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mazda's plan

Upcoming Mazda3 with SkyActiv components.

Will electric cars and gasoline-electric hybrids rescue the planet from global warming, not to mention salving the angst of American fretting about energy security issues?

Not any time soon. In fact, the best place to spend scarce and valuable research and development money is on squeezing every bit of potential out of the good, old internal combustion engines – gasoline and diesel, say Mazda's technical experts.

In agreement on this is a University of Michigan researcher who in a report issued last year estimated that cars and trucks could achieve an average efficiency of 74 miles per U.S. gallon by 2035 – or triple the 2005 U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) baseline.

John DeCicco, a senior lecturer at the University of Michigan, who wrote the report on fuel efficiency, is a former auto policy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund. He says "putting the pedal to the metal with the efficiency of internal combustion" will deliver broad and deep fuel economy gains.

That means auto companies in search of fuel economy should come to market with turbocharged direct-injection gasoline engines, efficient diesels, improved hybrid drives, lightweight steel and other materials. The auto industry can deliver massive fuel efficiency gains, he argues. For decades what has kept at bay huge fuel efficiency gains has been the chase for more horsepower.

Mazda officials have seen this light, though they are hardly alone. Mazda, however, has been highly vocal is arguing that the best course is to deliver both fuel economy and power and that's where the "Sky" program comes in – as in the sky is the limit. The first Sky gasoline engine will expected to debut in Canada and the United States in 2011. A direct-injection Sky diesel is to appear in 2012. Mazda says its entire lineup will have the updated powertrains by the 2014 or 2015 model year.

Another positive wrinkle: the smart money says Mazda's new powertrain drive will not push up prices; Mazda is not a premium brand and its vehicles simply cannot command up-market pricing.

However, any car company that wants to triple fuel economy will certainly drive up costs. DeCicco's report estimates the technology for the 74 MPG car will add $4,200 U.S. (in 2010 dollars) by 2035.

There is a payoff, though. A driver paying $2.80 U.S. a gallon for gas would save $14,700 in fuel costs over the lifetime of the car, says DeCicco. So triple the savings for triple the fuel economy.