WASHINGTON — How do you make a tiny Honda Fit get 42 mpg instead of the 30 mpg or so it gets now? Or a hulking Cadillac Escalade deliver 20 mpg instead of 14?
Technology can do such things, experts in and outside the auto industry agree. But that raises the question: At what cost? That's a real-world issue now that Congress and President Bush have decreed vehicles must achieve 40 percent higher fuel economy by 2020.
Industry leaders soon will start to find out whether consumers will pay several hundred — or several thousand — dollars more for fuel-saving technologies. And even if they do, auto executives ask, will carmakers make any money?
Most automakers are adding hybrids, considering diesels and developing fuel cells. Some are rethinking model lineups. General Motors, for example, may drop plans for a rear-wheel-drive Chevrolet Impala.
The investment firm Citigroup Global Markets predicts most automakers will boost profits by offering more-efficient vehicles. Suppliers of fuel-saving technologies, such as turbochargers and dual-clutch transmissions, also will be big winners, Citigroup says. A Citigroup report cites BorgWarner Inc., Johnson Controls Inc. and Tenneco Inc. as leading examples.
Just as consumer demand for vehicle safety reinforced tougher safety regulation, "It is reasonable to believe that improvements in fuel economy will feed upon themselves in a similar manner," says the Citigroup report.
Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America, says automakers must sell customers on the benefits of fuel economy, not horsepower. No longer, he says, can car companies offer vague claims about "best-in-class" leadership.
"The class stinks," Cooper told Automotive News.