MONEY Autos

7 Cars That Save on Gas in a Way You Won’t Believe

2013 Ford Fusion
Ford began offering auto stop-start technology as an option with the 2013 Fusion. Ford—Wieck

New research shows that funky, futuristic auto stop-start technology is a proven money saver on gas. It's available right now only in a tiny fraction of cars, but that's going to change soon.

Over the years, one urban fuel-efficiency myth has been pervasive—that you’ll save gas by letting your car idle rather than shutting the engine off when, say, waiting at the curb for someone running into a store. Popular Mechanics, AAA, and others have busted this myth, pointing out that a vehicle gets negative miles per gallon while idle. The consensus advice now is that if you car is stopped for more than a minute, the smart move is to turn the engine off.

The arrival of auto stop-start, a technology most often seen in hybrids, does this work for you, and not only if you’re idle for minute or more. As the name suggests, the tech shuts off the vehicle’s engine automatically when the car comes to a stop—at a red light, say—and then starts it again in the jiffy when the driver takes a foot off the brake pedal.

The technology has slowly been spreading beyond hybrids to a few vehicles powered by traditional internal combustion engines, and new research from AAA indicates that this is a good thing. After testing several cars with the feature, researchers concluded that the tech is a no-brainer that saves drivers 5% to 7% on gas costs annually. A blurb from the press release explains a little more about what this means to us all:

“Up to seven percent improved fuel economy can mean a $215 annual fuel savings for Southern California consumers,” says Steve Mazor, the chief automotive engineer of the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center. “It also reduces the main greenhouse gas emitted from cars (CO2) by 5 to 7 percent in city driving.”

Navigant Research predicts that by 2022, 55 million cars sold annually will have stop-start technology, up from 8.8 million last year. Adoption is ahead of the curve in Europe, where gas prices are astronomical compared to much of the world: Roughly 45% of cars built in Europe already come with start-stop systems.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the stop-start feature remains an anomaly; only about 500,000 new cars sold in the U.S. in 2013 had the technology. Estimates call for that figure to shoot up to 7 million by 2022. But there’s no need to wait. The vehicles below already offer stop-start as an option or a standard feature in the U.S.:

BMW: Several BMWs have auto start-stop technology, but not all drivers are fans. “The stop-start system is just awful,” one Automotive News columnist wrote of his 2012 328i, describing the herky-jerky feeling of stepping off the brake and automatically restarting the engine as “balky” and “uncomfortable.” Drivers do have the option to turn the start-stop feature off if it’s proving to be too annoying.

Chevrolet Impala: The automaker has made stop-start technology standard on the 2015 Impala.

Chevrolet Malibu: Starting with the 2014 model year, Chevy made stop-start standard on the Malibu, which the automaker says has helped it boost fuel efficiency by 14% with city driving.

Ford Fusion: A couple of years ago, Ford introduced a stop-start system as a $295 option for the first time in the U.S. on a non-hybrid model. At the time, the automaker estimated that drivers would save $1,100 in gasoline costs over five years of driving by upgrading to stop-start. The 2015 Fusion is estimated to get an extra 3 mpg over the base model.

Ford F-150: Buyers who go for the 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine on the 2015 version of Ford’s best-selling pickup get a special auto stop-start feature that’s a little different than others out there. Like other systems, this one automatically shuts off the engine as a fuel saver when the vehicle is stopped, but not when the vehicle is towing something or when it’s in four-wheel drive. Without that feature, the tech could prove frustrating for pickup drivers who are hauling something in the rear or are inching along stop-and-go on bumpy or muddy terrain. During all other driving situations, “The engine restarts in milliseconds when the brake is released,” Ford promises.

Porsche: Among the Porsche models that come with auto start-stop, the new Panamera’s system is special in that the engine not only shuts off when the vehicle is at a full stop—but it also shuts off when the car is slowing down approaching a traffic light. While the engine goes quiet, climate control, audio systems, and other interior features remain powered by the battery. And if the battery doesn’t have enough juice for all the auxiliary equipment, the engine will simply turn back on.

