Posted on Sun, Oct. 01, 2006
over gas prices
o gas prices are down a quarter -- time to stop worrying and moaning about fuel economy. Yeah, right.
It has been a tense year that saw prices shoot over three bucks a gallon, and few believe it won't happen again. You see Middle East turmoil and yearn for a day when this nation is less dependent on foreign oil. And you wonder about how to keep a few more dollars in your pockets and a few less pollutants out of the environment.
Unstable fuel prices are a huge factor in automobile decision making, says Jack Nerad, executive marketing analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
''We see a swing of 10 to 15 percent of people considering smaller cars who hadn't in the past,'' he said. ``There is almost a direct correlation between fuel prices and interest in smaller cars -- and relative lack of interest in larger vehicles.''
The world's automakers hear your cries and the evidence is five days away when doors open at the 36th Annual South Florida International Auto Show, which runs Friday through Oct. 15 at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
You'll see the evidence in the rising number of smaller car-based SUVs and crossover vehicles, the fastest-growing segments in the country. You'll see the evidence in more efficient gas engines and cleaner-burning diesels and more gasoline-electric hybrids.
And you'll see it in a growing new breed: flex-fuel vehicles that are capable of using the cleaner and greener -- yet still somewhat controversial -- E85 fuel. It blends ethanol (that's the ''85'' percent) with gasoline.
But the most obvious of the gas misers comes from a growing segment of tiny subcompacts, the kind that we're used to seeing on the small, winding streets of Europe and Asia.
''The greatest interest is in these subcompacts -- in Europe they call them B segment cars,'' Nerad said.
At the Miami Beach show, the country's first major display of '07 models, you'll see the 2007 Honda Fit, which couldn't be more appropriately named. It Fits nicely in the family budget at $14,400; it Fits nicely into a tight parking place; and you will Fit nicely into it -- I had five inches of extra headroom left over on top of my six-foot-one frame!
The Fit has a 1.5-liter, 109-hp engine that gets 33 mpg around town and 38 on the highway. There's even a sport version with paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
''The major bread-and-butter all along for Honda has been the four-cylinder engine,'' Honda spokesman Chris Martin told me last week. ``And the Fit has been the hot-button vehicle for us.''
The Fit arrived in showrooms in mid-April and already, as of the end of August, 18,316 have been sold, Martin said.
Economy seekers should also check out Nissan's mini entry, the Versa, which gets a little more oomph with a 1.8-liter engine and 122 hp and has an available CVT (continuously variable transmission). It has a base price of $13,000.
For Toyota, it's the Yaris, billed as a 2007 model but it came out earlier this year. It replaces the sluggish Echo and records EPA mileage figures of 34 city and 39 highway. Toyota says nearly 23,000 were already sold by the end of June.
Chevy has put a new skin on the '07 Aveo, a subcompact made in South Korea, and says it has a new interior and improved suspension, too. And coming out this month is Suzuki's new SX4, which will cost a bit more than the other subcompacts ($14,950) but offers a more spirited ride and all-wheel drive.
The monster-segment of small SUVs and crossovers will have a heavy presence at the show, too. Ford has huge hopes for its new Edge (and cousin Lincoln MKX). They are based on the Ford Fusion and Mazda6 and both share the same 250-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 engine. Front or all-wheel drive is available.
It hopes to do battle with Honda's popular CR-V, which gets a full redesign for '07. It also gets 10 more horses and a new liftgate.
Another new player in this segment is the Acura RDX, which reached showrooms in August. A compact luxury SUV, the RDX has a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine but aims for a more lively performance -- the engine is turbocharged. It also gets an all-wheel-drive system.
Jeep is economizing, too, with its new four-cylinder-powered Compass, a car-based SUV designed for those who like to think rugged but know the only off-roading they'll be doing is on shopping mall parking lots. All-wheel-drive is available, too.
Of course, if high mileage and a greener ride are your interests
-- and you don't mind some financial sacrifices -- hybrids should be among your considerations. The Honda Civic, for example, can deliver 49 mpg city, 51 on the highway. Toyota's Prius this year gets a Touring edition with 16-inch alloy wheels.
The new Saturn Vue Green Line has a smaller hybrid premium (only $2,000) than some others, but delivers inferior mileage at 27 mpg city, 32 highway. That's still beats the regular Vue by 5 mpg.
And a new generation of ''clean diesels'' are gaining acceptance for economy and environmental reasons and are making their presence known at this year's auto shows.
''We are exploring these clean diesels,'' said Honda's Martin. ``Diesel engines are inherently more efficient; clean diesels will be available in '09 models for Honda.''
Even the big guys are keeping one eye on economy. Chevy's Silverado pickup, redesigned and situated on a new platform this year, added muscle to its 5.3- and 6.0-liter engines -- but still leads the genre in highway mileage at 22 mpg.
So carmakers are hearing your calls for improved fuel economy.
And why not?
A University of Michigan study recently said Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler stand to boost their combined annual profits by as much as $2 billion for their efforts.
U.S. manufacturers have lost ground to Asian rivals over the past two years as buyers turn to greater fuel efficiency. The study said a ''proactive fuel-efficient strategy'' would put domestics back on track.
Who, then, can argue with a win-win situation that benefits both carmakers and consumers?