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Better Mileage or Fewer Features?

2008 Ford Expedition
Source:
2008 Ford Expedition

I hear it everyday. "Why can't we get cars, trucks and SUVs that give us 30 miles per gallon of gas?"

My answer is usually along the lines of, "Yes, the automakers can do that, but there's a trade-off. You want a big SUV to haul people and stuff, then you have to accept lower fuel economy."

This is the conundrum automakers face as they try to increase fuel economy. It's not as simple as building a better engine. It's also about figuring out a way to build lighter models. THAT is easier said than done.

When I talked with Ford CEO Alan Mulally at the Los Angeles Auto Show, we discussed Ford's new sustainability plan. One of the key points is dropping the weight of the company's models by 250-750 pounds. It won't happen overnight. As much as automakers, like Ford, want to build lighter vehicles, they are being pressured on several fronts to add more, and that content means adding weight.

First, there is the safety push. From multiple airbags, to vehicle structures designed to better protect passengers in crashes, the automakers are constantly weighing how to provide the most safety, while also building the lightest vehicle possible.

Yes, the car companies are using less steel, and more lightweight aluminum in the frame of the cars, but there's only so far they can go. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that there is no doubt the weight of cars has increased because of the use of things like higher strength steel.

The good news is growing potential of carbon fiber composites. The jury is still out on how those composites would hold up in crash tests, but the potential is intriguing.

Second, we want more electronic gadgets and features built into our cars and trucks. We want multiple screen video systems. We want navigation devices. We want tow packages on our SUVs. Folks, the more we put into our vehicles, the greater the weight.

Finally, the size of our cars, trucks and SUVs continues to increase and that means heavier models.

All of this is my way of saying, before you complain about not having greater fuel efficiency, remember what you want to drive. If you simply want an electric cart like those driven in gated communities, the automakers can give it to you. But if you want that big SUV that carries seven people, it will be tough to get great fuel economy.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

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