Ram 1500: The 2013 model year Ram truck offered start-stop technology as an option, the first in the pickup category to do so. “This new system is just one of the advances that allow the 2013 RAM 1500 to offer up to 20 percent greater fuel efficiency than previous models,” the automaker stated.

TIME fuel efficiency

Even Cowboys Feel Pain at the Pump: Pickups Go Green

140607_HO_Trucks_1
iStock

Macho stuff like toughness and torque is what sells trucks, right? Well, it turns out technology, comfort, and, yes, fuel economy, matter too -- even to construction workers.

In the world of pickup trucks, the advertising skews toward patriotic-themed, macho messaging focused on toughness and raw engine power. Buy this overpowered truck because it makes America great! Behind the bluster, though, are some less-muscular realities. Fuel economy, technology and comfort are what really count, even with those rugged cowboys and construction workers. That’s why pickup buyers and manufacturers are getting greener than a Boulder farmers’ market.

Like the rest of the auto industry, pickups are having a very good year, with the industry approaching unit sales of two million. One of the hotter new pickups this year is also one of the most fuel efficient. Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s 2014 model Ram 1500 EcoDiesel hit the road in February with a 3.0 liter, V-6 engine that sports a 28 mpg highway rating. FCA says the fuel rating is the best ever achieved by a full-size, half-ton pickup—the most popular version. “We are churning sales, “says Bob Lee, the head of Chrysler’s power train division. “In eight days [on the lot] they are gone. It’s moving incredibly fast.” That’s one reason Ram sales were up 17% in May, as Chrysler continues to gain share in the category.

GALLERY: Meet the new, greener pickup trucks

The company says that about half the buyers of new 1500s are opting for the EcoDiesel version. That’s an amazing stat given that Americans have never cottoned to diesels on anything other than heavy-duty trucks. But they do favor fuel efficiency with gasoline around $3.65 a gallon nationally. At Ford, the company reports that 42% of retail buyers are choosing F-150s with its 3.5 liter EcoBoost V-6, which gets 22 mpg. At General Motors, the company has added bi-fuel capability to all of its heavy-duty 2015 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD and 3500HD, which allow customers to use compressed natural gas (CNG). Chevy says that will save them $2,000 a year in fuel costs for a vehicle driven 26,000 annually, based on current fuel prices. Ride on, you CNG cowboys.

Chrysler’s decision to develop a diesel for its smaller pickups started in 2005 when the company undertook an exercise to document where all the energy was going in the large 4.7 liter engine that powered many of its pickups. “The diesel showed up early and that was where you could have a big gain [in efficiency],” says Lee. The company also went to work on aerodynamics, and even the axel, which was sucking up 8% of the energy.

Diesels are more efficient than gas-powered cars but potentially dirtier, making the technology challenge a lot tougher. “The injection pressures are high, tolerances are tight and in the U.S., onboard diagnostics are extremely complicated,” says Lee. More importantly Chrysler’s aim was to pass muster with California’s strict regulations. “California wants to make sure the technology works.” It did.

Ford meanwhile, has been working on a technical challenge of its own. Later this year the company will introduce a new F-150 which, as newly named CEO Mark Fields modestly claims, “redefines the future of trucks” in that it will feature greater use of high-strength, military-grade, aluminum alloys in the body. That, along with more high-strength steel in the frame, allowed Ford to lower the vehicle weight by some 700 lbs. Shedding weight will improve fuel economy and acceleration, but it also allows the company to equip the pickup with a new, smaller 2.7-liter EcoBoost with auto Start-Stop. That also enhances fuel economy.

The F-150 is so important to Ford—it is one of the company’s iconic products and the industry’s best seller– that it can’t afford to produce anything that’s less than outstanding. The company says that more than 100 new patents are part of the F-150’s redesign. Ford has even overhauled the pickup’s badge, taking the hyphen out of F-150—now it’s F150—which the company says “adds to the message of efficiency.” Wonder if the hyphen is available as an option.

