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Drive to efficiency

Automakers aim to blend smaller engines, power

The new Mustang Boss 302 was on display at this year's New England International Auto Show. (John Tlumacki/Globe staff) The new Mustang Boss 302 was on display at this year's New England International Auto Show.
By Clifford Atiyeh
Globe Staff / January 13, 2012
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If carmakers are indeed downsizing and trying to be frugal, you’ll need to go far under the hood to find the evidence.

The hottest cars at this year’s New England International Auto Show, which opened yesterday at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, pack smaller, more fuel-efficient engines without trying to compromise performance or style.

Many automakers, under pressure from tougher federal fuel economy regulations, are doing more with less. In its new 328i, BMW replaced its signature inline-six-cylinder engine with a turbocharged four cylinder; the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu trades a V-6 for a four cylinder that receives additional power from a small electric motor.

John Paul, public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, said the new lineup harkens back to the early days of the auto industry, when customers had more choice in how their cars were powered.

“People have a choice of the powertrain they want in their vehicle,’’ said Paul. “They’re going to have a choice of straight gasoline, electric, hybrid, or plug-in hybrid.’’

By 2013, Ford said that 90 percent of its cars will have high-mileage “EcoBoost’’ engines that claim to marry the power of a larger engine with the reduced fuel consumption of a smaller one. Its 2013 model year Ford Fusion, for example, will be available in five different configurations - three gas-only options and two hybrids.

And an all-electric version of the compact Ford Focus hatchback, designed to compete against the electric Nissan Leaf, goes on sale later this year for about $40,000. Since it is similar to the standard Focus and built at the same Michigan assembly line, Ford said it will be able to quickly respond to market demands.

“It gives us great flexibility, say, if gas prices go up,’’ said Julie D’Annuzio, Ford’s electrified fleet manager.

Now in its 55th year, the New England show was rescheduled to January this year - after not being held at all last year - partially at the request of dealerships hoping to ride a long weekend through the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Despite overlapping two major shows this week - the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas - auto show officials say they’re certain attendance will be up from 2010.

The auto industry has been through wrenching times, with the collapse of several major makers, a worldwide economic slowdown, and most recently, a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan that interrupted auto manufacturing. Sales in the United States topped 12.7 million last year, 10.2 percent more than 2010, according to Ward’s Automotive.

In Massachusetts, sales increased by 8 percent to about 250,000. But Robert O’Koniewski, executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association, said he doesn’t expect a dramatic increase in sales this year.

“I think people are still retrenching their spending. They’re holding back,’’ he said.

Saab, now facing closure, is not at the show; and neither are Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Jaguar, and Land Rover, which all also skipped Detroit, the top show in the United States.

Beyond having small engines, some cars at the show are just plain puny. Fiat introduced a sporty version of its tiny 500, the Abarth, with racing stripes and hip-hugging seats. While there are only 130 dealers nationwide - just two in Massachusetts - the Italian carmaker says the model’s appeal defies its small footprint.

“We’re really going across the board, male, female, low income, high income,’’ said Matt Davis, head of product marketing.

Journalists proved it was possible to cram four adults into the Scion iQ, a new Toyota microcar aimed at Daimler’s Smart ForTwo. The Smart has seen sales plummet since its 2008 introduction, but Toyota hopes to win buyers with a real back seat and advanced safety features like an airbag fixed to the rear window.

Social media and smartphone apps are invading cars of all sizes. The Lexus GS has an iPad-like display that can load addresses from a phone into the car’s navigation system. Services from General Motors and Mercedes-Benz can stream Facebook updates to the cockpit’s main display.

Still, other cars at the Boston show are all about power and price. Mercedes has the brown SLS AMG Roadster - at $230,000 - a loud, brash convertible that has $4,500 worth of trim made of carbon fiber under the hood. Batman fans can enjoy the 217-mile-per-hour Lamborghini Aventador, and Anglophiles can stir themselves over a spread of Bentley and Rolls-Royce models, one of which stickers at $497,000.

The show runs through Monday.

Clifford Atiyeh can be reached at catiyeh@globe.com.

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