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Gasoline and groceries are fuelling a flare-up in inflation. (DARRYL DYCK/Darryl Dyck/CP)
Gasoline and groceries are fuelling a flare-up in inflation. (DARRYL DYCK/Darryl Dyck/CP)

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Cars of the future will be more efficient - but not electric Add to ...

Ford experienced an absolutely shocking turn of events around the middle of July, and it’s surely a sign of things to come: the company’s F-150 pickups with V-6 engines were clearly outselling those with V-8 engines.

That, says Automotive News, hasn’t happened since 1985. Reports out of Detroit say Ford is struggling to keep up with demand for V-6 engines. Meeting demand may not be so easy; pickup buyers are going the EcoBoost V-6 way in monstrous numbers. Thus, Ford’s engine plants in Ohio are running flat out in an effort to try to keep up with market demand.

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Ford’s EcoBoost V-6 is a massive hit, accounting for 41 per cent of July F-150 sales in North America, says the publication. The naturally aspirated 3.7-litre V-6 is taking another 15 per cent of sales. V-6 total: 56 per cent of F-150 sales.

“We haven't been able to match the demand for EcoBoost,” Doug Scott, Ford’s manager for truck marketing, told Automotive News.

Even hard-core pickup buyers are showing a willingness to trade a V-8 for a V-6 with direct fuel injection and turbocharging, as long as the engine performs like a V-8. The EcoBoost V-6 does and all of this suggests a path down which auto makers can go to meet 2016 fleet-wide fuel efficiency standards slated for 35.5 miles per U.S. gallon or 6.63 litres/100 km.

Ford gambled that traditional pickup buyers would eschew a V-8 if a more fuel-efficient V-6 would do all the same things. Rolling the dice was risky and now it has proven rewarding. Of course, it helps a lot that the EcoBoost V-6 in the F-150 delivers a whopping 420 lb-ft of torque with almost no turbo lag.

More engine innovations like this are already here and even more are coming. To paraphrase the late Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), the death of the traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) has been greatly exaggerated. It’s here to stay for a few more decades, even as we see this wave of electric cars and gasoline-electric hybrids and plug-in hybrids and all the rest of the exotic electrification of the automobile garner all the headlines and virtually all of the government handouts.

Ford, by the way, is hardly the lone auto maker to move aggressively with refinements and improvements to traditional ICE powertrains, all designed to squeeze more efficiency out of what’s been powering the vast majority of personal vehicles since Gottlieb Daimler invented the automobile 125 years ago.

For instance, Mazda is preparing a global marketing campaign built around what’s being called SkyActiv due to start arriving this fall. SkyActiv, says Mazda Canada president Don Romano, is a suite of technologies, from lighter, more responsive and more fuel-efficient engines – gasoline and diesel – to new transmissions, weight reductions and manufacturing improvements all combining for fuel economy improvements up to 30 per cent by 2015 based on 2008 levels.

“There is no simple solution to meeting – and exceeding – these (fuel economy) standards, and that is why the SkyActiv suite of technologies makes sense,” Romano says, adding that after all the so-called “low-hanging” fuel-saving fruit has been picked to feed improvements to the good, ol’ ICE, then Mazda will start adding “idle-stop systems, regenerative braking and varying levels of electric drive.”

Various experts suggest that car companies can squeeze 15 to 20 per cent more fuel economy out of conventional powertrains by going with turbocharging, gasoline direct injection, variable valve timing, cylinder deactivation and dual-clutch transmissions. This development is already, in fact, well under way.

Dennis DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, points to new cars that deliver refinement, fuel economy and performance using very small gasoline engines. The greenest 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is one of them. With its 1.4-litre turboharged engine (138-hp), the Cruze Eco ($19,495) is large enough for a quartet of adults and powerful enough to keep up with traffic.

“It got down the road splendidly; pleasant, refined, utterly viceless and with an unexpected dollop of passing power to boot,” notes DesRosiers in a recent Observations. Adding “General Motors isn't the only major brand flocking to the turbocharged fire.

“A host of others, from Ford to Hyundai to Mazda, have doffed their large-bore engines for one-size-smaller boosted units making equivalent power.”

Naturally, he points to standout new models such as Ford's F-150 EcoBoost, along with BMW's 5-Series sedan, which is something of the poster child for BMW’s corporate decision to eliminate naturally aspirated engines and move to an all-turbocharged options slate as part of the German luxury car maker’s Efficient Dynamics strategy.

The next step for BMW: a four-cylinder 5-Series, the 2012 528i with its 2.0-litre turbocharged four, says DesRosiers.

“By all accounts, the new 528i is an improvement over its straight-six-equipped predecessor, but it will make do without a manual transmission option,” he notes. “Traditional clutch-and-lever manuals are becoming increasingly rare as OEMs [original equipment manufacturers]search for ways to game EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]test loops [to measure fuel economy]and streamline options sheets,” he continues.

DesRosiers also points to the Ford Fiesta ($12,999 base) as another “harbinger” of what the new-vehicle fleet will look like in 2016, when the new fuel rules take effect. This subcompact is available with an optional gearbox, which for an extra $1,200, gives the buyer a highly sophisticated six-speed, dual-clutch automated manual transmission.

The Fiesta is being marketed not as a bare-bones city runabout, but as refined transportation in a smaller package. Increasingly, this is what many auto makers are doing as they move ahead with plans to squeeze every last ounce of efficiency out of the traditional ICE.

Indeed, in June, Hyundai Auto Canada president Steve Kelleher announced plans to begin highlighting the percentage of his company’s total sales of vehicles with highway fuel efficiency ratings better than 5.0 litres/100 km (or 40 U.S. miles per gallon). In June, no less than 33.2 per cent of Hyundai Canada sales were of vehicles that consume less than 5.0 L/100 km. Leading the way were the Elantra compact sedan and Accent subcompact, which get 4.9 and 4.8 litres/100 km on the highway, respectively.

Hyundai does sell a Sonata mid-size sedan with a hybrid powertrain, but the sales numbers are minuscule compared to the Elantra and the Accent. Hyundai’s hybrid is unimportant as a revenue-generator, but it does put Hyundai in the hybrid game. So it’s a showpiece for Hyundai’s technological capability without playing any significant role in improving Hyundai’s fleet-wide fuel economy numbers today.

“And therein lies the rub,” says DesRosiers, noting that hybrids play essentially an insignificant role and will continue to do so in meeting those 2016 fuel rules.

“The Toyota Prius has been heralded as a future glimpse for the past decade, but thus far a large majority of consumers have rejected gas-electric hybrid technology due to its cost and compromises. Same goes for the further-out Chevrolet Volt, an engineering masterpiece that will ultimately do little to hoist GM's 2016 CAFE [corporate average fuel economy]numbers,” notes DesRosiers.

The near future of “green” vehicles is all about what DesRosiers and others term a “tech cocktail foreshadowed by vehicles like the Cruze, the Elantra, the Fiesta, F-150 and 528i.” That is, engines will become increasingly turbocharged, whether running on gasoline or more fuel efficient diesel. Power, he adds, will be augmented “by efficiency aids like active aerodynamics, dual clutch transmissions and active aerodynamics.”

The green future of the automobile is, then, mostly about making the traditional ICE better and packaging it in a more streamlined, lightweight vehicle. The electrification of the automobile? An interesting and entertaining sideshow that is driving innovation and attracting government handouts, but has little to do with real-world transportation for the masses.