By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
What’s on deck from the automakers for next year’s cars? Here’s a preview of some of the technology, functionality — and design trends — headed to your local dealership.
2011 Plug-in Prius/Yaris
Toyota will be the first major automaker to offer mass-produced, factory-built plug-in hybrid vehicles that can be recharged via any common 110 volt outlet.
Current production hybrids like the 2010 Prius are “closed loop” — the car’s on-board gasoline engine provides the energy to charge the batteries that in turn power the electric motors. This means the car has to burn gas in order to to power up the hybrid battery/electric portion of its drivetrain — which reduces fuel efficiency. It also means the vehicle is just as dependent on gasoline as any standard car.
A plug-in hybrid, on the other hand, makes it possible to recharge the car’s batteries without using the gas engine at all. Not only is fuel economy much improved (prototype Prius plug-in hybrids have achieved 100-plus miles per gallon vs. the current’s car’s 51 mpg) but range is increased and the car can be driven at higher speeds on battery power alone, too. For commuters whose trip into work is less than 30 miles or so each way, it ought to be possible to operate the car entirely on battery power alone — without burning a single drop of gasoline.
Electricity isn’t free, of course — but the estimated cost to recharge a plug-in hybrid is still about 30-40 percent less than the equivalent cost (at current prices) of fueling up with gasoline.
A hybrid version of the subcompact Yaris sedan will also join the lineup next year (2011) and this model is anticipated to deliver even better gas mileage than the current Prius due to its smaller size and lower weight — perhaps as much as 60 mpg. (Plug-in versions, if offered, should achieve 100-plus mpgs.)
Prices haven’t yet been disclosed but the plug in-version of the ’11 Prius will likely be only slightly more expensive than the current (2010) model, which starts at $22,800. The hybrid 2011 Yaris is expected to cost about 10-20 percent more than the current (2010) non-hybrid Yaris, which has a base price of $13,365.
Ford Ecoboost 3.5 liter V-6 engine
V-8s may go the way of the Dodo — at least in Ford and Lincoln vehicles. The automaker has developed a new line of direct-injected and turbocharged V-6 engines designed to produce V-8 horsepower and torque output while maintaining the fuel economy of a smaller V-6 engine.
Ford is concerned about the prospect of gas prices going back to $3 or $4 per gallon — in which case, vehicles equipped with gas-guzzling V-8s will become as hard to sell as Betamax VHS players. In addition, the federal government recently passed a law which will require all new cars to average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 — which is just a few short model years down the road from now. V-8s are thus becoming a liability — but many customers still want V-8 power and performance.
Ford hopes its Ecoboost concept will solve this dilemma.
Direct injection optimizes combustion efficiency and also permits the use of very high compression ratios for high power output without engine knock, because the high-pressure fuel charge reduces internal cylinder temperatures. The result is a 20 percent increase in efficiency compared to an otherwise similar engine without direct fuel injection. Turbocharging, meanwhile, boosts low-end torque and also provides on-demand power for merging and passing at higher speeds. In the new Lincoln MKS sedan, the 3.5 liter Ecoboost engine returns 17 mpg in city driving and 25 on the highway — while producing 355 horsepower. In contrast, Ford’s workhorse 4.6 liter V-8 (used in everything from Mustangs to Explorer SUVs) produces 40 less peak horsepower (315 in the Mustang GT) while managing only 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 miles per gallon on the highway.
Ford plans to offer its line of Ecoboost engines in fully 90 percent of its vehicles by model year 2013.
2011 Chevy Volt/Spark
The forthcoming Volt is somewhere in between a plug-in hybrid like the 2011 Prius and a pure electric car like the 2011 Nissan Leaf (see below). Like the Prius, the Volt has both an electric motor/battery pack and a small internal combustion engine. But unlike the Prius and other hybrids, the Volt’s gasoline burning engine is only used to provide back-up power for the engine’s onboard battery packs in the event their charge runs low. It is not connected to the drive wheels or transmission. In effect, the Volt carries around its own built-in generator — making it independent of recharging stations.
The Volt’s batteries may also be charged up by plugging the car in to any common household 110 volt outlet. This dual-mode recharging should give the Volt greater versatility and range than plug-in hybrids like the ’11 Prius — as well as superior overall economy.
GM claims the Volt can go for 40 miles on a fully-charged battery without the gasoline engine ever coming on — and up to 300 more miles with the small gasoline engine providing generator power. If these claims prove accurate (and we won’t know until the cars are actually available about six months to a year from now) the Volt would be the most fuel-efficient car ever mass produced.
But there is a potential downside: GM reportedly will price the 2011 Volt at between $35,000 to $40,000 — comparable to the cost of an entry-luxury BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Federal tax deductions of as much as $7,500 will help make the Volt more affordable but it will still take awhile to work off the up-front costs in “down the road” fuel economy gains. Middle class buyers most interested in a high-economy car may find the Volt too expensive.
Later in 2011 or 2012, GM may also offer a similar drivetrain in the Spark ultra-compact city car, which should be priced more affordably.
