The first modern mass-market electric cars -- the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf -- are causing a sensation, especially as gas prices top $4 a gallon. However, a quiet revolution in engines and transmissions promises to save vast amounts of oil in the decades before electric vehicles rule the road.
Even electric vehicles' ardent supporters concede that EVs will be only a tiny slice of the total vehicle fleet for years to come. But Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen are poised to deploy other fuel-saving systems in millions of vehicles. Some are already on the road. Many more will be within a year.
The technologies to watch for include turbocharging, direct gasoline injection, diesel engines, automatic transmissions with eight speeds or more, and dual-clutch transmissions.
None of those gizmos provides the surreal EPA ratings of the Volt and Leaf -- 230 mpg and 367 mpg, respectively --but they make a difference. And by 2015, you can reasonably expect that every new car and truck will feature some of these technologies.
The result will be fuel economy no one dreamt of as little as a decade ago, including midsize sedans that achieve better than 40 mpg and compacts that reach 50 mpg.
Here's a primer on where they'll show up first.
Already available on BMW and Jaguar luxury cars, they'll go mainstream this year when Audi starts installing them in nearly every vehicle it builds. In 2013, Chrysler is to begin building them in Indiana. Look for them in Ram trucks and in the 300 and Charger sedans.
They're already available in the Ford Fiesta and coming soon to Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep. A six-speed dual-clutch gearbox helps the subcompact Fiesta get 40 mpg on the highway.
Get the tech
- • Vehicles that currently offer these technologies: Chevy Cruze, Ford Fiesta, Ford Taurus, VW Jetta.
- • Vehicles that will hit the road shortly: Buick Regal, Cadillac XTS, Cadillac ATS, Chevy Aveo, Chevy Spark, Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Fiat 500, Ford Edge, Ford Explorer, Ford F-150.
They use computer controls to change the gears of a transmission that has most of the same parts as a manual gearbox. There's no clutch pedal, however. The driver can leave the selector in drive while the computer handles the shifting.
Turbocharging and direct injection
Available in the Ford Taurus SHO, Lincoln MKS and a wide range of Audis and Volkswagens, this combination boosts the power of small engines. That lets automakers use smaller and more fuel-efficient engines without sacrificing performance.
A DI turbo engine will lift the Chevrolet Cruze's EPA rating to 40 mpg. Ford already uses the system with V6s and will add it to four-cylinder engines to reduce fuel use in the 2011 Explorer. Look for it to become common in all sizes of vehicles.
European automakers lead in this technology, which combines good acceleration with excellent fuel economy. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and VW will promote their diesels heavily. American and Asian companies have bet more heavily on electric vehicles and improving gasoline engines' fuel efficiency.