Big vehicles dominate auto industry despite rising fuel-efficiency standards

No sign of economic strife mars the dazzling floors of the North American International Auto Show, where Vice President Joe Biden is expected to lead a contingent of Obama administration officials Wednesday and Thursday in what amounts to a victory lap.

The U.S. automobile industry was on the brink of collapse before the administration invested $80 billion to prop it up in the face of widespread opposition. Now the vast majority of bailout money has been recouped and car companies are thriving.

But if Washington saved the domestic auto business, it has yet to transform it into the small-car-producing, super-fuel-efficient industry President Barack Obama and other officials frequently described during the height of the crisis.

As vehicle sales have risen sharply in the past four years, so, too, has consumer desire for bigger, better-performing cars. A combination of tightening government fuel standards and engineering breakthroughs has made it possible for new cars to achieve the best gas mileage in history. But many buyers are turning their backs on the most efficient models and technologies.

Sales of hybrids, though steadily improving, remain low. Dealers are struggling to move plug-in electric vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, despite generous incentives and a $7,500-per-vehicle federal tax credit. Administration officials have acknowledged that Obama’s goal, laid out in his 2011 State of the Union address, of having 1 million electric cars on the nation’s roads by 2015 was wildly optimistic.

Automakers, including Detroit’s Big Three — Ford, General Motors and Chrysler — had a banner year in 2013, with sales up nearly 8 percent to 15.6 million, close to pre-recession levels. Sales are projected to be even better in 2014.

But contrary to the vision of the auto industry administration officials conveyed during the bailout, the biggest gainers last year were some of the biggest vehicles: SUVs, luxury cars, pickup trucks and crossovers, according to Kelley Blue Book, which compiles copious data on the auto industry.

Overall, cars are a bit heavier and their average horsepower has increased 4 percent since 2007, which analysts said reflects Americans’ hunger for vehicles that satisfy the soul as well as the mind.

“Americans are Americans,” said Stephen Lind, Kelley Blue Book’s vice president of operations. “They love big trucks and they love their cars.”

Americans’ continued love affair with larger cars is continuing despite tightening fuel efficiency standards. Last year, new cars averaged 24.6 miles per gallon — a figure that will have to increase every year before topping out at a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 to comply with federal fuel-economy regulations.

The implication would seem to be that cars are going to have to get much smaller and that many more consumers would be all but forced to buy electric or hybrid vehicles. But the fuel efficiency standards are not that straightforward, and that reality might come later than some think.

Rather than guaranteeing a particular level of fuel economy, the standards instead peg gas efficiency targets to a vehicle’s size. That leaves larger cars and auto companies that sell more big cars with lower mileage targets.

Some researchers have argued that the policy has created an unintended incentive for automakers to increase the average size of their vehicles.

But automakers can sell only what consumers will buy. And bigger, more-luxurious and more-powerful cars are more than holding their own.

“The big question is what will consumers do?” said Katie Whitefoot, a senior program officer at the National Academy of Engineering who co-authored a study on the unintended impact of the fuel efficiency standards while she was at the University of Michigan.

The glittering display of new cars filling the main exhibition hall at the Cobo Center here includes a fair share of ultra-high-mileage vehicles. There are small electric cars, vehicles with lightweight carbon-fiber bodies, hybrid sedans that get 50 miles a gallon and even an extended-range electric pickup truck by Via Motors powered in part by solar panels embedded in its cargo bed cover.

But the emphasis this year has been on performance and luxury.

At the start of the media preview for the show Monday, a line of Corvettes roared up to the front of the exhibition halls, turning heads all the way. The display of power heralded the unveiling of Chevrolet’s Corvette Z06, which has a 625-horsepower engine and can hit 200 mph.

“That is an insane level of performance,” said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

German automaker BMW debuted three cars, including an M3 sedan that puts out 425 horsepower and can go from zero to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds.

The new BMWs and the 2015 Corvette might be only for a select few, but they are being introduced one year after sales of luxury sports cars grew by 28 percent.

Recently, car buyers have been indulging their need for speed and luxury without too much pain because of relatively stable gasoline prices, projected to continue in 2014.

There also has been a wider deployment of smarter and more-efficient engine and transmission systems that save gasoline and ramp up performance, offering more power and better gas mileage.

Still, some analysts say the future of the auto industry remains lighter vehicles and super-efficient engines, whether they are powered by gasoline, electricity or something else. But the question remains: When will that future arrive?

“So far we have had evolutionary change,” said Andrew Smart, a director with the Society of Automotive Engineers, adding that soon fuel requirements will require “revolutionary change.”