Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – Global auto makers expect Americans will continue to purchase smaller vehicles, as well as smaller engines in larger vehicles, in response to volatile fuel prices.

But some executives, such as Minoru Shinohara from Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., need convincing the downsizing trend is for real.

During a Powertrain Solutions panel discussion at this week’s SAE World Congress here, Shinohara, senior vice president-powertrain, quizzed his colleagues from General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. as to whether U.S. consumers will accept a turbocharged 4-cyl. in place of a less fuel-efficient V-6.

Dan Kapp, Ford’s director-powertrain research and advanced engineering, says “People’s paradigm for performance has been how many cylinders the engine has, the displacement, the horsepower. We’re going to have to challenge that perception in our approach to the market. People are much more open to that.”

Kapp admits within Ford there was apprehension about consumer acceptance of its 3.5L EcoBoost turbocharged V-6 in place of a V-8.

“The best way we’ve overcome that is to put people in the vehicle and drive the technology side by side,” Kapp says. “When the boosted V-6 is running past the V-8, you quickly get past that issue.”

Ford’s launch of its EcoBoost technology is under way. The first vehicle receiving the high-output direct-injection V-6 will be the Lincoln MKS flagship sedan this summer, followed by the Ford Flex cross/utility vehicle, Taurus SHO sport sedan and, eventually, the F-Series pickups.

Kapp says consumers “must be part of the equation” in devising fuel-efficient powertrains for the future. “One of the biggest question marks is what will be the segmentation mix? We see fuel prices probably as the biggest variable.”

Uwe Grebe, executive director-advanced engineering at GM Powertrain, says diesel’s skyrocketing popularity in Europe illustrates how eager car buyers are to embrace smaller engines, but only if they are fun to drive.

In Europe, diesel now constitutes more than 50% of the new-car market, and it’s not just in response to exorbitant fuel prices in the region.

“It’s also the driving experience,” Grebe says of new-generation diesels. “Diesel engines are very important. They are the role model for efficient combustion.”

GM is moving ahead with its Advanced Propulsion Technology Strategy, which aggressively promotes downsized engines and other fuel-saving approaches.

By improving the combustion process and exhaust-gas recirculation technology, Grebe says the industry can achieve efficiency gains of up to 10% over today’s diesels.

Nissan’s Shinohara discusses plans to roll out electric vehicles next year. He says the auto maker is experimenting with an “Eco Pedal” to provide haptic feedback in the accelerator to train motorists to drive for maximum fuel efficiency.

But many technologies unrelated to the powertrain can promote better fuel consumption, he says, referring to CarWings, a navigation system Nissan launched two years ago in Japan to route people to their destination more effectively.

In Japan, the service has led to an 18% improvement in fuel consumption. “We can reduce (carbon-dioxide emissions) impressively by changing driver behavior,” Shinohara says.

Meanwhile, transmission and turbocharger specialist BorgWarner Inc. says suppliers will continue to make meaningful contributions to the industry.

Roger Wood, president and general manager of BorgWarner’s Turbocharger & Emission Systems division, anticipates “rapid growth” in direct-injection gasoline 4-cyl. engines.

He says 60% of DIG engines will have turbochargers in five years, up from 45% this year.

In the diesel sector, Wood says turbocharger production soon will outpace engine volumes, as a growing number of diesel engines are deploying two turbochargers, instead of one.

On the transmission side, Wood says BorgWarner’s well-received dual-clutch technology will continue its rapid ascent globally – to 12% of the market within five years.

“We have commitments to supply dual-clutch modules to 2.5 million transmissions at full-production rate by 2014,” he says.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com