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Automakers pressed to improve fuel economy

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THE V-8 engine could become a casualty of tougher fuel-economy standards that will see North American roadways increasingly populated by smaller, lighter vehicles, experts say.

"The V-8 engine will become less common moving forward," said Drew Winter, editor-in-chief of Ward's Auto World. "Eight cylinders are being replaced by six cylinders, which are being replaced by four cylinders."

The Obama administration announced last month that it would raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that auto companies have to meet from the current 34.5 miles per U.S. gallon (6.82 L/100km) by 2016 to 54.5 mpg (4.32 L/100 km) by 2025. Canada subsequently announced it will harmonize its rules with the draft regulations requiring an 80-per-cent improvement from current standards.

The new standards prompted a warning from Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, who predicted the V-8 muscle car would become "as rare as white flies."

Phasing out the V-8 could have implications for the Canadian auto industry since the engine powers much of the vehicle product line assembled at domestic plants. The engine is found in the Oshawa, Ont.-built Chevy Camaro as well as high-performance models of the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Challenger, which are built in Brampton, Ont.

In Windsor, the V-8 is tied to more than 1,300 hourly jobs at two Ford plants. The eight-cylinder, five-litre units assembled at the Essex Engine Plant fuel the Ford F-150 pickup truck and Mustang muscle car. The V-8 Triton engine, which is slated to end production in 2014 at the Windsor Engine Plant, powers such SUVs as the Ford Expedition.

"You've got to get some four-cylinders in Windsor," said Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research.

Fuel-saving technological advances, such as turbo-chargers and fuel-injection systems, are making smaller engines more powerful -- a trend that will intensify over the next two decades.

Chrysler's tie-up with Fiat means the automaker will focus on the development of vehicles fuelled by diesel and compressed natural gas engines -- powertrains found in much of Fiat's European fleet, Winter said.

General Motors, meanwhile, will "continue to design and build vehicles that deliver the features and performance customers want, while saving them gallons at the pump," said Adria MacKenzie, spokeswoman for GM Canada. "What we know is that consumers want higher fuel efficiency in their cars and trucks and GM is going to give that to them."

Ford has said its 3.5-litre, twin-turbo Eco-Boost V-6 engine, which accounts for 43 per cent of F-150 sales, will become a common feature throughout its product line as the automaker adjusts to tighter fuel-economy standards.

The new standards also are a challenge for the auto parts sector, said Peter Frise, executive director of Auto 21 Network of Centres of Excellence, which co-ordinates automotive research at universities across Canada. Parts suppliers will be under growing pressure by car companies to produce light parts, he said.

"The three most important factors affecting fuel economy are the weight of the car, aerodynamics and driver behaviour. Between 50 and 70 per cent of the car comes from parts suppliers. To get the weight out of a car you have to get the weight out of the parts."

Expect to see more components made out of lightweight materials such as aluminum, magnesium, carbon fires and thinner sheets of steel, Frise said.

"There will be greater opportunities for research and development. There's no way you can achieve these very profound fuel-economy targets if you don't do a lot of work on the weight as well as advance design work to make sure cars comply with safety standards."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2012 F2

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