NEW YORK – Fuel economy matters to many vehicle owners, ranging from those on a budget to big spenders who want expensive cars but not high gasoline costs.

Such are the shared desires of today’s diverse car buyers at a time when fuel prices are topping $4 a gallon nationwide, say auto executives at a conference tied to the New York International Auto Show here.

“Focus on fuel economy has really grown,” says Ludwig Willisch, BMW of America’s president and CEO. Referring to his luxury brand’s marketing moniker, he adds: “People who want the ultimate driving machine want them to be fuel-efficient.”

Other auto executives at the National Automobile Dealers Assn./IHS Automotive Forum touted their companies’ advancements in fuel-efficient engines.

Ford bet on its EcoBoost turbocharging system and ended up winning big, says Jim Farley, Ford group vice president-global marketing, sales and service.

“None of us ever thought we’d sell 60% of F-Series (fullsize-pickup trucks) with EcoBoost V-6 engines,” he says. “Consumers are doing the math when it comes to fuel economy. Ford is embracing fuel efficiency.”

The new Ford Edge cross/utility vehicle will include EcoBoost, a stop/start system and a refined transmission to get the most from a relatively small engine, Farley says.

Toyota also wagered when it introduced hybrid-electric technology, says Jim Lentz, president and CEO of the auto maker’s U.S. sales unit. “We made a bet on hybrids 20 years ago when gas was $1 a gallon.”

Volkswagen touts its diesel offerings as the preferred way to get the most out of an engine while putting the least amount of fuel in the tank.

“Doing the math on fuel economy is one thing. But when a VW Passat with a diesel engine can travel 800 miles (1,287 km) on a tank of gas, that becomes a matter of convenience, too,” says Jonathan Browning, who heads VW of America.

Chrysler has made great strides in fuel economy, says Reid Bigland, head of the Dodge brand. “In 2009, we had no vehicles in our lineup that had fuel economy of 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) or better. Now we have seven.”

Next year, Chrysler will offer a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a 3.1L diesel engine, he says.

Yet, today’s customer interest in fuel efficiency doesn’t mean everyone wants a little fuel-sipper, Bigland says, noting the Dodge Challenger muscle car with a V-8 engine recently saw its best sales month ever. “So there still is a market for a car like that.”

Says Lentz: “The days of brute horsepower and force are changing,” with more customers wanting exciting vehicles capable of quick acceleration but not requiring massive fuel consumption to do so. “What fun-to-drive means today to customers is different than years ago.” Some auto executives question whether electric vehicles will catch on in the U.S.

“There will be a role for electrification,” Bigland says. “The big question is whether EVs and hybrids will become mainstream and move beyond 2%, 3% or 4% of the market.

“In the meantime, internal-combustion engines are getting more advanced, with more efficiencies being wrung out of them.”  

sfinlay@wardsauto.com