green buzz last year with the Chevrolet Volt, is showing a similar plug-in hybrid concept on a Saturn Opel. GM also will extend its hybrid lineup, releasing a new Saturn Vue two-mode hybrid, expected to boost fuel economy by about 50 percent when it hits showrooms later this year.
Toyota Motor Corp., dominating the gas-electric hybrid market with its Prius and Camry hybrids, will raise the curtain today on the A-BAT, a hybrid pickup truck built on a car platform.
Even niche, luxury car makers are getting in the advanced hybrid act. Fisker Automotive, an Irvine, Calif., startup, will show a plug-in hybrid sports sedan estimated to start at about $80,000.
Sandy Stojkovski, a fuel economy expert and director of vehicle engineering at Ricardo Inc., estimated more than half of the vehicles by 2020 will need some kind of hybrid configuration to meet the new standards.
“There has to be some additional technologies brought in and in greater volume such as the hybrids and mass quantities of the improved engines,” Stojkovski said.
Still, auto industry officials note that many consumers are turned off by the higher costs of a hybrid vehicle, typically $4,000 to $5,000 more, and more modest alternatives are needed.
Ford Motor Co. is taking a practical approach through its new EcoBoost engine, a more fuel-efficient powertrain it plans to use in about 500,000 vehicles in North America during the next five years.