Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Gas-guzzlers and variable engine displacement

by Zatni Arbi

This year we saw a new era emerge in the automotive industry. We began the year with engines getting larger and larger.

People flocked to dealers to check out the latest SUVs. Suddenly, we had a worldwide oil crisis and the price of gasoline skyrocketed. Right away, the sales of gas-guzzling cars, trucks and SUVs plummeted, even in the U.S.

So car buyers now look for smaller cars or family sedans that do not compromise too much on interior space and utility. They were so pampered with the spaciousness of full-sized SUVs, but now fuel economy reigns supreme.

Here in Indonesia we used to think that diesel engines were cheaper to operate. As the government hiked the price of diesel fuel (known as "solar" locally) to Rp 4,300 per liter, the price difference was no longer significant.

If you included cleanliness, noise and, most of all, the faster depreciation of diesel-engine cars, it would no longer be attractive to have one. Its fuel consumption, however, still beats the average miles per gallon (mpg) of a gasoline-powered car, though.

, which automatically shut down their internal combustion engine and use an electric engine when traveling at a low speed, when coasting or when idle, were still a premium in 2005.

Ford's Escape, the first , was joined by others including the Lexus RX400h and the . In the compact segment, Toyota and Honda have been selling the hybrid , and Civic in the U.S. for a couple of years. Most car buyers are still waiting for the time when the price differential between the and non-hybrid versions drops substantially.

Whether can be used in Jakarta remains to be seen, as the water level on the road rises so quickly during a short downpour. Remember, even the energy from the brakes is transformed into electrical current that will recharge the battery.

By the way, has also been implemented in a RST-V (Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Targeting Vehicle), the battleground SUV that inspired the Hummer. It combines a diesel engine and one electric motor on each wheel to push it to more than 100 kilometers per hour (kph), and during a surveillance mission it can travel silently into enemy territory.

Blurring of distinctions

One clear trend in 2005 was the expanding range of car designs, which makes it more difficult for us to continue using the conventional categories. If you see a new model on the street, is it a subcompact, a compact, a full-size, an estate, a van, an MPV, an SUV, a crossover, a truck or just a sports car?

It's not easy to decide.

Today, as car buyers begin to abandon the large SUVs, they are setting their eyes on the smaller wagons with a high roof.

Consumer Reports calls them "microvans" or tall wagons". They have a high seating position, can accommodate up to six people and are equipped with fuel-efficient engines.

They are not a sports car that can take you off from 0 to 100 kph in under 10 seconds, but they can take you to the supermarket in comfort. One example is the Chrysler PT Cruiser, which has been around for some time and may soon see the streets of Jakarta.

Talking about the PT Cruiser, car buyers in the U.S. will certainly be reminded of Chevy's HHR. The van, which has been designed with a retro look and reminiscent of those fabulous Chevrolet trucks of the late 1940s and early 1950s, has been accused of being a copycat of the PT Cruiser. (Take a look at the accompanying picture.)

By the way, the HHR stands for Heritage High Roof. Quite a show of the need for more creativity, but you may also know that Chevy launched a retro-looking truck/roadster/sports car under the name SSR in 2003.

More carmakers are coming up with seven-seater, family-car models. While this configuration has been quite common in Asia for some time, the European and American carmakers are just beginning to introduce theirs in more varieties. One of the latest arrivals is the new Mercedes Benz B-Class.

It can take a family of three generations on an outing and spoil them with a lot of the creature comforts. From the U.S., there are the Ford Freestyle and Jeep Commander. The latter is an off-roader rather than a family hauler, though.

There is also a trend of replacing the metal roofs with hardened glass. Here, in Indonesia we first saw the panoramic roof in a Peugeot 307 SW a couple of years ago, but now they are common in many models-including the Land Rover LS3. The new midsize SUV -- also a seven seater -- has three separate sunroofs, one for each row of seats.

If the sun becomes too hot, you can cover your head with its built-in drape. The new Jeep Commander has one sunroof for the front row and a pair for the second row seats. And, of course, Maybach has the most versatile glass roof panel.

What about the tranny?

A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is what Ford used in its 2005 Escape Hybrid. It was also used in the relatively new Ford Freestyle SUV/car crossover. Other carmakers actually started using the CVT on their models much earlier, and we can expect this type of transmission to become more common in new cars and SUVs as it generally increases fuel economy.

VW, however, has developed its own solution for reducing fuel consumption. Currently implemented in the Audi 3, VW's DSG six-speed gearbox is actually a dual-clutch transmission. It is said that this is more effective than the CVT, the manual transmission and, certainly, the conventional torque converter automatic transmission.

