2012 Mazda Mazda3
2012 Chevrolet Sonic
2013 Chevrolet Malibu
Another new member of the 40-mpg club was introduced in New York the other day, and surprisingly, it was the new Mazda MAZDA3. The reason I say it was a surprise was that the compact member of Zoom-Zoom Nation had to make quite a jump to get there. The 2011 MAZDA3 tops out at 33 mpg on the highway, so the new model's performance represents a healthy increase of more than 21 percent in a single bound. And it achieves that new benchmark with an automatic transmission. And while getting a modest power bump, too.
That's a serious upgrade, and when you combine it with some of the other notable efficiency improvements we're seeing from vehicles at the New York International Auto Show and Auto Shanghai, you could get the feeling we've finally hit ye olde tipping point on the fuel-economy front.
The New Benchmark
I'm not the first to apply the "40 is the new 30" business to the auto industry, but I have to admit it's an apt description of the situation. At this stage in the game, an automaker without a high-volume 40-mpg player either on sale now or coming in the near future clearly faces a steep competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. On the other hand, thanks to a sudden rush of new models that can hit that mark, the only mainstream companies that can't make that claim are Chrysler and Nissan.
Prior to New York and Shanghai, GM had the Chevrolet Cruze Eco with the Chevy Sonic set for a debut this year; the Blue Oval can point to the SFE models of the Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta; the new Honda Civic HF will be good for 41 mpg; the Hyundai Elantra gets an asterisk-less 40 mpg; and the Toyota Prius has long carried the flag for Toyota. I'm not counting the Nissan Leaf, because it's obviously a niche vehicle, and I'm on the fence about whether the Honda Insight sells enough units to be considered a "high volume" vehicle; the Honda CR-Z hybrid, of course, doesn't actually hit 40 mpg.
And after the unveils in the current auto shows, we'll add the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio to the 40-mpg roster, as well as the VW Beetle (in its TDI configuration) and the aforementioned MAZDA3.
That's quite a flood of vehicles, and there are two things that really stand out in my mind about what's happening here. The first is the speed at which the industry is changing. The industry went from having no 40-mpg gas-powered cars before the Cruze and Fiesta to showcasing nine of them in just a matter of months. Perhaps more impressive has been some of the fuel-economy improvements that have been required to get to this point.
Beyond the MAZDA3's +21 percent increase in highway fuel efficiency, the Cruze, Sonic, Focus, Elantra and Civic all saw improvements of more than 13 percent in the same measure.
Is There an Eco in Here?
Let's also spread some love for a couple of other notable efficiency improvements that didn't quite reach the 40-mpg mark, starting with the Chevrolet Malibu Eco. GM's decision to drop its eAssist "light electrification" system into its next-gen mid-size sedan caught most folks off guard, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. I've often expressed my concern that the current Malibu is getting a bit too far upscale for its traditional mass-market audience and packing on this kind of premium technology won't help with that, but it will help at the gas pump.
At an expected 38 mpg highway, the Malibu Eco would boast a fuel-economy improvement of more than 15 percent in this measure as compared to today's model and could perhaps be considered the most fuel-efficient traditionally powered mid-size sedan in America'”depending on what you mean by "traditionally powered." The eAssist technology incorporates a lithium-ion battery and electric motor-generator in what is essentially a mild hybrid powertrain. But remember, when the first iteration of this technology was used on an earlier Malibu, a lot of people thought the General was trying to pull a fast one by calling the result a hybrid vehicle, and complained it wasn't a "real hybrid" like the Prius.
It's pretty canny of GM's marketing team to re-spin that criticism and position the Malibu Eco as "a smart choice for customers who want excellent fuel economy without the price premium of popular hybrid sedans." (That's per Rick Scheidt, vice president of Chevrolet marketing.)
Let's also wedge in one more notable example of a vehicle taking a huge leap in mileage by giving a hat tip to the new Subaru Impreza, which will post a 33.3 percent increase in highway fuel efficiency over the current model, moving from 27 mpg to 36 mpg.
Memo to Marchionne
All of which makes me wonder if maybe now isn't the best time for Chrysler to be revving up SRT8 versions of the Chrysler 300 and Jeep Grand Cherokee.