MONEY Autos

The Little Engine That Could Save You Big Money

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BMW's sleek new i8 Sports Coupe hides a 3-cylinder engine under the hood. courtesy BMW GROUP

Automakers are being curiously quiet about the expanded use of an engine that’s lighter, more fuel efficient, and even safer than what drivers have come to expect under the hood. Why?

Because the type of engine in question runs on three cylinders, a breed that’s widely been considered “weird” and “wimpy.” The truth is that many of today’s 3-cylinder engines are neither.

The shift to smaller engines has been long in the making. By 2011, roughly half of new cars sold had 4-cylinder engines, up from around one-third in 2007. The average fuel efficiency for new cars has kept increasing, reaching over 25 mpg in recent months, and in order to hit the aggressive CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) goals established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, vehicle mileage will have to keep inching upward.

One way automakers are trying to pump up fuel efficiency is by expanding the use of engines that have traditionally been associated with snowmobiles, mopeds, and lawn mowers. Manufacturers such as Ford, Nissan, and BMW have spent years developing vehicles with 3-cylinder engines, and now there are a handful of models with the teeny-tiny engines on the market. Among the options are the 2014 versions of the Ford Fiesta SE and the Mini Cooper, as well as the BMW i8, a sleek new hybrid sports car that’s expected to have a sticker price well over $100,000.

You probably haven’t heard much about the engines in these cars, however, which seems odd. Automakers love promoting every innovation and technological advancement. BMW, for instance, devotes ample website space to the i8’s design features that boost efficiency, including streamlined aerodynamics and the way “the passenger compartment is made of a carbon fibre composite, which proves to be an ingenious all-rounder: up to 50 % lighter than steel and approximately 30 % lighter than aluminum.” By contrast, very little attention is given to the fact that the gasoline engine under the hood is of the 3-cylinder variety. It’s buried low on one web page amid a barrage of jargon concerning the vehicle’s “BMW eDrive technology and a BMW TwinPower Turbo 1.5-litre, 3-cylinder petrol engine.”

As Automotive News recently explained, the 3-cylinder engine still has a “wimpy reputation,” generated by earlier, golf-cart-like 3-cylinder models. “Ford, BMW and other automakers are not drawing attention to the number of cylinders,” the Automotive News story noted. “That’s due in part to the reputation of three-cylinder engines. Instead, their message focuses on performance and fuel economy.”

The Mini Cooper and the Fiesta SE both get highway mpg ratings in the 40s, and they’re not underpowered, with 134 and 123 horsepower, respectively. The new Mini does 0-60 in 7.4 seconds, 2.3 seconds faster than its 4-cylinder-powered predecessor. (The new Mitsubishi Mirage and Smart fortwo, which also have 3-cylinder engines, have horsepower more in line with what most consumers would expect: 74 hp and 70 hp, respectively.) Three-cylinder engines are also lighter, which of course helps fuel efficiency, require fewer parts (which lowers manufacturing costs), and take up less space under the hood, which can improve safety because there’s less chance it will penetrate the interior in a front-end collision.

It’ll be up to cars like these, as well as high-tech 3-cylinder engines developed by Nissan, one of which weighs just 88 pounds and pumps an amazing 400 horsepower in the automaker’s batmobile-like ZEOD RC concept car, to convince consumers that a 3-cylinder engine is good for more than cutting the grass. Some auto insiders say that the assumptions most drivers make about these engines are outdated, and that the engine’s reputation is bound to change once word spread about the advances that have been made.

Jalopnik declared that 2014 will be the “year three-cylinder engines stop being weird,” and, presumably, wimpy. “It’s time for three cylinders,” Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky proclaimed. As for the skeptics and naysayers, who are stuck with the perception that 3-cylinders can’t adequately power anything bigger than a scooter? “Remind your wanna-be gearhead co-workers that most of these modern 3-cylinders have power pretty damn close to V8s in the mid-1970s.”

