For Carmakers, 40 MPG Is the New 30

Toughened fuel economy standards and engineering know-how are making 40 miles per gallon on the highway the new 30.

It wasn't so long ago that boasting 30 mpg on the highway for small cars seemed like enough to paint a car "green." But many new vehicles are hitting 40 mpg and beyond without resorting to hybrid or electric power.

The new Ford Fiesta achieves 40 mpg on the highway without a hybrid powertrain. Joining the "40 mpg Club" for their performance on the highway are the new Ford Focus (40 mpg); Hyundai Elantra (40 mpg); Chevy Cruze Eco (42 mpg, pictured) and Chevy Sonic (40 mph).

And there are more on the way. Toyota will launch the Scion iQ later this year, which will get north of 40 mpg."Fuel economy, whether gas prices are $3 per gallon or $4 per gallon, communicates not only value, but quality," says Ford marketing chief James Farley. "There is a belief with the consumer that if you can excel in fuel economy, you can excel in other areas too."

Gasoline-powered cars are achieving the higher fuel economy by going smaller and using lighter-weight materials, low-rolling-resistance tires, direct-injection engines and, sometimes, turbo-charging. Turbos allow automakers to use lower-displacement, thriftier engines to achieve higher horsepower when it's needed.

"Every new vehicle coming online is being tweaked and tuned to see if it can reach the 40 mpg level," says Hyundai Motors chief John Krafcik.

The new thriftier cars are arriving at a good time. Gas prices are on the rise. The national average for unleaded gasoline has climbed from $2.70 in September 2010 to $3.10 this month. And many industry analysts and economists believe that we could be above $3.50 by the end of 2011. Already, it is not uncommon to find $4-per-gallon gas in markets such as California.

But the more fuel-efficient vehicles also are arriving as part of meeting tougher federal standards. The new regulations require all passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States to get an overall average of 34.1 mpg by model year 2016. It's the first time there has been a national average for all vehicles.

By then, cars will be expected to average about 39 mpg while trucks are expected to get an average of 30 mpg. Current fuel economy standards for new cars are 27.5 mpg for cars and 23.5 mpg for trucks. Currently, there is no requirement for a combined fuel economy average.

Other cars that achieve 40 mpg or more include: Toyota Prius Hybrid (51 city/48 highway); Honda Civic Hybrid (40/43); Honda Insight Hybrid (40/43); VW Golf TDI (30/42); VW Jetta TDI (30/42); Audi A3 (30/42); and Ford Fusion Hybrid (41/36).
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