Detroit Auto Show: It's Still the Age of Fossil Fuels

Last Updated Jan 14, 2010 11:38 AM EST

The most significant cars at the Detroit auto show in terms of potential sales volume and impact on fuel consumption were small cars with fuel-efficient but more or less conventional gasoline engines, like the Ford Focus and the Chevy Cruze.

"This (2011 Focus) is the most important car Ford will launch in 2010," said Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas.

Jim Campbell, Chevrolet general manager, said at the Detroit auto show that with a small, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine, the Chevy Cruze will get up to 40 mpg on the highway. The Cruze made its debut at the Los Angeles auto show in November, but figured prominently in Chevrolet's presentations in Detroit.

Media hoopla this week about hybrids and electric vehicles tended to overshadow the obvious fact that gasoline is still virtually unchallenged as the fuel of choice.

"Ultimately - ultimately -- there will be more electric vehicles. But for the next 20 years, we will be driving piston-engine products of all sizes," said General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, in a speech to the Society of Automotive Analysts in Detroit.

"We are going to have to put a lot of technology in pickups and SUVs to make them comply with fuel (mileage) regulations, but they will always be there," he said.

"Some of the East Coast publications would have you believe nobody in America was buying full- size SUVs or pickups. You would think everybody is driving Smart ForTwos," Lutz said in the Jan. 11 speech.

Lutz was playing in part to the home crowd. "East Coast publications" is code for The New York Times, which Detroit insiders accused of conducting a jihad holy war against SUVs a few years ago. Even so, Lutz has a point.

In 2009, hybrids made up less than 3 percent of U.S. car and truck sales, according to AutoData Corp. In case we forget, today's hybrids get all of their power, including battery power, from an onboard gasoline engine.

Instead of hybrids and electric vehicles, incremental improvements to gasoline engines, transmissions, tires and brakes will add up to a much bigger impact over the next decade in terms of saving gas. Weight-saving designs and materials, plus better aerodynamics will also contribute.

Those efforts are mutually supporting with hybrids and EVS, which also employ a lot of the same gas-saving technologies. But make no mistake, fossil fuels are still "in," despite what those "East Coast publications" supposedly imply.

Photo: GM