What Happened at the LA Auto Show? Small SUVs, Hydrogen Cars, and 2015 Fuel Economy Gains

, , research and deputy director, Clean Vehicles | December 2, 2014, 12:38 pm EDT
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Before Thanksgiving, my colleague Lucy and I toured the LA Auto Show. While we confirmed many trends I identified in my previous post, three things stood out: fuel cell vehicles are gaining attention and momentum, small crossover SUVs are racing to market, and some redesigned 2015 models are offering up some significant fuel economy improvements compared to previous models.

Lots of talk and action on hydrogen-powered fuel cells

Toyota started out the first week of the show debuting the four-passenger Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle, which is slated to go on sale late next year primarily in California. A network of more than 50 stations are expected to be operational over the next year or so, while Toyota also announced they are planning on supporting additional fuel infrastructure in the northeast. The pricing was announced to be $499/month for a three year lease which includes the hydrogen fuel – offering a similar deal to the Hyundai Tucson fuel cell vehicle.

Toyota unveiled the hydrogen-powered fuel cell Mirai in LA.

Toyota unveiled the hydrogen-powered fuel cell Mirai in LA.

In other fuel cell announcements, Honda showed images of their fuel cell concept, due to the market in 2016 (a bit later than anticipated) and also announced they are investing $13.8 million in First Element Fuel to increase hydrogen fueling infrastructure. Audi showed a concept plug-in hybrid fuel cell A7 while VW had a fuel cell-powered Jetta wagon on display.

While the roll out of hydrogen vehicles will be limited initially to certain regions where infrastructure is being developed, it’s exciting to see this technology taking another step forward.

Rise of the small SUV

At least three new models were released at the auto show that fall into the “small SUV” category. The Honda HRV (a smaller version of the CRV), the Mazda CX3 ( a smaller version of the CX5) , and the Fiat 500X (a beefed up version of the 500) will all be offered in all-wheel drive models as well as 2-wheel drive. We can expect the HRV and CX3 to do better on fuel economy than their larger siblings, while the 500X is likely to be worse than its smaller counterpart. It will be interesting to see if these vehicles attract buyers who might have previously gone for a sedan, or those who might have purchased a larger SUV.

Mazda introduced the CX3, a small crossover SUV. Honda and Fiat introduced models of similar size as well with the HRV and Fiat 500x being announced at the 2015 LA Auto Show.

Mazda introduced the CX3, a small crossover SUV. Honda and Fiat introduced models of similar size as well with the HRV and Fiat 500x being announced at the 2015 LA Auto Show.

Also of interest and concern is that all-wheel drive versions of these vehicles might qualify as trucks under fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards – which I’ve previously raised as potential loophole that could reduce the benefit of the standards.

Notable 2015 model fuel economy improvements

In walking the show floor, models from Ford, Honda, and Chrysler stood out for their improved fuel economy over previous models, demonstrating that there is still significant potential for continuing to improve the fuel economy of conventional vehicles in the years to come.

The 2015 F150 was on display at the auto show and Ford revealed the EPA estimated fuel economy figures. These numbers have been eagerly anticipated given the attention Ford has garnered over the 2015 F150 redesign — particularly its significant use of aluminum. There are many variants of the F150, but the most efficient model, equipped with the 6 cylinder 2.7L ecoBoost engine and start/stop technology, is rated at 19 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway and 22 mpg combined. The figures represent a 14% reduction in fuel consumption from the previous most efficient F150 model which was rated at a combined 19 mpg. This adds up to nearly $400/year in fuel savings, assuming $3.50/gallon gas and 15,000 miles per year of driving.

The most efficient 2015 F150 represents a 14 percent improvement in fuel consumption compared to the previous model.

The most efficient 2015 F150 represents a 14 percent improvement in fuel consumption compared to the previous model.

What’s even more notable is that these fuel economy improvements make the F150 the lowest global warming emitting full size pick-up available (outside of a plug-in pickup). The Dodge Ram 1500 diesel actually posts better fuel economy numbers, with a combined mpg of 23 miles per gallon, but a gallon of diesel and a gallon of gasoline are not apples to apples on carbon content. In fact, based on the official mpg estimates, the Ram will put out about 2,000 more pounds of CO2 over a year of driving than the new Ford (see Dave’s diesel versus gasoline calculator for the comparison). What’s more is that Ford is developing a 10-speed automatic transmission that is expected to go into the F150 in the not too distant future, which should give the best-selling pickup another boost in fuel economy.

Honda’s 2015 Fit also represents a significant improvement in fuel economy over the previous model year vehicle. The most efficient 2015 model boasts an impressive 41 mpg highway rating and an overall combined city/highway rating of 36 mpg. That’s up from 31 mpg in the 2013 model (there was no 2014 model). A couple of key differences in the new model are the use of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) from the previous 5-speed automatic. The engine at 1.5L, remains the same size, but improvements including the addition of direct injection has helped increase efficiency.

For a new Fit owner, these fuel economy improvements add up to more than $200/year in fuel savings, assuming $3.50/gallon gas and 15,000 miles per year of driving.

While Chrysler is not known for the fuel efficiency of its overall fleet of vehicles (see Chrysler’s last-place finish in this year’s Automaker Rankings, for example), it has demonstrated the potential for making significant improvements in fuel economy with specific models. Similar to the Honda Fit, the model year Chrysler 200 reduces fuel consumption by 14% compared to the previous model year, achieving a combined fuel economy rating of 28 mpg versus last year’s 24 mpg. The improvements come in part from a new transmission (9-speed replaces the previous 6-speed), an underbody panel to improve aerodynamics, and some engine upgrades.

For a new Chrysler 200 owner, these fuel economy improvements add up to more than $300/year in fuel savings, assuming $3.50/gallon gas and 15,000 miles per year of driving.

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With fuel economy standards continuing to rise over the next decade, we should see automakers putting more fuel economy technology into new and refreshed models. These were just a few of the cars at the LA Auto Show that struck me as being substantial improvements compared to previous models. Please post a comment below if you know of other good examples where fuel-saving technology is making big difference in model year 2015 vehicles.

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