Howes: 'Green horsepower' delivers oomph, savings

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
View Comments

Detroit – The Big Two can't both be wrong.

Less than an hour after General Motors Co. cast a decidedly green hue with two electric hybrid models and promises of more to come, its Blue Oval rival wowed the North American International Auto Show with a trio of Motown muscle that says horsepower is back, emphatically.

Or did it?

Ford Motor Co.'s paean to power subtly underscores a point too easily missed by skeptics looking for signs the Motor City's bad, ol' days are just around the corner: More power can be delivered with better fuel economy, and lighter materials, to a market that demands all of the above, thanks to tough federal fuel-economy rules.

"You have to do both," Ford CEO Mark Fields said in an interview Monday. "Our strategy is all about serving all markets with a full family of vehicles."

Yup, even if that means fielding slow-moving hybrids and plug-in electrics amid $2-a-gallon gas. An emerging truth of the global auto industry is that power and fuel-efficiency no longer are mutually exclusive — a fact clearly demonstrated by the decisions consumers are making.

Not so Washington's environmentalists and regulators. Their arm-chair reaction to rising sales of pickups and SUVs and falling sales of small cars and hybrids, typified last week by President Barack Obama's repeated warning about cheap gas prices, is to lecture consumers on their poor choices.

Seriously. If there's an emerging theme at this year's auto show, amid broad optimism for the year ahead and the industry's discipline, it's that the choice between performance and fuel economy is an increasingly false one.

And, second, that the federal government's aggressive fuel-economy rules are driving automakers to make multi-billion dollar bets on developing technologies that wow their industry and the green lobby more than paying customers whose purchases theoretically would defray the investments.

Over the longer term, that's unsustainable if current trends persist too long. Market adoption of emerging propulsion technologies is confounded by parallel improvements in the fuel-efficiency of gasoline engines, their increased power, the aluminum used in high volume vehicles like Ford's F-150, or the carbon fiber deployed in the Ford GT and the latest generation Chevrolet Corvette.

Case in point: Ford's 2016 GT supercar, complete with carbon fiber panels and aluminum chassis components, will be powered by a 3.5-liter turbocharged V-6 delivering 600 horsepower. A decade ago, the GT sported a 5.4-liter V-8 that generated 550 horsepower.

The GT will not be a car for the masses. But its technological highlights buttress the point that an all-of-the-above strategy pursued by Ford, and emulated by its competitors, is delivering dividends in the traditional end of the business — even if it undermines their bets on advanced (and green) propulsion.

Ford's new F-150 is 700 lbs. lighter and delivers improved fuel economy. For the nation's best-selling vehicle (753,851 copies last year, the final years of its most recent iteration), those improvements mean larger overall fuel savings than hybrids that account for a few points of market share.

In 2008, a dozen electrified vehicles fielded by the industry accounted for 2.3 percent of a smaller U.S. market, according to figures cited by Ford. Last year, 60 entrants in a market pushing 17 million cars and trucks accounted for just 3.3 percent of the U.S. market.

The rules have only grown tougher. Automakers still are expected to reach a corporate average of 54.5 mpg by 2025, a target likely to acquire billions more to achieve but little assurance consumers will embrace what the industry is selling.

The apparent contradiction between what government is demanding from the industry (alternative propulsion technology) and what consumers want (traditional vehicles done well) is building the foundation for a potential clash between the industry and its regulators as early as 2017.

That's when a "review period" on the aggressive fuel-economy rules is slated to begin, a point Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV CEO Sergio Marchionne says should be used to "slow down" implementation of the rules.

"We are in transition to a different set of regulations and a different set of regulation enforcement," he said on the sidelines of the auto show. "What's really driving the portfolio of American automakers is CO2 regulation. It's ... wagging the dog."

Those rules are becoming a great equalizer. The proverbial price of admission means the Japanese and the Germans no longer hold a monopoly on the advanced propulsion technology embraced by the avowed environmentalists, and Detroit no longer monopolizes powerful internal combustion engines or profit-rich trucks and SUVs.

Gains are coming in unlikely places, too.

Ford's F-150 pickup "is CAFE-positive for us," Fields said, using the acronym for federal fuel-economy rules. "It's helping us meet the 54.5" mpg goal of 2025. "It's not dragging down the average. It's an end solution for folks."

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at

View Comments