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Small cars now deliver same fuel efficiency as big motorcycles

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Frank Augstein/AP/File

(Read caption) Workers build Ford Fiesta's at a Ford factory in Cologne, Germany in 2012. Today, the smaller cars on the auto market now deliver same fuel efficiency as big motorcycles.

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How are fuel-efficient are some of today's smaller cars?

It turns out that they now actually equal the fuel economy of larger motorcycles--which is pretty amazing for a four-seat vehicle weighing more than a ton.

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Especially since the motorcycles returning comparable gas-mileage figures weigh about one-fifth as much.

This interesting factoid came to light in an article in industry trade journal Ward's Auto that considers the landscape of modern plug-in electric cars almost five years after they first hit the market.

The article notes that President Barack Obama's goal of 1 million plug-in vehicles on U.S. roads by the end of this year isn't close to being met, and that electric-car sales have been lower than projected. 

And it notes, correctly, that carmakers have been able to meet more stringent corporate average fuel-economy requirements simply by modifying traditional gasoline powertrains.

From downsized, direct-injected, and turbocharged engines to transmissions with eight, nine, and soon 10 speeds, conventional technology turns out to have a lot of headroom to improve efficiency--without adding expensive electrification.

Author Drew Winter notes that fully one-fifth of Fords sold in Europe are now powered by the company's turbocharged 1.0-liter three-cylinder EcoBoost engine.

That engine is now offered in the U.S. in both the Fiesta subcompact and the Focus compact, though only with a six-speed manual gearbox.

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Unlike some of Ford's larger EcoBoost engines, the little turbo three appears to outperform its EPA fuel-economy ratings in real-world use.

We achieved an indicated 42 miles per gallon in the Fiesta EcoBoost against a combined rating of 37 mpg, and 40 mpg against a 33-mpg rating in the larger Focus three-cylinder.

The numbers for the Fiesta EcoBoost, as Winter points out, are only slightly lower than those for a Triumph Speed Triple motorcycle.

The bike also uses a non-turbocharged 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine and, minus riders, it weighs roughly one-fifth what the Fiesta does.

It's quicker and sportier, surely, but it holds half as many people, virtually no cargo--and returns 34 mpg city, 50 mpg highway.

In other words, as Winter notes in closing, the Obama Administration--and, in fact, many of us--"vastly underestimated how much conventional internal-combustion engines could improve."