What's old is new again with many of today's automotive technological advances as makers seek to entice increasingly savvy buyers by adding not only glitzy toys, but ease, function, and efficiency.
Among the returning favorites is rear-wheel drive. Thirty years ago most domestic cars had front engines driving the back wheels. Then came boasts of increased fuel efficiency and traction with front-wheel drive, and the industry began developing front-wheel drive for nearly everything except trucks and high-performance cars.
Now, however, the cycle is returning to rear-wheel drive as experts say advances in technology have lessened front-wheel-drive advantages. Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors are all returning their efforts to rear-wheel drive, giving more power and performance to their luxury and sports cars.
Meanwhile, V-8 engines are regaining favor for their seamless acceleration and satisfying power curve. The improvement is more horsepower from smaller engines – using, in some cases, the venerable idea of supercharging. The new Jeep Grand Cherokee for 2005, for example, uses a standard V-6 engine, but will also be offered in a V-8.
And there is even more horsepower being offered up by some makers. BMW's new M5 will have a V-10 engine, and Mercedes-Benz is offering a V-12. The dozen cylinders churn out 493 horsepower aided by twin turbochargers. That's enough to get three of their models - including the SL600 – to 60 miles per hour in a zippy 4.5 seconds.
Still, while power and performance are returning to their roots in several key areas, advances in other areas are leading to innovations in everything from transmissions and cruise controls to lighting and navigational aids. Here is a look at just some of the innovations changing the face of today's automotive industry.
Seven is Better Than Five
Mercedes-Benz uses this on its V-8 engines, but also offers an unusual feature: The transmission will skip a gear in downshifting to pick the right ratio. On the BMW M5, the seven-speed transmission lets drivers shift with either the lever in the console or with paddles on the steering wheel. BMW also offers a Drivelogic system into which a driver can program characteristics for different driving situations.
Cruise control systems now automatically slow your car if it gets too close to the one ahead. BMW's Active Cruise Control, which is linked to a navigational system, also slows your car if you're entering a curve too fast.
The BMW 7 series offers an iDrive computer system that can control everything from the car phone and navigational system to the radio and climate. It also can be programmed with data for a trip, to remind you of your next service check, and settings to ensure proper braking on hills.
Lights, Camera, Action
Lexus offers its Adaptive Front Lighting System to help illuminate a turn. A computer calculates the optimum lighting direction based on speed and steering angle and swivels the headlights. It was a great idea in the ill-starred Tucker, which used a center-mounted headlight. The difference is that the Lexus made it to mass production.
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