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With gas prices pushing past the $4-per-gallon mark, fuel economy has become a big issue for car buyers and carmakers alike. Yet many U.S. motorists still seem reluctant to embrace the sort of pint-sized vehicles that have become commonplace in markets like Europe and Japan.

“People don’t necessarily want to drive small cars,” stressed George Peterson, an automotive analyst with AutoPacific. “They want to drive bigger, more fuel-efficient cars.”

Given American car drivers’ tastes, some experts suggest that the challenge for automakers today isn’t to come up with a subcompact car that does 50 mile to the gallon. Instead, the challenge is to build a midsize model that can deliver 40 mpg.

Until recently, achieving that goal seemed like a fantasy, at least without using a costly hybrid drivetrain. But carmakers have come to discover a variety of other tools in their toolbox that can improve mileage substantially without downsizing, Peterson said.

At Ford, for example, they’re putting vehicles on a diet.

“In the mid-term, from now to 2017 or 2018, we’ll remove anywhere from 250 to 700 pounds, depending on the vehicle,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s global product chief.

According to an industry rule of thumb, every 100 pounds added or subtracted from the mass of a vehicle has a one mpg impact on fuel economy, so Ford’s weight reduction strategy should yield anywhere from around two to seven miles a gallon in added fuel economy, everything else being equal.

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