Chrysler and GM are introducing engine technology that will conserve more gasoline than hybrids over the next few years. Have you heard of it? Probably not.
That's because the media have chosen to all but ignore it, even though it's far more practical than expensive hybrid technology, which adds $3,000 to $4,000 to a vehicle's cost and whose real-world fuel savings are overrated.
Meanwhile, this alternative technology costs about $100 per engine and promises to improve fuel economy 6% to 20% on America's thirstiest vehicles.
But it isn't just for hicks with Hemis. Honda will offer it for the Accord in the fall — after Chrysler and GM.
What is this new technology? Chrysler, introducing it this spring on its big rear-drive 300C and Dodge Magnum RT cars, calls it a “multi-displacement system.” GM, introducing it in late summer, calls it “Displacement on Demand.” Both systems are almost identical and minimize fuel consumption by temporarily preventing combustion in selected cylinders (see story, p. 16).
A typical sedan now has 150 hp to more than 300 hp, yet it requires as little as 30 hp to keep it cruising on the freeway at a steady 65 mph (105 km/h). Unless a vehicle is accelerating, cylinder deactivation electronically shuts off fuel to half of an engine's cylinders during low-load periods, such as freeway cruising.
GM says its DOD will improve fuel economy by 6% to 8%. Chrysler says cylinder deactivation will improve fuel economy of its Hemi V-8 10% to 20%.
Because this technology is being applied in vehicles that need it most — high-volume cars and trucks with cruddy mileage — the total gallons of fuel saved, at least in the next several years, promise to be far more than what will be delivered by low-volume hybrids such as the Toyota Prius.
Despite alleged national concerns over oil consumption, Ward's data show big V-8 engines remain extremely popular with consumers: Installation rates hit an 18-year high in the 2003 model year, thanks to popular engines such as the Hemi.
Of course, some skepticism is healthy. GM and Chrysler insist the technology has been thoroughly tested and will perform flawlessly.
But many journalists remember GM making similar assurances in the early 1980s when it first introduced the concept of cylinder deactivation on its now infamous Cadillac V-8-6-4. That engine was a sputtering warranty nightmare that sorely damaged Cadillac's reputation.
Critics at Ford, which has ditched pushrods and converted almost all its engines to more-sophisticated overhead cam layouts that don't accommodate cylinder deactivation as inexpensively, say the technology isn't impressive and only allows GM and Chrysler to perpetuate their old-fashioned engines.
All this is true. Cylinder deactivation isn't sexy and it has a rather sordid history. Plus, making old-fashioned gas guzzlers gulp 10% or even 20% less isn't exactly curing cancer.
But it's progress. Ultimately, it will save lots of gas, and it can be coupled with other fuel-saving technologies in the future for even greater benefits.
Chrysler and GM deserve applause for their efforts, not indifference.