Motor Monday: The Future is Small and Boosted

Posted by: Matt Iasenzaniro onJune 1st, 2015


We got a brief reprieve from $1.30/L gas prices when oil tanked (zing), but less than a month later we’re nearly back to where we started. Alberta may be oil country, but that doesn’t mean people are willing to get bent over at the pump forever. We still love our V8s (and always will), but it’s starting to make more and more sense to pick up a more efficient commuter. It’s not just gas prices, but an entire culture of eco-friendliness which is driving the push for efficient vehicles elsewhere in North America. Consumers are demanding green cars and the manufacturers are being forced to respond. Hybrids and electrics are stealing the headlines right now, but North America is also seeing a reemergence of the sub-compact segment which hasn’t had much hold here in over a decade. While Canadian sales of sedans like the Camry, Accord and Fusion dropped from 2013 to 2014, we saw double digit increases for small cars like the Accent, Fit, Yaris and Mirage.

Of course, not everybody wants a tiny hatchback, and a lot of people require more capable vehicles, which means going with something larger and, usually, far less efficient. Luckily for them, manufacturers are being pressured to increase efficiency across their entire range. CAFE regulations, which penalize manufacturers whose fleet doesn’t meet a minimum fuel efficiency requirement, have raised the bar for small passenger cars by over 40% since 2005. They will continue increasing it by another 5% annually until 2025 where they’ll mandate 60 mpg. This means that car makers don’t just need to offer a fuel efficient car to those who want one, they need to increase the efficiency of their entire line-up or pay significant penalties. Now technically CAFE only applies to cars built in the United States, but Canadian Environmental Protection Act was recently amended to include very similar provisions for cars built here.

These regulations are part of the reason we’re starting to see ridiculous transmissions. 7, 8 and 9 speeds automatics are becoming the norm, because they’re designed specifically to increase EPA numbers and meet CAFE standards with very tall top gears. Unfortunately, they don’t provide a significant advantage to the owner unless the vast majority of driving is on the highway. That’s alright though, because we’re seeing legitimate mileage increases is the downsizing and turbocharging of engines.

Every manufacturer from Kia to Ferrari is building smaller turbo engines which improve economy without sacrificing power. Ford recently added a turbocharged 3 cylinder engine to the Fiesta which bumps combined fuel economy by 5 mpg while increasing power and torque, and Kia is doing the same thing in Europe with a very similar engine. The Mustang and Camaro, muscle cars, are getting turbo variants, Mercedes dropped their flagship 6.2L V8 and is working towards putting a twin turbo 4.0L into every car that had it, and at the far end of the spectrum we’ve got the Ferrari 488 GTB, which proves that nobody is immune to efficiency regulations. Despite being downsized from 4.5 to 3.9 liters, the 488 was given a bump of 100 horsepower and 160 pound feet of torque compared to the outgoing 458. All of these new engines provide improved fuel economy when you need it, and fun when you want it.

Sounds pretty much like a win/win, right? Well they’re not perfect. The most noticeable drawback for consumers will be that these engines require premium fuel, so the average car is going to cost 4 to 6 dollars more to fill up, but this should be more than offset by fewer trips to the pump. You may get some purists out there who will complain about poor throttle response compared to a naturally aspirated engine, but that’s something the vast majority of drivers won’t notice or factor into their decision. That said, we’ve got some really cool technology trickling down from Formula 1 which should eliminate the complaint altogether. Cars like the McLaren P1 and new Acura NSX use electric motors to scavenge energy under braking, and then use it to power the vehicle in situations where the turbo isn’t at max efficiency. It won’t be long before we see this sort of innovation hitting more common cars, and by then we expect car makers will have a few new ideas in the pipeline to lower the cost of driving, both to the consumer and the environment.

When he’s not busy writing about cars or travelling the auto show circuit, he’s reviewing apps and video games related to the automotive world. In his spare time, Matt is a motorcycle enthusiast, trying not to kill himself riding along with the crazy local drivers. He is also a weekly contributor in the Motor Mondays segment on News Talk 770.

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