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Downsizing: Today's Compact Cars are Tomorrow's Land Yachts

Some day, we're going to look back at 2010 cars from Chrysler, Ford (F) and GM and say, "Wow, can you believe how big even ordinary-sized cars used to be?"

That thought occurs to me once in a while when I catch an episode of the 1970s TV show, The Streets of San Francisco, which featured a lot of pre-oil embargo cars. Cars that were considered relatively modest in size back then look huge today, especially the long, long hoods.

All that heavy steel and sheetmetal disappeared when Americans became interested in gas mileage. Japanese import brands, which evolved in an environment of sky-high gas prices, offered smaller cars with better mileage than Detroit. Many Americans switched to Honda (HMC), Nissan (NSANF.PK) and Toyota (TM) and to this day never looked back, even though the domestic manufacturers have long offered small cars, too. I think we're approaching another Age of Downsizing, what with inevitably higher gas prices and tougher emissions rules in the U.S. and worldwide. While the U.S. manufacturers are improving and becoming more globally integrated, they're still less-prepared than the Japanese brands.

For instance, the current crisis got a lot of Americans out of seven-passenger SUVs and into seven-passenger crossovers, but those (mostly domestic) seven-passenger crossovers are still awfully big, and they're only fuel-efficient compared to the worst of the worst.

At the same time, the auto industry keeps coming up with technical solutions that allow us to have our cake and eat it, too, like gasoline direct-injection engines with turbocharging. Such efficiency improvements help postpone the day of reckoning.

Ford announced today it's going to install gasoline direct-injection engines with turbocharging in an additional 200,000 units by 2013, bringing its total to about 1.5 million cars and trucks globally. Direct injection uses computer-controlled squirts of fuel under extremely high pressure to get more power out of the same amount of fuel.

Ford calls its direct-injection, turbocharged engines EcoBoost. Other leading car companies, ranging from General Motors to Porsche to Toyota also offer direct-injection engines, with or without turbos.

The car companies are pitching technologies like EcoBoost as zero-sacrifice: that is, a six-cylinder engine that performs like an eight, or a four-cylinder engine that performs like a six, only with better gas mileage. For sure that represents an improvement in fuel consumption, but it avoids the issue whether we should continue to expect eight-cylinder performance or six-cylinder performance in the first place.

I think eventually science will run short of miracles. Hybrids and electric vehicles will help save fuel, but Americans are going to have to downsize their expectations for zero-to-60-mph acceleration, and their expectations for vehicle size.