TIME Autos

The Incredibly Simple Way to Get Drivers to Buy Fuel Efficient Cars

Japan Nissan
Itsuo Inouye—AP

The secret lies in making it crystal clear how much they’ll save in gas costs over the long haul.

In every car dealership, a new vehicle for sale is required to have an EPA car label slapped on the window. The labels are loaded with numbers and ratings and have a dozen different features, including the estimated fuel economy (with city and highway breakdowns), the estimated annual fuel cost for operating the car, a fuel economy and greenhouse gas rating, a smog rating, and a smartphone QR code that can be scanned for additional information.

But a new study by Duke University researchers makes the case that one critical bit of information is missing from the labels. The labels today show how many gallons of gasoline a vehicle uses over the course of 100 miles of driving, and they also provide an estimate for annual fuel costs, based on a rate of $3.70 per gallon and 15,000 miles of driving per year. Researchers say it would be helpful—for consumers and the environment alike—to do some more math for potential buyers and show how much owners can expect to spend on gas for the long haul. Like, say, 100,000 miles.

In the study, participants were presented with a variety of different scenarios and asked to pick the vehicle they preferred. For instance, one group was asked to choose either: Car A, which costs $18,000 and $20 in gas over 100 miles of driving; or Car B, which costs $21,000 and $16 in gas over 100 miles of driving.

Another group was asked to choose either: Car A, which costs $18,000 and $20,000 in gas over 100,000 miles of driving; or Car B, which costs $21,000 and $16,000 in gas over miles of driving.

Both scenarios are essentially the same: The upfront costs and fuel economy in Car A and Car B are the same in both scenarios. But guess which scenario resulted in way more consumers choosing Car B, the more fuel-efficient and cost-effective option? Yep, the second hypothetical, which did the long-term math for consumers and demonstrated that an owner would save $1,000 over the course of 100,000 miles by choosing Car B over Car A.

In fact, in the many scenarios presented—including several instances when the vehicle with better mileage didn’t pay for itself in gas savings—would-be buyers were most likely to select the more fuel-efficient vehicle when the costs were shown over the course of 100,000 miles. That doesn’t mean that the average consumer would actually buy a fuel-efficient vehicle if it didn’t make financial sense.

“People are very sensitive if the vehicle paid for itself or not,” Adrian Camilleri, one of the study’s authors, said in a phone interview. “People don’t like cars that don’t pay for themselves. But they show the greatest interest in more fuel-efficient cars when they’re shown the gas costs over 100,000 miles.”

Overall, in the sum total of all scenarios—including, again, some in which the more fuel-efficient car didn’t pay off—among the participants who selected the more fuel-efficient car, 61.6% did so when shown the gas costs over 100,000 miles, versus 46.6% when gas costs were simply shown over 15,000 miles, like they are currently on new-car EPA stickers. Specifically, when given costs over 100,000 miles, participants chose the more fuel-efficient model 87% of the time when it paid for itself, versus 36% when the gas costs savings didn’t pay off. But when shown costs over 15,000 miles, participants chose the more fuel-efficient model 73% of the time when it paid for itself, versus only 20% when the fuel-efficient car didn’t pay off.

What may come as somewhat of a surprise is that showing consumers gas costs over 100,000 miles significantly increased the odds of someone choosing the car with better mileage even when the choice didn’t result in an overall cost savings. “What we found is that many people want to buy more fuel-efficient cars when they’re close to paying for themselves,” said Rick Larrick, a Duke management professor and one of the authors of the study, published in the spring issue of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. “That’s when their sense of environmentalism kicks in. They might not be willing to pay a large premium, but they realize how close the difference gets when they see gas costs over 100,000 miles.”

Larrick said that consumers may also do a little more math for themselves and see that if they drive the car well over that marker—the life of many cars nowadays extends well over 200,000 miles nowadays, after all—that the vehicle with better mileage will, in fact, make more sense financially.

