On the mpg front, 2012 had some fizzle

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This was supposed to be a big year in the push for better auto fuel economy. Electric vehicles and hybrids were supposed to make giant strides in 2012.

It turned out to be a little spotty.

Cases in point:

• Consumer Reports and others claim the Ford C-Max Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid fall about 20 percent short of the fuel economy estimates posted on the window stickers. There is now a lawsuit over the claims.

• Ford saw its brave, new mpg-boosting EcoBoost technology challenged by recalls for the risk of engine fires in Escape crossovers and Fusion sedans with 1.6-liter turbocharged engines.

• Chevrolet continues to have a hard time selling the Volt plug-in hybrid.

• Earlier this year, the Volt had its own brief problems with onboard fires, which amounted more to bad public relations than bad technology.

• Nissan is having trouble selling the Leaf electric car.

• The Fisker Karma, one of the more exotic plug-in hybrids, caught fire on more than one occasion this year, sometimes while simply parked in a garage.

• Fisker also suspended work on a new model while it scrambles to raise more funds.

• Sales of Nissan's redesigned, segment-leading fuel-efficient Altima fell in November compared with deliveries of the old Altima a year before.

• It turns out Hyundai and Kia, the darlings of fuel efficiency gains a year ago, have been overstating mpg numbers on some models stretching back to the 2011 model year.

• Toyota had to recall 670,000 Prius hybrids for steering problems in November. Granted, they were older Priuses, but this is not really the sort of news you want out there when consumers are shopping for fuel economy.

• Consumer Reports also decided not to recommend Toyota's fuel-thrifty Prius C this year, complaining that the smallest of the Prius models is noisy and sluggish.

For some owners, Ford's dedicated C-Max hybrid is falling short of mpg expectations.

You should immediately put all of this into perspective. A thousand things are moving forward, and the broader shift is toward more fuel-efficient cars and trucks with a new generation of technologies. The goofs, glitches and setbacks are occurring within a larger, positive context.

But none of it is good news. And none of it sounds like the bells of victory for an industry trying to remake itself as a provider of green technology.

But maybe some historical perspective will help 2012 go down a little smoother.

Two centuries ago, following the invention of steam power, shipbuilders in England and America fell all over themselves trying to capitalize on river steamboats. Steamboats could sail against the currents of powerful rivers, promising big new opportunities in transportation and commerce.

The problem: It was still an imperfect technology, and the ships' boilers tended to blow up. Big explosions resulted in terrible deaths and disastrous news. Grave doubts lingered in the minds of travelers and investors.

Obviously, steamboat technology did not wither and disappear. Innovators innovated, and applications improved and moved forward, iteration upon iteration.

This is also what will happen with new-generation cars that will roll out over the decade to come. Imperfections will be sorted out. Competition will move forward in fits and starts, with one competitor besting the last.

A few years from now, the industry will be able to look back at 2012 maybe not as the momentous year it failed to be, but as a pretty steamy start for an era of advanced technologies that became even bigger.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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