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Innovation

In push for more efficient fleets, sports cars could become a luxury

Muscle cars, high-performance sports cars, luxury cruisers -- they're all endangered species in the face of new U.S. regulations for fuel efficiency.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

Remember the muscle car era?

An age of big, American-made vehicles that were relatively inexpensive to purchase, easy to tinker with and offered oodles of axle-twisting performance at the expense of lots of cheap gasoline.

Those days are gone, of course -- but as new fuel-economy and emissions regulations fall into place, the modern sports car may become an endangered species.

The Obama administration's new standards -- officially adopted April 1 -- require automakers to have a fleet average of 35.5 miles per gallon by the 2016. That's a big, but long overdue, increase from the 2009 model year's 26.4 miles per gallon.

But a side effect of this antidote to our environmental and economical problems may be that automakers have a lot less business incentive to build gas-hogging sports cars, even if some consumers want them.

The Wall Street Journal explains the problem well:

Consider the Aston Martin. It may bring images of James Bond hurtling around a twisting mountain road, or a 470-horsepower, V-12-powered sports car that starts at about $200,000. But not a pint-sized commuter car derived from a European Toyota model.

The idea of an Aston Martin "luxury commuter car" sounds like a double oxymoron. But it's not a joke. Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd. has been showing a concept car called the Cygnet, derived from the Toyota iQ. The company says the car could be sold, initially in Europe, as a way to zip around congested city centers.

To be sure, few drivers have the luxury of owning a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche. But the new fuel-economy standards make sports cars an even greater liability -- meaning either sports cars get more fuel efficient, or companies that specialize in making such vehicles must balance them out with extremely fuel-efficient subcompacts.

Ferrari Piccolo? Perhaps. (Or the Aston Martin Cygnet, pictured above.)

But what's more likely is a company like Ferrari cutting a business deal with a more pedestrian brand -- think Chrysler or a similar firm -- to balance out the efficiency scale. Each company gains access to parts from the other, and in the eyes of the government, the Fiat 500 cancels out the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti.

In the meantime, carmakers will quickly develop more efficient hybrid-electric engines for the middle of their lineups.

There is one loophole, however. Very small brands (fewer than 5,000 cars sold per year) receive their own rules to follow. Those are expected within 18 months.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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