Green All Over: Three Automotive Megatrends for 2011

by By Josh Sadlier
The new year marks a rebirth of sorts for the automotive industry, with sales projected to trend upward for the foreseeable future. Success is hardly a given, though, as the landscape has changed considerably from the good old days. Thanks to higher gas prices and tightening CAFE standards, mpg-mania is spreading, and automakers are scrambling to showcase their tree-hugging bona fides. Watch for the following green-themed megatrends this year as we enter a brave new motoring world.

Battery Bonanza

Chevrolet Volt
Lithium-rich countries of the world, rejoice: you’ve got what automakers suddenly want. Lithium, you see, is the juice that powers the battery packs in most electric and gas/electric hybrid vehicles, and we’re about to be inundated with these contraptions for 2011. The Chevrolet Volt has grabbed the bulk of the headlines, of course, and rightly so – as the first plug-in gas/electric hybrid for the masses, it cleverly combines electric-only drivability with the range and peace of mind that only a gas engine can currently provide. Toyota’s not sleeping on this one, though, as its much cheaper Prius hybrid – now in its third generation – already makes for an interesting Volt alternative, and a plug-in Prius is coming soon. Also, Fisker’s supposedly almost ready to give us the voluptuous 400 horsepower Karma plug-in hybrid sedan (cost: two-plus Volts), though that’s been the story for the past couple years, so don’t hold your breath. 

In the purely electric camp, there’s the relatively attainable Nissan Leaf hatchback, the bonkers Tesla Roadster and upcoming experiments like the BMW ActiveE (an electric 1 Series), Ford Focus Electric, Ford Transit Connect Electric and Mitsubishi i-MiEV. And don’t forget about all of the existing gas/electric hybrids, as well as shiny new entrants like the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid and Porsche Panamera S Hybrid. The Lithium Age is upon us – and seeing as there’s supposedly enough lithium in this planet to power two to four billion electric cars, it won’t be ending anytime soon.

Forced-Induction Frenzy

Kia Optima Turbo
We’ve been hearing about the fuel-economy advantages of downsized turbocharged motors for a while now, but only spunky outliers like Mini’s 1.6-liter turbo four (181 horsepower, 177 lb-ft of torque and a combined 30 mpg) seemed to deliver the goods. Then the turbocharged Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima happened. Producing 274 horsepower, 269 lb-ft of torque and an honest 26 mpg combined – that’s three mpg more than the Toyota Camry’s relatively frugal V-6 and the same as the Camry’s naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine – their shared 2.0-liter turbo four is the first mass-market turbo motor that fully lives up to the hype. 
Ford is next up with its long-awaited EcoBoost four, which will actually cost more in the new Explorer, for example, than the larger and less-efficient base V-6. Chevrolet hasn’t yet achieved the world-beating mpg it hoped for with the compact Cruze’s 28 mpg 1.4-liter turbo (the naturally aspirated Hyundai Elantra’s four gets 29 mpg in city driving alone), but Audi has had good luck with supercharging its 3.0-liter V-6, and BMW’s new turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six is generating impressive numbers as well. Shoot, Audi’s even stuffing its reasonably thrifty 2.0-liter turbo four into luxury rides like the A5 coupe and Q5 crossover. Forced induction looks like it’s here to stay, and the 2011 model lineup shows why. 

Small Cars Gone Wild

2011 Ford Fiesta
Remember when a small car was what you bought if you couldn’t afford a bigger one? These days, small cars are increasingly offering big-car features and style in addition to their inherent advantages in handling, maneuverability and – yes – fuel economy. Consider the aforementioned Cruze and Elantra: the former rides with big-car sophistication, the latter arguably looks even better than the daringly styled midsize Sonata, and they both offer interior designs and high-tech features that would put some family sedans to shame. With Ford’s new Fiesta and Focus, we’re finally getting the same premium compact Fords that Europeans enjoyed for years while we were stuck with second-rate stuff. And Fiat is waiting around the corner with its plucky 500 hatchback, while Hyundai’s aiming for the underwhelming Honda CR-Z with the distinctive new Veloster coupe. 
Just a year or two ago, the Mazda 3, Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Jetta/Golf were easily the most – and perhaps the only – sophisticated small cars you could buy in this country, but now they’re just a few competitive compacts among many. That’s reportedly why Honda delayed the debut of the next-generation Civic until 2012 – the bar had been raised so high, so quickly, that the Civic’s initial targets had to be recalibrated. Perhaps the chart-topping Toyota Corolla will start to lose some market share now that virtually everyone else offers a more appealing product. In any case, look for increased migration to this segment in 2011 by drivers who want better fuel economy and a smaller footprint from their vehicle. 

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