Powerful Efficiency

When all is said and done, efficiency is the future. Even if gas prices stay low, new fuel economy standards are going to force the issue, whether buyers want it or not.

The domestic automakers may be playing catch-up on this front, but are already making great strides. The Ford Fusion Hybrid will deliver 41 mpg when it hits showrooms this spring, and by the end of the year General Motors is expected to have around 10 different hybrids on the road. Unfortunately, the technology that goes into building them is still expensive, so while the vehicles are good for public relations, it will be years before they start putting any coin into the company coffers. Besides, they're all still kind of wimpy.

Enter direct injection, which is an effective way of getting fuel into engines that not only makes them more fuel efficient, but also more powerful, and it costs a lot less than a hybrid to produce.

General Motors is already using the technology in vehicles like the Cadillac CTS and the Buick Enclave, and the new Chevy Equinox small SUV should get a class-leading 30 mpg highway rating when it goes on sale later this year. Ford's EcoBoost line of motors takes things a step further by adding a turbocharger, promising V-8 power with V-6 gas mileage when it debuts this summer in the Lincoln MKS.

So the kinds of large vehicles that Americans generally want to buy may not get forced out by small cars that they have to buy, at least not yet.

Detroit — and Washington — are banking on it.