2011 Nissan Leaf
The Leaf will be the first all-electric (no internal combustion engine onboard) vehicle offered for sale by a major automaker since the GM EV1 back in the 1990s.
Unlike the old EV1 — which was a compact two-seater intended mainly for commuting — the Leaf is a five-passenger sedan comparable to the current Nissan Versa or Sentra in terms of cabin space. It could thus serve as a family’s primary car, which Nissan hopes will broaden its potential market appeal.
As a pure electric car with no onboard gasoline engine, the Leaf also qualifies as a Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) and is eligible for special tax breaks and driving privileges available to such cars at both the federal and state level, particularly in California.
Another selling point is the Leaf’s estimated 100 mile range on a full charge — which is about 40 percent better than the range of the ’90s-era GM EV1. And the Leaf will cost considerably less to buy than the old EV1 — about $20,000 to start, according to reports — vs. $35,000 (in 1990s dollars) for the EV1.
A potential downside, though, is that the Leaf, unlike plug-in versions of the Prius or the Chevy Volt, will require specially configured 220 volt outlets to recharge its lithium-ion battery pack. The 2011 Volt and Prius can be plugged directly into any ordinary 110 volt outlet — available anywhere there is electricity. But Leaf buyers will need to have an electrician come to their home and install special 220 volt outlets and charging stations. Depending on the home, this may involve significant expense, if the home’s existing wiring needs to be updated. And unless your workplace or destination also has a 220 volt recharging station, your driving radius will be limited to no more than 50 miles from your home charging station.
Related: Mercedes-Benz has added a “mild hybrid” version of the E-class luxury sedan to its 2011 lineup. A conventional V-6 engine provides the power to move the car but when it’s stopped as at a traffic light or in traffic, the engine automatically shuts off and systems such as the AC and so on are powered electrically. This improves overall fuel economy by about 10 percent, according to Mercedes.
The 2011 Infiniti M35 sport sedan will be offered with a full-hybrid powertrain. An all-electric version of the Mini Cooper will reportedly be available in late 2011. Volvo is also looking at electric version of its C30 hatchback, with a possible production version in the works for 2012. VW may offer a production version of the Compact Coupe hybrid concept car unveiled at this year’s Detroit Auto Show by 2012. The Compact Coupe reportedly gets 100-plus Miles per gallon.
Kia Sorento UVO voice-control interface
Making its debut in the 2011 Sorento SUV, the UVO (your voice) system allows hands-free, voice-activated operation of the car’s stereo as well as plug-in accessory devices such as MP3 players, PDAs and USB memory sticks. The driver can also send and receive phone calls (and text messages) via voice prompt. UVO features adaptive software that helps it learn each driver’s different voice pattern — and it’s fluent in multiple languages.
Kia says UVO should help drivers keep their eyes on the road — and their hands on the wheel — instead of looking at and fiddling with lots of buttons as they drive.
Ford’s Sync system — which came out about two years ago — is similar but less advanced. For example, UVO can directly access the Internet through a wireless connection to continuously update its software, features and functions — which implies that UVO could also enable drivers to access e-mail and even surf the web while in their cars.
Ford is working on an updated version of its Sync technology that reportedly will allow the same thing — although it’s still an open question whether it’s a good idea for drivers to be surfing the Information Highway while they’re driving down the actual highway.
2011 Lincoln MKX Button-free Controls
The 2011 Lincoln MKX will be the first production vehicle to dispense with traditional pushbuttons, knobs and switches for audio and climate controls. These have been replaced by touch-sensitive pads that respond not to pressure but to the proximity of a finger swipe — which disturbs a minute electrical field, which triggers the operation of whatever function the driver wishes to engage — such as adjusting fan speed or the stereo’s volume. It is not necessary to actually touch or push on the panel, as you’d do on a microwave, for example.
Each pad illuminates amber when activated, returning to neutral white backlighting when off.
Jaguar debuted a similar system last year in the 2010 XF sedan, but only for a few functions, such as opening the glovebox. The Lincoln system is much more comprehensive and dispenses with most of the old-style buttons and switches one used to find all over the dash — replacing them with a smooth, ultra-modern looking surface that’s also easier to keep clean since there aren’t small crevices for dirt and dust to work their way into.
The only potential downside is the likely high cost to repair/replace the touch pads and associated electronics should they malfunction down the road — when the car is no longer under warranty.
Acura Active Sound Control
In recent years automakers have developed “intelligent” cruise control that automatically adjusts vehicle speed for changing traffic conditions — and self-adjusting suspension systems that continuously fine-tune ride quality for changing road conditions. Now Acura has developed an audio system that “listens” to the environment inside the cabin and adjust its output frequencies to cancel out unwanted exterior noises — literally fighting sound with sound.
The car’s interior is fitted with small microphones that register unwanted noise, such as the sounds emanating from the engine compartment under hard acceleration. This, in turn, triggers the system to emit precisely timed reverse-phase audio signals through the speakers, which renders the unwanted noise frequencies less audible to human ears.
The Active Sound Control system is standard equipment in the top-of-the-line 2010 Acura RL sedan and will be available in models like the forthcoming 2011 TSX sportwagon, arriving at dealers this fall.