But it remains to be seen if consumers will flock to vehicles with less get-up-and-go, or the latest technology to save on fuel, if the price of the car gets too high.
Manufacturers face a deadline of 2016 to increase their fleets' corporate average fuel economy (called CAFE for short) to nearly 35 miles a gallon. That has launched a battalion of industry designers and engineers on a quest to come up with new ways to boost fuel efficiency in ways that won't turn off car buyers.
While the small car and the four-cylinder engine are going to play key roles, they're not going to solve the fuel-economy problem all by themselves, automakers and analysts say.
Automakers are ramping up production of hybrids, all-electric cars such as Nissan's Leaf, or trying to use lighter-weight materials, new tire compounds and other tricks to squeeze a few more miles out of a gallon of gas.
Here are some things consumers should watch for as General Motors, Nissan, Ford and other carmakers move toward 2016. For instance:
Smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles are coming, and some of these, such as the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta, will offer improved gas mileage with no compromises on interior space, said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive officer of the consumer automotive website Edmunds.com.
"The Fiesta is not a stripped-down cheapo car," Anwyl said. "It's not the sort of car the person has to feel like they're sentenced to."
Advances such as direct fuel injection, variable valve timing, turbochargers and automatic transmissions with six or more forward gears can help give a four-cylinder engine the power of a V-6, or a V-6 the power of a V-8.
Also, there are more-efficient six- and eight-cylinder engines in production or under development, so vehicles that require more power such as pickups and large family haulers won't have to give up performance in the quest for mileage, said Charlie Klein, director of mass energy and aerodynamics engineering for General Motors in Detroit.(2 of 3)
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