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More new cars get 40 mpg, but 'cheap' gas keeps buyers away


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More new cars get 40 mpg, but 'cheap' gas keeps buyers away

By Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY


Automakers are offering more conventional cars that cross the 40-miles-per-gallon threshold in highway driving, but relatively low gas prices continue to hold off buyers.

In past years, few models were able to get a 40-mpg rating without using more expensive hybrid or diesel technology. Now automakers are starting to show they can hit that mark with improved conventional gasoline powertrains for a smaller price premium — or none.

New models are arriving as automakers rush to try to meet more stringent gas mileage standards by 2016. Hyundai, for instance, expects to have four 40-mpg highway models by next year, starting with its new Elantra compact.

But getting buyers to sweep them off the lots hasn't been easy. Gas prices averaged $2.968 a gallon nationally on Wednesday for regular, AAA reports. While that's up 33 cents a gallon from a year ago, it's still short of the $3-a-gallon threshhold.

"When gas is cheap, no one is going to be rushing out to buy a small car," says Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer for Consumer Reports.

But automakers are keenly aware of how many were caught short in 2008 when gas prices shot up to a $4.14 per gallon peak in July, so they are adding 40-mpg cars as a hedge.

"We found that 40 (mpg) is the new 30. Everyone wants great fuel mileage," Chevrolet spokeswoman Lesley Hettinger says. This month, Chevy will start selling a modified Eco version of its new Cruze compact ($1,900 extra) rated at 42 mpg on the highway, 28 in city driving. "We feel it's important," Hettinger says.

Likewise, Ford has a $695 SFE ("super fuel economy") package that gives the SE model of the Fiesta subcompact sedan a rating of 40 mpg on the highway, 29 in the city. Even though Fiesta sales have been modest so far —18,061 through November — the SFE version was worth making because "There is a group of customers out there who want to get the highest fuel economy possible," says Ford spokeswoman Angie Kozleski.

She says the next regular version of the compact Focus, due this spring, will get 40 mpg on the highway.

Hyundai was able to get to a 40-mpg highway rating on all versions of its redesigned 2011 Elantracompact sedan with engine changes, new six-speed transmissions and a weight trim of 62 pounds vs. the outgoing model. CEO John Krafcik says that with a few more modifications, Elantra could achieve a 50-mpg rating.



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