Top Five Green-Car Stories Of 2011: MPGs, Electric Cars, And More

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2011 Nissan Leaf at quick-charging station

2011 Nissan Leaf at quick-charging station

Yep, it's almost the end of the year, which means reams of roundup stories from all your favorite auto websites.

Nope, we're not that different: We've got one too. Here's our take on the five most important stories--or perhaps themes--of 2011 in the growing world of green cars.

New fuel economy rules: 54.5 mpg CAFE by 2025

The biggest story of the year is the new gas-mileage requirements jointly issued by the NHTSA and EPA--under the encouragement of the Obama White House, and with signoff from most if not all of the major automakers. (Auto dealers are still fighting the rules.)

The new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) rules cover model years 2017 through 2025, and include rises of 3 percent per year for trucks and 5 percent for cars.

The result is that by 2025, the average vehicle will achieve 54.5 miles per gallon on its CAFE tests--which translates to the low to mid 40s on a new-car window sticker (due to outdated CAFE test cycles).

EPA gas-mileage label (window sticker), design used starting in model year 2013

EPA gas-mileage label (window sticker), design used starting in model year 2013

How will we get there? Sure, there'll be more hybrids and some plug-in cars. But the vast majority of the increased gas mileage will come from smaller, more efficient engines.

We're already seeing this, with four-cylinder engines becoming the de facto standard--neither the Hyundai Sonata mid-size sedan nor the 2013 Ford Escape compact crossover will offer a V-6--and V-8s being relegated to trucks and low-production sports cars like the Camaro and Mustang.

Even pickup trucks now come increasingly with V-6 engines. Just four months after Ford offered a 3.5-liter Ecoboost direct-injected and turbocharged V-6 in its F-Series pickups, that engine was racking up one-third of all F-Series sales.

A year after its launch, more Ford F-Series trucks are now sold with V-6s than with V-8s--which hasn't happened since 1985. As of yesterday, Ford said it had sold more than 100,000 EcoBoost direct-injected and turbocharged V-6 engines in F-Series pickups during 2011.

2011 Ford F-150 EcoBoost rear view - Drive Tour 2011

2011 Ford F-150 EcoBoost rear view - Drive Tour 2011

Surprise, surprise: Good small cars actually sell

Since the 1970s, it had been an article of faith in Detroit that "small cars" had to be cheap "econoboxes" without too many features--because real American car buyers wanted mid-size or full-size sedans, crossovers, and pickup trucks.

Only weird coastal buyers and the truly poor actually wanted or, even worse, needed small cars.

Which is how Volkswagen in the Sixties, then Toyota, Honda, and Nissan in the Seventies and Eighties, and Hyundai in the Nineties, collectively thrashed GM, Ford, and Chrysler, and essentially swallowed the entire market for compact and subcompact cars.

It's taken 40 years, but now--finally--domestic makers offer truly competitive compacts (Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze) and subcompacts (Ford Fiesta, 2012 Chevrolet Sonic). And, guess what? They're selling, and selling well.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco, New York City, March 2011

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco, New York City, March 2011

The Chevy Cruze compact, in fact, is the best-selling sedan GM makes. Its sales figures are roughly three times that of its unloved Chevy Cobalt predecessor. Why? Because it's stylish inside, handsome on the exterior, comfortable and very quiet to ride in gets decent gas mileage--and can be ordered with lots of luxury features.

Ditto the compact Ford Focus. And the same applies to the subcompact Ford Fiesta and Chevy Sonic, and may prove to be the case for the crucially important new 2013 Dodge Dart compact that will replace the aged and uncompetitive Dodge Caliber.

So forget 350 V-8s; the new magic numbers are 40 mpg highway from 1.4 liters of engine in those new compacts.

There's been some bracket creep, mind you. The "subcompact" Chevy Sonic is the size of a "compact" Honda Civic from 15 years ago. That reflects the space devoted to vastly superior crash-safety design, and the weight of all those new features, power accessories, in-dash displays, and so forth. This ain't your father's subcompact.

Ford Focus ST, launched at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show

Ford Focus ST, launched at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show

But even minicars, represented for an entire decade solely by the Mini Cooper, are landing in the U.S. The 2012 Fiat 500 gets positive reviews, the Scion iQ is about to arrive, and next year even all-American Chevrolet will import its 2013 Spark minicar.

They wouldn't do it, folks, if they didn't think they could sell some.

Real electric cars from major automakers go on sale--for real

The bulk of U.S. car buyers are only dimly aware, if at all, that you can now buy electric cars that plug into the electric grid to recharge the battery packs that power them.

But early adopters and the environmentally aware have snapped up the limited supplies of Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt plug-ins, supplemented by two new end-of-year-entries: the Fisker Karma and Mitsubishi 'i'.

All in all, roughly 17,000 cars with plugs will have been sold once 2011 sales wrap up 10 days hence. That's about triple the number sold over several years of California's first attempt to require zero-emission vehicles, in the late 1990s and early part of this decade.

And it's an indication that, finally, global automakers are taking plug-in cars seriously.

2012 Mitsubishi i - First Drive, U.S.-spec MiEV

2012 Mitsubishi i - First Drive, U.S.-spec MiEV

It's due to both the maturation of lithium-ion cell technology and the prospect of further regulations in Europe, Asia, and North America that require lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency.

It'll be a slow, slow rollout. Even by 2020, most analysts think that only about 1 percent of total production--which is to say, perhaps 1 million of the 100 million vehicles the global industry will make--will have plugs. Up to 25 percent may have some form of hybrid system.

But, this time it's real. And barring the prospect of radical rollbacks in regulations across the globe--combined with $2-per-gallon gasoline into eternity--this time we're not going back.

Startup automakers face tough, tough sledding

Around here, we get asked about Tesla's chances a lot. We usually respond by pointing out that the last automaker founded in the U.S. from scratch by entrepreneurs that's still with us today is Chrysler ... and that happened in 1924.

In other words, starting a carmaker is really, really, really hard. And expensive. And time-consuming.

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