- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

The No Fun League. That is sometimes the knock on the NFL, which seems to create punitive penalties for seemingly every expression of passion and exuberance.

It appears as though the “No Fun League” mentality could hit the auto industry, as manufacturers try to skirt bankruptcy with the most conservative, responsible transportation modules imaginable. The federal government is poised to pile on, with the expectation of future corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirements as high as 43 miles per gallon.

The evidence is piling up. Consider Honda’s announcement to discontinue the S2000 sports car and that it dropped plans for a new NSX supercar. Car guy General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz threw in the towel, announcing his retirement. He attributed the decision a “regulation-driving product future,” according to a Wall Street Journal interview.

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At the Chicago Auto Show, Hyundai Motor America President and CEO John Crafcik gave a speech in which he said a revolution was under way that would see environmental and safety concerns become paramount for the industry.

“It is abundantly clear that improved fuel economy makes sense for our industry and for our country,” Mr. Crafcik said.

In the past, this has been a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for an end-zone touchdown dance, because clean, green, safe cars - virtuous as they are - have been decidedly short on fun.

But the good news is that thanks to advances in technology, and maybe because of some more imaginative thinking, fun cars can also embrace social responsibility. Tomorrow’s fun cars won’t have a four-barrel Holley carburetor and the lumpy, high-polluting idle of a V-8 engine with a racing camshaft of yesterday’s performance cars, but they will be fast.

Enthusiasts took a step in this direction when the Honda Civic became the performance car of choice for a new generation of drivers, starting in the 1990s. Today, no one questions that a four-cylinder, front-drive economy car can slay even mighty big-block muscle cars in straight-line acceleration, so consumer perceptions of performance have already been shifting.

“It will be possible to have fun and get good gas mileage,” assured Stephanie Brinley, senior manager of product analysis at AutoPacific Inc. “What we are seeing is concern about the current economic environment. It will get better and people will want to have fun again.”

That’s why Chevrolet sells the Cobalt SS, which is propelled by a 260-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that scores a frugal 30 mpg in highway driving on the EPA’s test.

And despite Mr. Crafcik’s sober-sounding message, Hyundai is poised to deliver efficient fun, in the form of the rear-drive Genesis coupe, which features a 210-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder that also returns 30 mpg highway. And there will even be a stripped-down, performance-tweaked “R” version of the car, for those drivers who like to take their efficient commuter car to the racetrack on weekends.

Although it is not as quick as the Cobalt, which tears from 0 mpg to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI’s 140-horsepower turbodiesel engine still propels the car to 60 in 8.5 seconds, while returning 41 mpg in EPA highway driving. That score brings the Jetta TDI close to the mileage needed to meet the highest levels of fuel efficiency the government might require. Meanwhile, the car serves as the foundation of the race cars used in the TDI Cup racing series, a program Volkswagen launched to demonstrate the viability of diesel power in sporty, fun cars.

Eventually, we may move beyond internal combustion, using electric motors to propel our cars. Whether those cars are energized by batteries, fuel cells or some other means, electric motors will spin their wheels. Today, the Tesla Roadster is in very limited production, but that battery-powered two-seater, which is derived from a Lotus sports car, demonstrates what is possible.

Chrysler LLC apparently agrees with this approach, having also chosen to work with Lotus to provide the foundation of a sports car using its own electric drivetrain. A brief drive in that car verified the company’s claims of spirited acceleration (5-second 0-60 mph), and once under way the road and wind noise mask the absence of engine noise, so the drive seems fairly conventional.

So long as there are cars that are quick and that can put smiles on the faces of enthusiast drivers, the greening of the auto industry can be viewed as a positive thing, so car nuts and environmentalists will both be able to do a touchdown dance without fear of penalty.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009

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