News Column

The Fast Lane

November 2004, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Ralph Gray

Toyota Prius’ GPS system is one of many.
Toyota Prius’ GPS system is one of many.

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.

Smart Cruising
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.

On-Board Computer
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.

Cadillac Infrared System

Cadillac and Lexus also have models using infrared lighting to show nighttime objects beyond headlights. The view is projected onto a section of the windshield. It's especially good on dark country roads.

Helping drivers see where they're going is also why some luxury cars have begun installing rear-backup cameras that work with the car's navigation-system screens. When reverse gear is selected, an image in full color, of course of what's behind the car is projected on the navigation screen.

Concierge in Your Car
OnStar from General Motors comes with new Generation 6 hardware for in-vehicle safety, security, and information services. There's upgraded hands-free voice recognition with better accuracy and more intuitive continuous digital dialing. OnStar uses global positioning system satellite networks and wireless phones. The new OnStar Advance Automatic Crash Notification system is available on select models. It makes crash data available to 911 centers to help them dispatch appropriate emergency personnel and equipment.

Cadillac owners get 12 free months of the Cadillac Virtual Advisor from OnStar that provides three-day weather forecasts and reports of traffic within five, 10, or 15 miles of the vehicle in most major markets. It monitors traffic for three personalized routes and will also keep drivers updated on 10 selected stock prices.

The demand and popularity of OnStar has led it to other brands such as "Volkswagen Telematics by OnStar," and to add premium options such as concierge services. Subscribers can get help from specially trained OnStar staff for everything from planning a vacation to buying event tickets.

Other brands have adapted their own similar systems such as Ford/Lincoln's RESCU system, Mercedes-Benz' TeleAid system, Nissan/Infiniti's Communicator system, and Jaguar's ASSIST system.

Mercedez Benz Teleaid

Mix and Match
The new hybrids overcome the inherent drawbacks of electrics batteries with limited range and power. And they do so with brave new technology that marries the internal combustion gasoline engine with electric motors all computer driven. Sometimes the results are a bit unusual. For instance, fuel economy is better in stop-and-go city driving than on the highway. That's because the electric motor is doing most of the city driving and the gasoline engine powers over-the-road stints.

Toyota pushes hybrids with its second-generation Prius. Other players include Ford, Honda, and Lexus. General Motors has a number of hybrid systems, even one aimed at trucks.

Prius II is bigger the wheelbase (distance between front and back axles) is up 6 inches to 106.3, or mid-size car length. The roomy interior provides the usual good Toyota driving position, though it maintains a somewhat geeky approach with center-mounted speedometers and energy monitor. But the Prius now can accelerate to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds, down from last year's 12.7 seconds. Neither are land speed records, but the combined fuel economy of 55 mpg makes up for it. And that's up from 48 mpg last year.

In the new Ford Escape Hybrid, the continuously variable transmission automatically changes gear ratios to supply the right power for the right speed for the gasoline engine, the electric drive, or both. It also meanders to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds. But batteries are getting better. The Ford battery has an eight-year warranty. "In our testing we've gotten 150,000 miles/10 years or the useful life of the vehicle," says Mary Ann Wright, Ford's director of sustainable mobility technologies and hybrid vehicle programs and chief engineer for the Escape.

Ford Escape Hybrid

The Escape costs about $3,000 more than a comparably equipped regular Escape, and Ms. Wright says buyers typically are technologically savvy and well educated with household incomes of more than $100,000. But the real significance of hybrids is that they pave the way for true alternative fuel vehicles using hydrogen, she says.

"The key is doing the hybrid first because of the same fundamental technology. You use the same battery, the same regenerative braking system. Hydrogen fuel cells, which generate electricity chemically, are 15 to 20 years away," says Ms. Wright. "But you won't get there if you don't start. So fossil-fuel engines are here for a while."

Meanwhile, the Chevrolet/GMC Hybrid FlexPower uses a starter-generator that provides fast, quiet starting power. The company says fuel economy gains amount to 10 percent to 15 percent, and the FlexPower gets 18 mpg in the city and two more mpg on the highway. The starter-generator also provides electric current for the batteries and coast-down regenerative braking to improve fuel economy. The system can be switched at rest to provide mobile power generating for tools and equipment. Chevrolet/GMC also has installed electrical outlets in the beds of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups for their hybrid systems.

And more hybrids are in the market every day. American Honda runs two hybrids the Insight and a Civic subcompact with the Accord mid-size to join them. The Mercury Mariner will join the Escape and a future mid-size, the Fusion. Toyota adds the Highlander sports utility, and its Lexus mate, the RX 400h.


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