Auto Outlook: Honda Civic freshened, EPA keeps corn ethanol mandate

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  Nov. 25, 2012 at 5:30 AM
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Honda has taken the bull by the horns after lukewarm reviews of its Honda Civic last year and gone back to the drawing board for a redesign.

It's rare for an automaker to remake a bread-and-butter model just a year after the current generation model hits the road, let alone admit it could have done better. The irony is the 2012 Civic has sold well, posting a 39 percent gain from January-October from the same period a year ago, outselling the hot-selling Hyundai Elantra and the Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus.

Consumer Reports failed to recommend the 2012 Civic citing its lower quality interior, choppy ride, long stopping distances and high road noise. Critics said the compact looked dated and had lost the motoring spirit of earlier Civics.

"Our customers frankly had higher expectations of us," John Mendel, American Honda's executive vice president, said of the ninth-generation Civic.

The 2013 Civic has a new domed hood, a more aggressive bumper and sporty mesh grill, polished alloy bent spoke wheel covers, chrome accents and clear tail lights integrated into the trunk lid.

"It appears they heard the criticism about the current model being too 'safe' in styling. The new one will be competitive in what is now a very crowded segment," TrueCar Inc. analyst Jesse Toprak told the Los Angeles Times.

The public will get a chance to judge whether the 2013 Civic addresses the criticisms when the car is introduced at the Los Angeles Auto Show Thursday.

"We underestimated the level of competition. We greatly underestimated the expectations of customers," Mendel said.

Honda said the new Civic would improve safety, comfort and chassis components but made no announcement of engine or transmission updates. The freshened Civic is one of 49 new vehicles scheduled to debut in LA, including General Motors' all-electric Chevrolet Spark EV and the all-electric Fiat 500e from Chrysler.

Germany's Audi will show four new diesel models that share a 3-litre turbocharged V-6 and Jaguar, owned by India's Tata Motors Ltd., is showing its exclusive 2014 XFR-S high-performance sedan, which may feature a variant of a 550-horsepower supercharged V-8 capable of storming from 0 to 60 mph in less than 4.2 seconds.

EPA: Corn-ethanol mandate stands

This year's corn crop may have been reduced by the summer drought, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the damage wasn't enough to lift the mandate for ethanol in gasoline.

U.S. grain farmers support keeping the requirement for use of corn-based ethanol in motor fuel, but poultry and livestock producers wanted the mandate relaxed so prices for animal feed, and ultimately supermarket prices, would fall. The Detroit News said the ethanol issue is likely to end up in Congress next year.

Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, New Mexico, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Utah and Wyoming had requested a waiver from corn-ethanol requirements.

"We recognize that this year's drought has created hardship in some sectors of the economy, particularly for livestock producers," said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Air and Radiation. "But our extensive analysis makes it clear that congressional requirements for a waiver have not been met and that waiving the RFS [Renewable Fuel Standard] will have little, if any, impact."

In 2007, the federal government required use of 5 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol in fuels. This year the standard requires use of 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol in fuels which would take about half of the drought-shrunken corn crop to produce.

The 2012 corn harvest could be as much as 1 billion bushels smaller than in 2011.

"If the worst U.S. drought in more than 50 years and skyrocketing food prices are not enough to make EPA act, it falls to Congress to provide relief from our senseless federal support for corn ethanol," Friends of the Earth biofuels policy campaigner Michal Rosenoer said. "Congress needs to cut corn ethanol from the RFS entirely to protect the economy and the environment from this destructive and dirty fuel."

The EPA has approved use of a fuel called E-15 which is 15 percent ethanol despite opposition from carmakers who warn the higher blend of ethanol could harm the engines of vehicles made before 2012.

Good things in small packages?

Ford Motor has introduced a 3-cylinder EcoBoost engine whose block can fit in your carry-on luggage.

A 1.0-liter version of the tiny turbocharged powerplant debuted in European versions of the Ford Focus in March and will be available in the 2014 Ford Fiesta in the United States.

The 1.0-liter engine kicks out 123-horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, which should give the subcompact a hybrid-like 40-plus mpg on the highway. The EcoBoost engine is a $995 option in most Ford vehicles.

"Our customers would like the fuel efficiency of a modern diesel or a hybrid, but can't stretch their budgets to cover the cost premium," Joe Bakaj, vice president of Ford's Powertrain Engineering, said in a statement. "That's where the EcoBoost Fiesta fits in. It will offer a highly fuel-efficient alternative at a lower cost."

Bakaj said most drivers won't even think about the number of cylinders under the hood when they drive an EcoBoost Fiesta.

Only one 3-cylinder car is currently sold in the United States.

The two-seater Smart ForTwo, with a 70-horsepower, 1.0-liter engine, gets 39 mpg in highway driving.

GE buying 2,000 Ford C-MAX Energi hybrids

General Electric last week announced it would purchase 2,000 Ford C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrids as part of its effort to convert half of its global fleet to green vehicles.

With a 108MPGe [miles per gallon equivalent] rating , the C-MAX Energi is the most fuel-efficient vehicle sold in the United States and can go 620 miles on a single charge and tank of gasoline.

The C-MAX Energi is rated at 47 mpg in both city and highway driving. Depending on how hard the car is driven, it can go 21 miles on a full battery charge before its gasoline engine kicks on compared to six continuous miles on electricity for the plug-in Toyota Prius in EPA testing.

The C-MAX Energi can reach 82 mph on electricity alone.

"Ford is launching six new electrified vehicles -- a big bet that fuel prices will continue rising and lead to more demand for advanced fuel-efficient vehicles," said Ken Czubay, Ford vice president U.S. Marketing, Sales and Service. "We are pleased to partner with GE, a company that is charting a similar course, to promote advanced technology and energy savings."

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are collaborating with Ford and GE to study the driving and charging habits of employees with data from the MyFord Mobile app.

"Understanding driving and charging habits is key to advancing vehicle and charging infrastructure," said Georgia Tech professor Bert Bras in a release. "Through access to vehicle data, we can accelerate research and development of new technologies to further improve efficiency, driver satisfaction and environmental benefits."

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