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Automakers Look To Shed Pounds

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On: Wed, May 11, 2011 at 9:51AM | By: Chris Weiss

Automakers Look To Shed Pounds

It's no revelation that automakers around the world are looking to make more efficient vehicles. Fuel prices are rising something awful; government bodies in Europe and the United States are placing stricter regulations on automaker fleet emissions; and the market is quite warm and welcoming to more efficient cars.

Much of the automaker focus and media attention have been on smaller engines and greener powertrains. Electrics, hybrids, and other alternative powertrains have made for intriguing headlines, and smaller, more efficient gas engines have played their own less-lauded, utilitarian role.

But powertrain technology develops only so fast and goes only so far. A new MSNBC report looks at how automakers are leveraging another key auto feature—weight—toward building more eco-friendly cars.

According the report, U.S. consumers don't really want to drive the tiniest cars with the smallest engines. What they want is to drive larger cars that offer comfort and features while still delivering more mpg. In fact, during the last $4 gas spike, many consumers regretted hastily buying small cars due to those vehicles' lack of storage and features.

So, the solution can't be to just to build a fleet of tiny, super-efficient compacts and subcompacts. No, according to the piece, more important than having small cars that offer the ever-elusive 50-mpg rating is having midsized cars that offer 40 mpg.

Key to that goal is cutting every piece of fat, from the chassis through the interior trim. A simple rule used by the industry goes something like "subtract 100 lbs., add one mile-per-gallon."

Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s global product chief, told MSNBC: "In the mid-term, from now to 2017 or 2018, we’ll remove anywhere from 250 to 700 pounds, depending on the vehicle."

Other automakers are doing the same. Hyundai recently made headlines for having four cars that offer highway ratings of 40 mpg (assuming the EPA confirms Hyundai's estimates). The latest model is the redesigned 2012 Accent, which Hyundai debuted at the New York Auto Show last month. In order to gain that estimated rating, Hyundai stripped 150 lbs. from the curb weight. Others are the 2011 Sonata Hybrid, the 2011 Elantra, and the 2012 Veloster.

Consumers have responded. Last month, more than a third of Hyundai's total sales were of 40-mpg models like the Elantra and Sonata Hybrid, and the company averaged 36.2 mpg across all April sales. The company hopes to average 50 mpg by 2025.

Still, obstacles remain. Lightweight components like aluminum, and especially carbon fiber, are expensive, limiting their utility in average vehicles. And ever-increasing safety regulations mean more equipment and more weight, serving as a wrench in the gear work of weight savings.


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