Market Trends

Market Trends – Model Year 2020

The light-duty vehicle market started to cool in 2019, with total sales down from 2018, but still topping 17 million for the fifth year in a row. Some automakers, including Ford and GM, are making good on their promise to cut car models from their lineups to focus on crossovers, SUVs, and pickups. The crossover and pickup segments combined accounted for nearly 60% of total sales. Automakers including Honda, Subaru, and Hyundai-Kia have increased their overall market shares at the expense of behemoths like Ford, Toyota, and GM.

Advanced and emerging technologies like electrification and automation promise massive shifts in the future of mobility, presenting challenges for an industry already facing trade wars, labor disputes, regulatory uncertainty, and increased competition from emerging automakers. However the industry continues to push forward with innovative technology, making highly efficient options in every segment that can meet consumer needs, save money at the pump, and reduce environmental impact.

Internal Combustion Engines

Despite the clear signals that most automakers are developing mass-market electric vehicles, nearly 97% of cars and trucks sold in 2019 were still equipped with a gasoline or diesel engine. Revolutionary design and technology have brought continual improvements to the efficiency of gasoline engines, solidifying their dominance in the market for years to come. Smaller turbocharged engines continue to be favored by designers over larger, naturally aspirated engines, even in larger vehicles like full-size pickups. Compared to the engines they replace, smaller turbocharged engines improve efficiency, reduce vehicle weight, and increase power.

Engine efficiency, or thermal efficiency, is a measure of how much energy stored in gasoline an engine can convert to usable energy for moving the vehicle down the road. Nearly all modern engines use a variety of design elements to improve their efficiency. But some automakers have doubled down on these improvements as they move toward thermal efficiencies above 40%, previously thought to be impossible or too costly in a gasoline engine. In addition to downsized turbocharged engines, automakers are turning to state-of-the-art engine designs and technologies to reduce fuel consumption. Car buyers looking for high fuel economy without the price tag of a hybrid have an array of options, such as the Honda Civic, which gets an overall 36 miles per gallon. But no matter what type or size of vehicle you wish to buy, you can find a model with advanced efficiency and performance technology.

Variable Compression Ratio

For model year 2019, Nissan released an innovative 2.0-liter four-cylinder variable-compression-ratio gasoline engine in its Infinity QX50. For model year 2020, Nissan will bring this engine to the less-expensive Altima. The engine operates with a compression ratio ranging from 8.0:1 to 14.0:1, bringing a 27% fuel economy improvement over the V6 that it replaced.

An engine’s compression ratio is the ratio of the volume of the combustion chamber when the piston is at the bottom of the cylinder to the smaller volume when the piston is at the top of the cylinder. A high compression ratio can increase efficiency or power, or both. Unfortunately, gasoline engines with high compression ratios are subject to detonation (or “knocking”) under certain driving conditions, in which the compressed fuel-air mixture ignites spontaneously before the spark plug fires.

The ability to change the compression ratio provides two benefits. It allows the engine to save fuel by operating with a more efficient high compression ratio under certain driving conditions when it’s safe to do so. It also allows the engine to operate with a much lower ratio under other driving conditions, such as acceleration, when more power is required.

48-Volt Mild Hybrid Continues Its Surge to Market

Mild hybrid systems operate much like traditional hybrids, where a motor-generator recovers some energy during braking, which is then stored in a battery that can be used to help move the vehicle at a later time. This can provide major efficiency improvements, as it allows the gasoline engine to do less work under certain conditions where engines are inherently less efficient, like accelerating from a stop. It can also improve fuel economy by encouraging greater use of automatic stop-start systems, a technology that saves fuel by turning the engine off when the vehicle is at a stop. A typical 48-volt starter-generator can provide seamless engine restarts and may even provide power to the wheels before the engine.

Mild hybrids typically operate at a much lower voltage than traditional hybrids, using smaller batteries and less-powerful motor-generators. While a mild hybrid can’t provide the same efficiency boost as a traditional hybrid, mild hybrids can provide up to 70% of the efficiency benefits of traditional hybrids at 30% of the cost. This is why automakers are turning to these affordable systems for a wide variety of vehicles.