As for the EPA stickers, Larrick thinks that instead of adding the estimated gas costs over 100,000 miles to the already clogged label, it would be best to substitute it in there for one or more of the other fuel cost data points. “They already have the annual fuel costs and the amount drivers would save over five years compared to the average vehicle, which is pretty redundant,” said Larrick. “There’s a way to simplify this. The cost over 100,000 miles is just a more important metric.”

TIME

Better Fuel Efficiency Is Hurting the Most Efficient Cars of All

A Toyota Prius hybrid car.
Toyota Motors / AFP / Getty Images

Why aren’t sales higher for electric vehicles and hybrid plug-ins? A big reason has to do with the technology that EVs are supposed to replace, the internal combustion engine.

Last year, Nissan Leaf sales more than doubled the total from 2012. Sales for the entire plug-in category, which includes pure battery-powered vehicles like the Leaf and gas-electric hybrids such as the Chevy Volt, nearly doubled as well last year.

Even so, automakers have recently launched major incentives and price-cutting measures in order to win over potential buyers. And the reason they’re doing so is that sales, while on the rise, haven’t been as strong as many had hoped.

“EVs have been a disappointment, compared to what we expected,” Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker flatly said, according to Automotive News. “Their cost hasn’t come down enough. Batteries haven’t gotten better. And gas prices haven’t gone up like everyone expected. And at the same time, the automakers have done a great job of making the internal combustion engine better.”

Yes, some of the explanation for why electric vehicles aren’t selling better is directed squarely at plug-ins themselves. As skeptics have pointed out since EVs hit the marketplace, the limited driving range, high initial price, and/or slow and inconvenient charging procedure of plug-in cars are deal breakers for many drivers.

But as Shanker noted, underwhelming plug-in sales can also be partially explained by the other parts of the equation affecting consumer car-buying decisions. When gas prices are high, and the assumption is that they’ll keep on increasing, opting for an electrified car makes more and more sense as a long-term money saver. Likewise, when comparing the costs of commuting and running routine errands in a battery-powered car versus an old-fashioned gas guzzling SUV or sedan, the EV can seem like an especially savvy move for the household budget.

What’s hurting plug-in sales, however, is that gas prices aren’t sky high, and few experts today are forecasting the impending arrival of $5 per gallon like they were two years ago. The other factor is that gas guzzlers are disappearing, with new studies indicating that half of the new cars sold this year get 23 mpg or better, and new cars now averaging over 25 mpg thanks to improved efficiency in the internal combustion engine, as well as automakers (and buyers) generally embracing lighter, smaller cars.

Amazingly, car dealerships and sales staffers themselves often don’t seem sold on the wisdom of going electric. Secret shoppers from Consumer Reports just concluded a broad investigation of car dealerships and plug-ins, and during the course of visiting 85 dealerships, they found out that few dealership lots have decent selections of plug-ins, and that many sales employees aren’t knowledgeable about EV sales incentives and technology. Perhaps unsurprisingly, sales staffers who weren’t fully up to speed about plug-ins were particularly likely to try to steer customers away from EVs and toward traditional cars powered solely by internal combustion engines.

“Many seemed not to have a good understanding of electric-car tax breaks and other incentives or of charging needs and costs,” the CR report stated, referring to dealership sales staffers encountered by secret shoppers. “Many also didn’t seem to recognize that for people who intend to go with an electric car, the reasons for leasing are broader than for ordinary cars, including that you don’t have to wait until tax time to receive a generous tax incentive.”

If professional car sales employees don’t understand how all of this works, and can’t (or won’t) lay out a simple, sensible case for switching to a plug-in car, and can’t (or won’t) explain the smartest way to do so, imagine how the average consumer feels.

