The recent Los Angles Auto Show was all about small cars and conservation. However, unlike the recent Paris exhibition, which featured all things electric, the California gathering of the world's automakers seemed to point to a refinement of the conventional internal combustion engine for a world gone green.
Over in the Ford booth, they're loudly trumpeting four vehicles that achieve 40 miles per US gallon (5.88L/100km). With the addition of the 2012 Focus to its lineup, Ford will now have four cars - the others are the Fiesta SFE, Fusion Hybrid and the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid - boasting 40mpg, a feat the company brags is more than any other automaker. Combined with the pumping of the company's turbocharged EcoBoost formula (in the guise of a twin-turbo 3.5L V6) to its traditionally V8-loving pickup owners, Ford is pushing green harder than ever, even when focusing on traditionally power-hungry clientele.
Not to be outdone, Hyundai announced that its Elantra will hit the 40 mpg mark. However, unlike the previously mentioned Ford Fiesta and the Chevrolet Cruze, which have only one specific trim each achieving this new benchmark of frugality (the Fiesta SFE and the Eco Cruze), all 1.8L-powered Elantras will achieve a 40 mpg rating on the motorway.
Another member of the 40mpg crowd is Kia's Optima Hybrid. Powered by a full parallel hybrid system that can be driven in its zero emissions, full electric drive mode up to speeds of 100kph, Kia's first hybrid uses a lithium polymer battery for energy. The battery pack, developed in South Korea, is claimed to weigh just 43kg, dramatically reducing the weight penalty common to so many hybrids.
Meanwhile, the massively hyped (you would be primping it up, too, if you had seen how barren Chrysler's R&D cupboard was but a year ago) Fiat 500 finally seems ready for North America, with a softer ride and, perhaps the most important modification of all, cupholders large enough for supersized Big Gulps. The 500 should arrive in US showrooms by the end of the year.
General Motors is resurrecting its much-maligned "mild" hybrid concept with the 2012 Buick LaCrosse. All 2.4L versions will feature eAssist, a rebranded version of the belt-alternator starter (BAS) systems first introduced in 2006. Unlike those previous, largely ineffective designs, the new systems now have the power (11 kilowatts, or 15hp, compared with the previous system's paltry 2kW) to significantly affect the LaCrosse's performance and fuel economy. The General claims that the 182hp inline four cylinder now averages 37mpg (6.4L/100km) on the highway (an increase of 7mpg) and 25mpg (9.4L/100km) - up 6mpg - in the city.
Cadillac, meanwhile, took the wraps off an Urban Luxury Concept (ULC), whose slick hatchbacky shape may not have been radical, but whose little three-cylinder engine certainly is. That it is also smaller and shorter than a current Mini Cooper says automakers are already gearing up to meet America's stringent new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards - Cadillac boasts, thanks to the ULC's mild hybrid system - of 65mpg (3.6L/100km) on the highway).
Infiniti, like so many other luxury automakers, is also looking to marry the disparate desires for performance and economy with the Ellure Concept. Aggressively styled with slippery aerodynamics and 21-inch mega-wheels, the Ellure is nonetheless powered by a small 2.5L inline four cylinder, albeit one pumped up by a supercharger and backed up by a 25kW electric motor. It's enough for the Ellure to wear a Pure Drive badge, Nissan's designation for its range of low CO2/low consumption internal combustion engine or hybrid vehicles.
Even Lotus, unveiling a five-car push into the high-priced exotic supercar league, is promising that the hyper-powered V8s and turbocharged fours offered on its upcoming models - Elise, Elan, Esprit, Elite and Eterne - will have a hybrid Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) for an optimum blend of performance and economy.
Indeed, this rampant bifurcation is almost certainly the issue the automotive industry will face for the next decade. Whether it be Ford looking to offer an F-150 with superior fuel economy while still being able to tow 5,000kg, a Cadillac that is small, sassy and, most importantly, fuel conscious while still being, well, a Cadillac, automakers face the impossible task of satisfying all of the people, all of the time.