WANTED: A GUIDE TO BUILDING EFFICIENT CARS.
The first, a dark green 1970 124 Spider, had significant rust when I bought it in 1973. The rust got better with a few bits of welding, some Bondo and a full paint job I did myself in my parent’s garage. I sold it after that. A coat of paint hides a multitude of sins.
The second, a 1974 128 Wagon, which I bought new after 10 weeks of misery owning a used Saab 99, wouldn’t start in a cold, wet New England winter. Nice color though, an unusual really pale green. It was replaced in 1976 with a new Audi Fox and all its problems.
Now Fiat is back owning the majority share of Chrysler and is beginning to bring back the Fiat brand name to the U.S. The company is betting younger generations don’t know the hardships involved with Fiat ownership. The cars have reportedly gotten much better.
So I’m intrigued by the Fiat 500. It’s useless for my needs, like carrying something other than myself and some groceries or cans of paint from Home Depot. (Could I strap a sheet of plywood to the roof? I don’t think so. The might fly or something.) But I like it anyway.
The stylish, affordable little car, is getting great reviews, except in one area: fuel economy. Sure, the stick shift version gets 38 miles per gallon on the highway which is pretty good, but the slush box gets only 34. However, by comparison, Chevy’s Cruze Eco with a stick gets 42 on the open road and 37 automatically shifted. How can this be? The Cruze is a much bigger car with about the same performance and even the same sized engine, 1.4 liters. Even the regular, non-Eco Cruze does nearly as well as the Fiat. The 500 is so tiny. It should be getting 45-50 miles per gallon, you’d think. For that matter why does the tiny smart car (the small “s” is correct) or Mini get only 41 and 37 respectively on the highway? What’s going on here?
It’s clear that the real difference is that GM put some real effort into eking high-mileage out of the Cruze Eco, whereas Fiat, Mini and smart just thought selling a small car was enough.
If there’s thing that stands out glaringly to make the Cruze Eco more efficient is that its engine is much smaller in terms of displacement than would ordinarily be found in a car that size. Typically, as well as in other variations of the car, a 1.8 – 2.0 liter engine might be the norm in a compact car, but the Cruze has an undersized turbocharged 1.4. That turbo is the key. Turbo charging has a way of adding horsepower without the need for more displacement. Air is pushed into the cylinders, not just sucked in, so at times the engine can act bigger than it really is. So the fuel economy benefits of small displacement is available most of time. At times when power is needed, the turbo kicks in.
Other fuel-economy tweaks like aerodynamics. low-rolling resistance tires, the manual shift with its overdrive gears, lowered ride height and light alloy wheels round out the Eco’s fuel pinching enhancements.
So what would happen of Fiat made a 500 Eco? Couldn’t they squeeze 45-50 miles per gallon with a turbocharged 1.0 liter and some aero-bits? Probably. Maybe somebody will try.
So here’s an ongoing project for some research lab, a university, or heck an entirely new organization. Get into the ongoing business of analyzing high fuel economy cars to determine how the cars pinch the fuel that they do. Look at both conventional cars, like the Fiat, as well as hybrids and all-electrics. Publish the results on a regular basis and charge, heavily, for your good work. Call it a “Guide to Building Efficient Cars.” Offer a freebie summary for the media (like me) to absorb. Your main customers are all vehicle engineers and designers of the world along with folks at other labs. You might even get car makers as clients asking, “Why doesn’t my car do better than 38 miles per gallon?” You’d have some recommendations, for sure.
Every car company has fuel economy on its mind. Knowing what other manufacturers do while getting an independent viewpoint of how it was done, would be helpful to all car makers. The insurance industry tests cars for their crashworthiness and helps the car industry build safer cars by doing so. Someone other than government needs analyze cars for their efficiency.
May 30, 2011 – Vol.16 No.11