TIME Oil

U.S. Oil Demand Grew Faster Than China’s in 2013. That Won’t Last

Oil demand grows in the U.S.
Oil demand grew faster in the U.S. than anywhere else in 2013 Photo by Scott Olson / Getty Images

Production has been booming for awhile, but last year American demand for the black stuff grew by 390,000 barrels a day

The oil production boom in the United States is old news, something we covered in a special section just a few months ago. Improved hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling has helped unlock vast new tight oil supplies, mostly in Texas and North Dakota. But I don’t think everyone has realized just how much boom is in this boom.

New numbers from the International Energy Agency (IEA) might change that. Crude oil production in the U.S. rose by 990,000 barrels a day (bbd) last year, a increase of 15% from the year before. That’s the fastest such absolute annual growth of any country in 20 years. And it’s not just production: The IEA reports that in 2013, U.S. demand for oil grew by 390,000 bbd, or about 2%, after years of decline. For the first time since 1999, U.S. demand for oil grew faster than China’s demand, which rose by 295,000 bbd, the weakest increase in six years. So not only is the U.S. producing a gusher of oil, but it’s also consuming more crude.

(MORE: North Dakota Derailment Shows Dark Side of America’s Oil Boom

That increase in domestic demand could a good sign for the economy, if not for the environment. Growth in oil demand was mostly steady in the U.S. from the early 1980s on, before plateauing a couple of years before the financial crisis of 2008. Since then it’s mostly dropped. Average consumption in the U.S. was 18.8 million bbd between 2009 and 2012, compared to 205 million bbd between 2005 and 2008. Economic growth and energy demand have historically gone together—more businesses using more energy, more workers driving to the office—so last year’s unexpected increase in oil demand could mean the U.S. is rebounding, as Antoine Heff, head of oil market research at the IEA, told the Financial Times:

It is clear that the US economy is rebounding very strongly thanks to its energy supplies. Sometimes oil is a lagging indicator, but sometimes it is the opposite and shows that an economy is growing faster than thought.

According to the IEA, much of that growth has been in the petrochemical industry, which has taken advantage of burgeoning domestic oil supply. U.S. exports overall hit a record high in November, cutting the trade deficit to its lowest level since 2009. And much of that export growth came not from manufactured goods but from diesel and gasoline, with the U.S. exporting $13.3 billion worth of petrochemical products in November. With oil companies forbidden from exporting crude from the U.S.—though they’ve been lobbying lately to get that changed—refineries have taken up the slack, benefiting from the fact that domestic oil is often sold at a discount (they’ve also benefited from low natural gas prices, thanks to shale drilling). It’s not for nothing, as Mitchell Schnurman noted in the Dallas Morning News, that the oil capital of Houston led the nation in exports in 2012, ahead of the New York area.

(PHOTO: Black Rock Rush: Working the Oil Fields of North Dakota)

But even if the U.S. economy does rebound—and boom times in the petrochemical industry don’t necessarily translate to the rest of the country—don’t expect the U.S. to go all the way back to its gas guzzling days. There are other reasons besides a declining economy that explain why U.S. oil demand fell so much over the past several years. Cars are now more fuel-efficient than ever, thanks to tougher fuel economy standards and growing consumer preferences for lighter, smaller cars and hybrids. But we’re also driving less. An analysis by Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that 9.2% of U.S. households in 2012 were without a vehicle, compared to 8.7% in 2007. Vehicle miles traveled has largely plateaued over the last several years, indicating the U.S.—like other developed countries—may have reached something like “peak car.”

That’s arguable—the drop in the percentage of households with cars could well have more to do with high unemployment and slugging economic growth than anything else. But while the boom in domestic oil production has helped stabilize gas prices—a gallon cost an average of $3.32 a gallon in 2013, just a little more than in 2012—the days of cheap gas are almost certainly over. The future of oil demand is going to be in the developing world—especially China, where consumers bought over 20 million cars in 2013, compared to 15.6 million in the U.S. 2013 will likely turn out to be a blip in that epochal shift.

(MORE: US Oil Dominance Will Be Short Lived)

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