In late 2018, the first widely available powertrains featuring a 48-volt mild hybrid system hit the market in offerings from Jeep, RAM, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi. New for model year 2020, Land Rover entered the fray with a mild hybrid inline-six-cylinder engine, and the redesigned Mercedes-Benz GLS SUV – the largest of the automaker’s offerings – gets a boost from a 48-volt mild hybrid system. Audi nearly triples the number of models available with mild hybrid drivetrains, continuing efforts to make high-performance vehicles more efficient. While mild hybrid models are limited thus far, the most affordable include the 2.0-liter four-cylinder Jeep Wrangler, and the 3.6-liter six-cylinder RAM 1500 pickup. We expect to see more in the future.  

Automation Technology

Automation technologies continue to penetrate the vehicle market, and we continue to track their progress and their possible impacts on energy efficiency and emissions. Though no production vehicle today is capable of fully autonomous driving, the industry is quickly adopting available technologies to improve road safety. Even the thriftiest of vehicles now offer some level of semi-autonomous driving, such as adaptive cruise control, but it will be many years before a truly self-driving vehicle hits the road. The gradual maturation of today’s technologies will provide the essential building blocks for future self-driving vehicles.

Automated vehicle technology is usually deployed to make cars safer, capable of preventing or reducing the severity of crashes. A side benefit of preventing crashes is reducing traffic jams, saving fuel and reducing emissions where engines would otherwise sit idling. A variety of connected and automated systems also promise to save energy directly, by accelerating and driving more smoothly, finding fuel-saving routes, and even adjusting engine and transmission operation to deal with upcoming terrain. All major manufacturers are moving forward with incorporating some level of automation, and ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft have already started offering autonomous services in limited markets, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Automated technologies offer many advantages. However the environmental and energy implications remain to be seen. From a technology standpoint alone, two to four kilowatts of electricity are required to process a large amount of data and power the array of sensors. For a typical gasoline vehicle, powering this technology could decrease fuel economy by 3–6%. In the case of autonomous battery electric vehicles, these systems would be powered by the same battery that provides power to move the car down the road. This would reduce an EV’s driving range – losing about 10 miles of range for each hour on the road, thus adding time spent at a charger. While technology manufacturers will undoubtedly find ways to decrease energy requirements of automation, automated technology and especially autonomous vehicles could increase vehicle emissions and energy use. Self-driving vehicles could make commuting by car more attractive, resulting in more people favoring cars over more-efficient public transportation or increasing the number or length of trips. Therefore policy has a major role to play in determining the sustainability impacts of these developments.

Greener Choices for everyone

When it comes to buying a new vehicle, the most environmentally friendly step is simple: first evaluate your needs and your budget, then look for suitable models with the highest green scores. Even though our top 2020 ratings go to vehicles with some form of electrification, all vehicle classes feature nationally available gasoline-powered vehicles that score significantly better than average.

Our Greener Choices table highlights top-scoring vehicles available to everyone in almost all major market segments. The list includes only automatics. While in the past manual transmission versions of vehicles on the Greener Choices list often had higher fuel economy, this is less common today, thanks to advances in continuously variable (CVT) and automatic transmissions. The good news: you can find cleaner and more-efficient vehicles throughout the market. The database lists hundreds of vehicles beyond those listed in this table.

Buying green does more than fulfill your own personal commitment to reduce pollution and protect the environment. It sends a signal to manufacturers. As more consumers buy green, automakers will increasingly view environmentally friendly design as an opportunity rather than an obligation. They will be motivated to invest more in improved technology, leading to more green vehicles in the years ahead.

Keep in mind that the average car or light truck runs for more than 15 years – or more – thanks to increasing vehicle durability. Even if you don’t keep your new vehicle for more than a few of those years, the choice you make now will expand the options available to used car buyers in the future. So instead of putting another gas guzzler on the streets, the greener choice you make today can help cut pollution for years to come.