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In wake of mileage bill, automakers get creative

/ Source: The Associated Press

Automakers will turn to a mix of fuel-efficient vehicles and technologies — from advanced hybrids and clean diesels to lightweight materials — to respond to tougher fuel efficiency standards approved by Congress, industry leaders said Tuesday.

Amid rising fuel prices, car makers have been expecting the more stringent requirements and emphasized their choices of vehicles that get more miles to the gallon.

But the energy bill, which will require the industry's fleet of new cars, sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and vans to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020, will help shape the lineup of new cars appearing in dealers showrooms during the next decade.

President Bush is expected to sign the legislation Wednesday.

Gas-electric hybrids, which account for about 2 percent of the new vehicle market, are expected to become more widely available in larger vehicles, and companies will likely broaden their portfolio of other fuel-saving alternatives such as diesels and vehicles running on ethanol blends.

"We now know what the rules are of the game. Each manufacturer now will be able to play its hand in its unique way," Chrysler LLC Vice Chairman Jim Press said in a phone interview.

"We're in the best position to marry technology and not make people make sacrifices or compromises on the product they want," he said.

Majority Democrats helped push through the energy bill in the context of $90-a-barrel oil, $3-plus gasoline prices and concerns about the nation's dependance upon fossil fuels and global warming.

The new standards will boost fuel-efficiency standards by about 30 percent under the first upgrades by Congress in three decades. New vehicles currently must meet a 27.5 mpg average for cars and 22.5 mpg for light trucks.

"We will focus our engineering and technical resources to attain these standards, and we remain hard at work applying the innovation and developing the advanced technologies that will power tomorrow's cars and trucks," said Rick Wagoner, General Motors Corp.'s chairman and chief executive.

Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said in an interview with journalists last week that the company was testing plug-in hybrid vehicles and would continue to expand its offering of hybrids.

"We're a hybrid company," he said.

Auto companies said the energy bill will help bring more focus on fuel-efficient engine technologies such as cylinder deactivation systems, which help the engine seamlessly operate on a reduced number of cylinders.

Ford Motor Co., for example, announced during the Los Angeles Auto Show in November that it would implement turbocharged gasoline direct-injection engines capable of providing fuel savings of 10 to 20 percent. The Lincoln MKS sedan will be the first Ford vehicle with the technology in about a year.

The industry is more likely to experiment with lightweight materials on the vehicle's body, such as aluminum, high-strength steel and carbon fiber, said Erich Merkle, vice president of auto industry forecasting for IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich.

But Merkle noted that all of these alternatives will not come cheaply. Clean diesel and hybrid technology typically adds several thousand dollars to the cost of a vehicle, and more lightweight parts will also carry additional expenses.

Which leads to one of the big questions emerging from the energy bill: Will consumers want to pay more to enjoy the benefits of long-term fuel savings?

"You can build them," Merkle said. "But it doesn't mean they're going to want to buy them."