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.


Stephen M Slack said...

Great to hear that you might be getting the PT Cruiser in Jakata. If you're interested in some of the things you can do with them, check out my blog http://www.smslack.plus.com/ or have a look at our club site for UK cruisers - http://www.northerndevils.co.uk/

Great site by the way!

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