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Muscle Cars Going High-Tech to Balance Power with Mileage

Muscle cars, such as the 2015 Ford Mustang pictured here, are going high-tech in an effort to boost mileage and keep power.

Muscle cars, such as the 2015 Ford Mustang pictured here, are going high-tech in an effort to boost mileage and keep power. Ford Motor Company

When the all-new, 50th anniversary Ford Mustang rolls into showrooms next month, buyers will have the option of ordering the pony car’s familiar V-8 – this year pumped up to a tire-spinning 435 horsepower – or a base V-6.

But Ford also is offering a new four-cylinder engine that can turn out a still-impressive 310 hp thanks to such advanced technologies as turbocharging and direct injection. Dubbed EcoBoost, it offers a hint of what’s to come, not only at Ford but across the auto industry.

Back in the 1980s, automakers like Ford responded to twin Mideast oil shocks and new fuel economy regulations by taking the oomph out of the automobile. Today, that’s not considered an option.

Buyers around the world are demanding more performance than ever. And with increasingly stringent mileage and emissions standards planned for the U.S., Europe and Asia, “You will need new technology” to keep putting power to the pavement, said Mustang’s chief engineer Dave Pericak.

Though he and other Ford officials declined to discuss specific details of what they have in mind, he suggested they are looking at “all the options,” from basic turbocharging all the way up to advanced, battery-based technologies such as hybridization.

Mustang Celebrates 50 Years of Muscle Cars 2:34

Hybrid Mustang

A hybrid Mustang? The concept might seem sacrilegious until you consider that Porsche, a brand known for its high-performance sports cars, is rapidly expanding its line-up of electrified vehicles. It will, for example, introduce the new Cayenne S-E, a plug-in version of its top-line SUV, at next month’s Paris Motor Show.

It will reach market shortly after the launch of the Porsche 918 Spyder, an 887-horsepower plug-in sports car capable of launching from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds. The 2-seater, nonetheless, can drive up to 12 miles on battery power alone, with the EPA rating its fuel economy at 20 mpg in the city, 24 on the highway. In electric mode, that jumps to the equivalent of 67 mpg.

Ferrari’s new flagship, the limited-edition LaFerrari, relies on a high-performance hybrid system based on the one developed for the Italian automaker’s Formula One program. So does the new McLaren P1 “ultracar.” Lamborghini, which has traditionally relied on massive internal combustion engines, such as the 6.5-liter V-12 in its Aventador, is also giving thought to alternatives that could include hybrid power.

There may be no other option, according to analysts like Dave Sullivan, of AutoPacific, Inc. The U.S. will see fuel economy take a big jump in 2016, and keep climbing all the way to an average 54.5 mpg by 2025. Europe, meanwhile, is focusing on reductions in CO2 emissions that makers would be hard-pressed to meet with gas power alone, at least in their high-performance models.

China, the world’s largest automotive market, is meanwhile desperate to deal with its endemic air pollution problems. A number of major cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, now restrict the number of new gas-powered vehicles that can be registered each month, limits lifted for cars using battery power.

China, Japan and a number of other markets also heavily tax large-displacement internal combustion engines. So, manufacturers need to downsize to keep performance cars affordable.

'Low Hanging Fruit'

There’s plenty of what Ford chief engineer Pericak calls “low-hanging fruit” to pluck from without going too exotic. More and more vehicles are adding direct injection, a technology that achieves the seemingly incongruous goals of boosting both fuel economy and performance by as much as 10 percent to 20 percent.

There’s also “displacement-on-demand.” The new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray can shut off half the cylinders in its big V-8 when power demands are modest, such as cruising down the Interstate, boosting highway fuel economy to 30 mpg.

Manufacturers also are adopting transmissions with more gears to keep engines operating at their most efficient. And “lightweighting” is also coming into play. Engineers are replacing heavy steel with lighter aluminum and even carbon fiber, to boost performance and mileage.

Turbocharging and supercharging are another high-tech solution. These technologies effectively allow small-displacement engines, like the Mustang EcoBoost, to perform like their much larger traditional gas engines. Turbos could be used on half or more of the vehicles produced worldwide a decade from now, according to several surveys – but they do have disadvantages. Among other things, they traditionally bog down when a car starts to move.

An even higher-tech solution will be the e-Turbo, which uses an electric motor, rather than a vehicle’s exhaust, to spin its turbine blades. “I can confirm we are working on the development,” Ulrich Weiss, a senior Audi engineer, recently told Australia’s Drive magazine.

But as fuel economy numbers continue to climb, electrification may become the only option, some industry analysts believe. And that could mean a hybrid Mustang, Corvette or Dodge Challenger.

“Technology, especially the more exotic, will be needed for (tomorrow’s) performance cars, and they are not cheap,” said Pericak. “We have to figure out how to do these things, and do them affordably.”