I'm back from New York where I found this year's auto show was less about new cars and more about the new engines that go into them.
Now some nit-picker like my colleague Jeremy Cato will jump in to show how smart he is and say, "That's ridiculous, the engine is part of the car so it is about the car." I, of course, disagree. I think we are now seeing such an impressive lineup of high-tech gasoline engines that they overshadow the box and four wheels that they power.
Yes, they're working on hybrids and electric cars too, but every manufacturer knows that good old gasoline, at whatever price, is going to be the number one fuel for the next 20 years. So they are all furiously addressing how to use less of the stuff and you are seeing the results of their efforts showing up in a significant way right now.
You probably remember there was a big push for fuel efficiency in the late 1970s and early 1980s after the embargo and the Iranian revolution and the Iran/Iraq war. The world oil price climbed up north of $60 and auto manufacturers suddenly discovered the fuel savings of front-wheel-drive. But then oil started falling again and following the 1990 Gulf (Kuwait) War, crude oil prices entered a period of steady decline. By 1994, inflation-adjusted gas prices hit their lowest level since 1973. Everybody forgot fuel economy and went out and bought a huge SUV. I am not entirely without blame as I chose a 5.0-litre Mustang Convertible and happily said fill 'er up for years.
But oil prices headed north again in 2003, hitting a peak in 2008 before the recession pulled them part way down again. But consumer behaviour changed during the peak months and this time the manufacturers, pressed by governments, got the message.
Since 2008, they have all been pouring money into powertrain development and for the 2012 model year you're going to see some impressive results. They all seem to have goofy names for their technologies so bear with me.
Mazda calls its SkyActiv, and that is the way the company spells it. In the new Mazda3, for example, SkyActiv means a direct-injected, gasoline, two-litre four-banger making 155 hp and hitting the magic U.S. 40 mpg (5.8 litres/100 km) highway figure. There will be SkyActiv diesels coming to market in Canada and the United States as well. Overall, Mazda says SkyActiv will improve the fuel economy of the company's fleet by 30 per cent.
General Motors has a slew of buzz words and they all showed up in the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco that includes eAssist. There's a 2.4 litre Ecotec (another buzzword) direct-injection, four-cylinder gasoline engine good for 180 hp. It's connected to a small lithium-ion battery and electric motor to assist the engine. GM is promising this car will get 38 U.S. mpg on the highway and says it's the most fuel-efficient mid-size sedan it has made in a hundred years.
Over at Ford, they were showing off the restyled 2013 Taurus sedan as it will be the first car in Ford's lineup to offer two direct-injection, turbocharged, EcoBoost engine choices. The 2.0-litre EcoBoost is supposed to achieve U.S. 31 mpg on the highway in a big full-size car. Ninety per cent of Ford's North American lineup will offer an EcoBoost by 2013.
Hyundai has been making great progress in fuel economy ever since it started developing its own engines instead of buying them from other people. In New York, it was the 2012 Accent front and centre, which the company promises will deliver U.S. 40 mpg on the highway with the Gamma engine. It's the first direct gas injection mill in a subcompact. There's even a little Eco button that when pushed drives the car more sedately and boosts fuel economy another 7 per cent.
Subaru advertises a large semi-naked Sumo wrestler to attract the little old ladies who buy Impreza wagons in my neighbourhood. They'll have another reason to shop Impreza with the introduction of a new four-cylinder engine in the 2012 version. The horsepower drops from 170 to 148, but the company says with the new Impreza's lighter body weight you get the same performance as before. The payoff is fuel economy, which is projected to be U.S. 27 mpg city and 36 mpg highway and that should be the best fuel economy of any all-wheel-drive car in America.
But it's interesting to see where else that little Subie engine is going. It's going to be the powerplant of a cool-looking new Scion. Scion is Toyota's "youth" brand, which has landed with a thud with Canada's "youth." In New York, Toyota showed the Scion FR-S concept, which is a rear-wheel-drive sports coupe with Ferrari-like styling. That car should heat up Scion interest.
Toyota owns 16.5 per cent of Subaru and I'm not surprised that it has grabbed Subie's unique flat-four. Flat means the pistons move horizontally on either side of a crankshaft. It's like the engine in the Porsche 911, although in the Porsche it's a six, not a four. The benefit of flat engines is that they offer a low centre of gravity and that helps with better stability and control. The flat engines have made Subies favourites with the rally car crowd and the aforementioned little old ladies who have to get up the driveway through snow.
Now that partner Toyota has latched onto them for a make-it-or-break-it Scion you have to wonder what other plans may be in the works between the two companies in terms of engine development and placement. It's another indication that when you cut through the glitz and glamour of the New York Auto Show 2011 it really was all about the engines.