By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Do modern cars lack “imagination”?
It’s a not-uncommon criticism, especially from old car buffs who remember the “good old days” of jutting fins and big chrome bumpers and quirky touches like His n’ Hers shifters, Wonderbars, dual four-barrel intakes and eight-lug rims.
But if anything, today’s cars are even more imaginative than the cars of the past, whether the measure is engineering — or styling.
Consider some of the following new car features:
Variable cam/valve timing and Displacement on Demand
In the old days, it was usually an either-or deal: Power and performance vs. a smooth idle, decent mileage, tolerable emissions and everyday drivability.
Today, thanks to technological advances like variable cam/valve timing, we don’t have to choose because we can have both high-performance and civility/decent mileage — with the same engine.
Variable cam/valve timing wicks up the aggressiveness of the engine when we floor the gas pedal by altering cam timing (or holding the engine’s valves open longer, etc.) to get more air and fuel into the engine’s cylinders — and thus, more power out of the engine. Back off the gas and the system tones it down — and gas mileage goes up, a smooth idle returns.
Probably a third or more of 2010 model year new cars either come standard with or offer some type of variable cam/valve timing — from the 9,000 RPM Honda S2000 roadster to the family-friendly Buick Enclave wagon.
Several automakers (GM, Chrysler) also offer V-8 engines that can automatically switch from pumping on all eight cylinders to just four, in order to reduce fuel consumption by as much as 10-15 percent. It’s called Displacement on Demand. The change is controlled by the car’s computer and completely imperceptible to the driver. Other than at the pump. Fuel savings of 5-10 percent can be achieved this way, without affecting maximum available power output or performance.
“Smart” automatic transmissions/CVTs/”clutchless” manuals
Modern automatic transmissions are smarter than some of us. They can tailor shift points and firmness to individual drivers, becoming more sporty if an enthusiast driver is behind the wheel, then back to softer and gentler if it’s someone who likes to take it easy. Complex algorithms work in tune with sensors to monitor how the car’s being driven — and the transmission responds accordingly. In performance cars, these automatics know to hold a lower gear when the car’s being driven hard through a tight corner. Most also have manual modes that let the driver control when the transmission upshifts and downshifts — just by tapping a button on the shifter or steering wheel.
Several new cars (including all current hybrids) come with Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVTs) which never shift at all. There is a Forward range (and Reverse and Park ), but no individual gears to up and downshift through. The CVT uses a pair of adjustable pulleys that increase or decrease their diameter — along with a cogged belt that rides between them — to constantly alter the “gearing” to match engine speed/driving conditions. The result is a car that feels like it’s turbine-powered, with no coffee-spilling shift-shock between gear changes, even under full throttle acceleration runs. CVTs are becoming common because they can improve a car’s fuel economy by 5 percent or so compared to an otherwise identical car with a traditional automatic transmission.
A few higher-end cars (BMWs, Ferraris) have manual transmissions with computer-operated clutches. The driver merely selects the gear. These Sequential Manual Gearboxes (SMGs) shift as quickly as a professional race driver and make it virtually impossible to stall the car, even when starting out on a steep incline. They’re designed for the driver who wants the control and performance edge of a manual but doesn’t want to deal with a clutch — especially in stop-and-go traffic.
“Intelligent” cruise control/parking assistance/Heads-Up Displays
Several new cars offer an advanced version of cruise control that automatically slows the car when traffic slows, even bringing the car to a complete stop if traffic stops, without the driver touching the brake. Radar sensors detect the proximity of other cars (and objects in the road), transmitting signals to the computer, which backs off the throttle or applies the brakes, as necessary. Many of these systems will resume speed and bring that car back the setting you dialed in, too — without you having to touch the controls.
There are also Lane Departure Warning systems that know (and warn you) if you cross over the double yellow line — and automatic parking systems that will actually slide the car into a tight spot for you. You can get a Heads-Up Display (HUD) that’s projects an image of your speed and other info that seems to be floating in the air, right in your line of sight. HUD — derived from military technology — lets you keep track of your speed and so on without having to look down at the dash — and take your eyes off the road.