Drive-by-wire is also being adopted in a growing number of cars. The mechanical link between the steering wheel and the front wheel is based on electrical current, and speed variable means that the faster you go the heavier the steering wheel will be. The result is a lighter vehicle, and it translates into a better fuel consumption.

Following the trend in the last two decades or so, car engines have become much more reliable. Some engine makers claim that their products are maintenance-free: Even the spark plugs can stay in for over 20,000 km.

However, no matter how good an engine is, it will not remain trouble-free for long if we feed it with the low quality, kerosene-mixed gasoline that some of our unscrupulous Pertamina gas station operators pump into our tanks.

On the horizon

In the not-so-far future, more cars will have many more active accident avoidance systems. General Motors' Opel Vectra, for example, will have some kind of automatic pilot. Provided the markings on the pavement are clear, the car will be able to navigate through a turn at speeds up to 90 kph.

Called the Traffic Assist, the system relies on laser sensors to keep you a safe distance from the vehicle in front. Mind you, however, this car will not work in Jakarta, where drivers seem adamantly opposed to even observing the lane markers.

Looking forward, more and more vehicles will leave dealers' lots with some kind of navigation system. I also believe that, as the ceiling-attached DVD screen and the headrests on the rearmost seats block the rear view mirror's line of sight, more cars and vans should be equipped with rear-facing cameras so that the driver will always be aware if a driver fro hell in a Kopaja bus is just one inch behind him.

Night vision will also become more commonplace to complement increasingly effective headlights. What I think should also be implemented in new cars is a sensor that detects the driver's physical condition. The sensor should emit an alert or disable the car altogether if the driver is drunk or sleepy.

A year ago, we talked about the ability of the engine to shut down some of its cylinders to save fuel. General Motors has also implemented a similar system in its 3.9-liter, V6 engine used in its Impala. I believe that, in the future, this variable engine displacement method will be used in more engines to achieve better fuel economy.

At any rate, cars will become more fuel-efficient, safer and more comfortable. They will come in a wider variety of shapes and sizes.

The problem is, there will be just too many of them around.

Read More..

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Study: Hybrid cars will pay for themselves over time

With higher gas prices and tax incentives, some s make economic sense, Edmunds.com says.

DETROIT (Reuters) -- Some s will make up for their premium cost because of higher gas prices and tax credits from the U.S. government on the more fuel efficient vehicles, a study released Tuesday shows.

s and trucks, which get improved mileage in city driving by running on a combination of gas and electric power, cost between $1,200 and $7,000 more than traditional versions of the same vehicles, according to auto Web site Edmunds.com.

Edmunds.com is a partner providing data and content for CNN.com's automotive Websites.

But a fuel economy study by Edmunds.com showed that the scales were starting to tip in favor of hybrids.

"High gas prices and generous tax credits now offset the high sales prices of some s, assuming owners keep their hybrids for a few years," said Alex Rosten, an analyst with Edmunds.com.

The shift is significant because analysts have said that higher sticker prices were constraining hybrid sales.

s currently account for 1 percent of new car sales in the United States. But Japan's Toyota Motor Corp., the hybrid market leader, sees its annual sales topping 1 million units soon after 2010.

The consumer-focused automotive Web site said that, assuming vehicles were driven 15,000 miles per year and gas was priced at $3 per gallon, owners of the and Ford Motor Co.'s would break even within three years.

Buyers of the Saturn Vue Green Line from General Motors Corp., the Toyota Camry and the from Honda Motor Co. would break-even within six years, Edmunds.com said.

But federal tax credits for buyers are being phased out on the most popular models.

Under a provision of the tax code, buyers of a after Sept. 30 will only qualify for half of the tax credit for which they would have previously qualified.

Tax incentives will also be cut on other s after auto makers sell 60,000 of the vehicles -- a sales threshold Toyota has reached.

The tax credit on Toyota and s is scheduled to drop to 25 percent in April 2007 and then be eliminated in October 2007.

In another study released Tuesday, auto industry tracking firm CSM Worldwide cited higher gas prices as one factor driving a shift toward more efficient six-speed transmissions.

CSM forecast that automatic six-speed transmissions would account for 60 percent of the U.S. car and truck market by 2012, up from less than 5 percent today.

GM has already announced plans to shift to a new family of six-speed transmissions for upcoming models.

CSM said three-quarters of the new cars from GM, the world's No. 1 automaker, would feature the six-speed transmission by 2012.

Please check Hybrids: seven worries, seven answers.

Including: What about battery replacement? What about maintenance?


Read More..
Blog Widget by LinkWithin