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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Increasing Gas Prices Require Gas Guzzlers Remake

by Anthony Fontanelle

Increasing gas prices have pushed some auto shoppers to purchase small fuel-efficient cars. This is to circumvent the irritating cost and as well as the eco-stigma attached to gas guzzlers. But according to critics in the industry, the best solution that automakers could give shoppers is a remake of these vehicles.

A Great Fuel Saver

Last year, the $3 a gallon price of gasoline has caused the decline in the sport utility, truck, and other huge vehicle segments. To win back shoppers, automakers have relied on the use of new auto technology to improve fuel economy. Advances in technology have paved the way for gasoline-electric hybrids, cleaner-burning diesel engines, special lightweight parts and innovative power-steering pumps.

The use of turbochargers is one of the fuel-saving measures resorted to by automakers. Turbochargers are smaller engines equipped with weight-saving electronics that produce more power. Unlike the previously used mechanical systems, the technology in turbochargers use light materials such as carbon fiber, aluminum, and plastics.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz and Jeep units recently started selling diesel versions of their sport utilities. The Ford Motor Co. has announced its plan to offer diesel power in its full-size pickups and SUVs in 2008 or so. And General Motors Corp. is using smaller engines in one line of SUVs and hybrid power in another. Even Porsche AG, a renowned sports car builder, recently announced that it will build a hybrid version of its speedy Cayenne SUV and it is planned for sale by 2010.

Shoppers shift toward small, efficient cars have caused the dramatic decline in huge vehicles sales. As a fact, sales of the Chevrolet Tahoe, a large SUV with seats for seven passengers, reached a peak of 209,767 vehicles in 2002 but have generally slipped since then and totaled 161,491 in 2006.

When GM redesigned the Tahoe along with sibling GMC Yukon for the 2006 model year, one purpose was to boost fuel economy. Safety-wise, it was equipped with a Chevrolet Tahoe air bag kit and other innovative system. But the most noteworthy feature is its EPA fuel economy rating of 15 mpg in city driving and 21 mpg on the highway, compared with the 15/19 mpg rating of the previous version. The new Tahoe SUV produces 320 horsepower, up from the previous 295.

But in a reporter's test drive, the already modest increase in efficiency on paper was barely noticeable on the road, wrote Jonathan Welsh of The Wall Street Journal. A hybrid version of the Tahoe, to be rolled out late this year, is expected to deliver fuel economy consistently better than 20 mpg. Chevrolet has not named a price for the hybrid Tahoe but said that the SUV will cost less than the top-of-the-line Tahoe LTZ model, which this year costs about $47,000.

"Chevrolet points to small details that contributed to its hybrid Tahoe's improved fuel economy. They include lighter parts, like a hood and rear hatch and drive shaft made of aluminum instead of steel. Its wheels are lighter and more aerodynamic, and the company even changed the seats, making them noticeably thinner, to save weight," Welsh observed.

It is not clear whether the improvements in gas mileage will win over customers. While most of the cars in development do not have prices yet, hybrids tend to carry higher price tags, and drivers cannot always reap fuel savings without altering their driving techniques, for instance, by accelerating gradually from a full stop, said David Healy, an analyst with Burnham Securities.

Diesel-powered vehicles tend to feel more familiar to most drivers and make it easier to realize better fuel economy. "In the long term, I think diesels have a better shot at winning over consumers," Healy concluded.
A Great Fuel Saver

About the Author
Anthony Fontanelle is a 35-year-old automotive buff who grew up in the Windy City. He does freelance work for an automotive magazine when he is not busy customizing cars in his shop.