Wednesday, August 13, 2008

GM Expands XFE Badge to Full-Size Pickups and SUVs

By Chris Haak


General Motors announced yesterday that it is expanding its XFE (which stands for eXtra Fuel Efficient) badge from just the Cobalt with a five-speed manual transmission to now include the two wheel drive Silverado and Sierra pickups, plus the Tahoe and Yukon full-size SUVs as well.

As with the Cobalt (whose XFE badging was picked up on very early by Autosavant back in April), the changes are not significant or expensive and can be traced to simple tweaks such as gearing and low rolling resistance tires in all XFE models, plus engine tuning changes in the Cobalt, and aerodynamic enhancements in the large trucks.

The changes made to the trucks include the aforementioned low rolling resistance tires, but also installation of GM's six-speed automatic transmission, an aluminum 5.3 liter small block V8 (rated at 315 horsepower in the pickups and 320 horsepower in the SUVs), a 3.08 rear axle ratio, lowered suspension, a soft tonneau cover in the pickups, lightweight aluminum wheels, and aluminum control arms. The aerodynamic tweaks make the XFE versions of the Silverado and Sierra the most aerodynamic vehicles in their class (which means they managed to unseat the prior aero champ of the full-size picup market, the 2009 Ram, before a single truck has been sold by Dodge). The XFE tuning is only available in two wheel drive vehicles, and the only pickups that get the XFE treatment are crew cabs.

The result of the tweaks is a 7% improvement in city mileage and a 5% improvement in highway mileage (or one mile per gallon improvement in each category). The XFE versions of these vehicles are now rated at 15 city/21 highway instead of 14 city/20 highway as they had been. While GM has not announced the price of the XFE upgrades, it's easy to calculate potential fuel savings in advance of knowing exactly how much the XFE tweaks will cost. 15,000 miles @ 16 mpg combined and $4.00 per gallon would cost $3,750 in fuel. @17 mpg combined, it would be $3,529 in fuel (a savings of $221 annually).

Many online commenters have criticized GM today for the move, saying that the move barely saves any fuel (one mile per gallon in each category), while likely adding cost to the trucks. I disagree with this viewpoint, and in fact am in favor of GM introducing XFE-badged variants for each model in its lineup. Although many of GM's vehicles do have decent economy ratings (such as the 22 city/32 highway rating enjoyed by the 2.4 liter four cylinder/6-speed automatic combination tested recently by Autosavant,) would having extra fuel efficiency be a bad thing for literally anyone? GM and other auto manufacturers are forced to improve the average efficiency of their vehicle lineups significantly under the new CAFE standards, so applying simple tweaks to existing vehcles would pick off some low-hanging fruit and improve the averages.

One funny thing about the XFE models is that it proves (as I suspected) that the expensive and complicated two mode hybrid system doesn’t really do much anything for highway mileage - the hybrid's highway fuel economy almost completely comes from aerodynamics and tires - which the XFE has. The two-mode system helps city mileage only, really. But if you need or want the capability of these large vehicles and don't do much city driving, you can probably save your money and buy an XFE instead of a hybrid. Now, seeing XFE fuel economy figures on the window sticker of a vehicle adjacent to the two-mode hybrid Tahoe will probably even further crimp [already extremely slow] sales of the hybrid model.

Just think: if every new vehicle had the same 5-7% improvement in fuel economy, we'd be in much better shape in terms of fuel prices. Just look at the drop in oil prices for the past week or two, likely caused in large part by a decrease in driving by Americans on the order of just under 4%. Now, nearly double the rate of decrease to consider what a 7% efficiency improvement could mean for macro-level oil prices once the more efficient vehicles took over from their [relatively] gas-guzzling predecessors.

If I could offer a single phrase to GM to help with its current dilemma, it would be "continuous improvement." It's what got Toyota and Honda to where they are today, and would really help close the perception gap, in which a portion of the buying public believes that 1) domestic vehicles aren't as fuel efficient as import brands, and 2) domestic vehicles are starved for fixes and improvements once initial flurry of excitement from a new model dies down. Tweaking the fuel economy in these trucks is the type of relatively small, relatively low-cost tweaks can really be seen by consumers as a win.

With Ford promising to have the most efficient lineup in the next few years, the new "fuel consumption war" (replacing the "horsepower wars") is shaping up to be an epic battle for consumers' hearts and wallets. That means that it's a great time to be a consumer.

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