A Look Down the Road: 2009 and Beyond

A sluggish auto sales market hasn’t stopped automakers from moving ahead with new and innovative offerings. So what can we expect to see for 2009 and beyond? A quick tour around automakers’ websites whets our appetite, and gives us plenty to look forward to as we motor on toward the second decade of the 21st century.

Lexus, for instance, has been showing off its LF (for L-finesse) line of concept cars, including the LF-X crossover vehicle (above), which features a fluid, unadorned exterior and an “athletic” chassis built for performance, according to Lexus. A 300-horsepower, 4.3-liter V8 engine powers the LF-X, while the interior evokes a luxury feel, with three rows of seating and “driver-oriented” instrumentation. Lexus sees the LF series a new design trend for the automaker, though no word yet on if or when the vehicles will be available in showrooms.

Chrysler still sees a future in full-size SUVs, though its 2009 Aspen HEMI Hybrid, coming this fall, demonstrates that the automaker has made a commitment to more fuel-efficient vehicles. The Aspen HEMI Hybrid will feature a two-mode hybrid system. In the first mode, for lower speeds, the SUV can operate with the electric motor only, the gas engine only, or a combination of the two, which helps conserve fuel. The second mode kicks in at higher speeds, when the SUV runs on the 5.7-liter gas V8 engine with assistance from the electric motor, which improves passing and acceleration and again helps to conserve fuel. Chrysler notes that the powerplant can improve fuel economy by up to 40 percent.

Dodge will offer the same two-mode hybrid system in its 2009 Durango HEMI Hybrid (above), also scheduled for sale this fall, and Chevrolet plans to use a similar system for its 2009 Silverado Hybrid.

Meanwhile, Honda announced this week that it plans to offer a dedicated hybrid car similar to Toyota’s Prius. Honda currently sells its popular Civic in a hybrid version, but the newly announced car, a five-door, five-passenger compact, will be available only as a hybrid, which Honda hopes will raise the car’s profile and give the automaker a chance to catch up to Toyota in the hybrid marketplace.

Honda also has high hopes for its Fit subcompact (above), which receives an updated design for 2009. Available later this year, the all-new 2009 Fit will feature a new 1.5-liter, four-cylinder i-VTEC engine, an MP3/iPod-compatible audio system, dual-stage front airbags, side curtain airbags, and an available five-speed automatic with paddle shifters, so drivers can manually run through the gears. It’s a glowing example that automakers are trying to think outside the box when planning the vehicles we’ll be seeing in showrooms later this year and well into the next one.

Reduce Your Car’s Carbon Footprint

These days, most drivers are aware of the fuel efficiency of their cars. They have a general sense of the miles per gallon they get, and they know how that mileage impacts their wallets, especially when they pull up to the gas pump. But are you aware of your car’s carbon footprint, and how its carbon footprint can contribute to air pollution in your area and the environment as a whole?

According to the EPA, a carbon footprint is a measure of “a vehicle’s impact on climate change in tons of carbon dioxide emitted annually.” In simpler language, it’s a measure of a car’s emissions. Automotive emissions have been a concern for decades, especially in regions like Southern California, where car emissions have contributed to extensive amounts of air pollution in cities like Los Angeles. Other cities with air-quality problems include Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Sacramento, and Cleveland. In addition, carbon dioxide can affect the ozone in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

So how can you determine your car’s carbon footprint? The EPA makes it simple by rating every car according to the tons of carbon it emits annually. Generally, a car’s carbon footprint relates directly to its fuel efficiency, with the burning of one gallon of gasoline contributing to 20 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. That means fuel-efficient cars like the Toyota Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid (above), the Toyota Camry Hybrid, and the Ford Escape Hybrid have low carbon footprints. According to the EPA, the Prius emits 4 tons of carbon dioxide a year, the Honda Civic Hybrid emits 4.4 tons, the Camry Hybrid emits 5.4 tons, and the Ford Escape Hybrid emits 6.6 tons annually.

Similarly, compact and sub-compacts like the Toyota Yaris (5.7 tons), the MINI Cooper (5.7 tons), the Toyota Corolla (5.9 tons), and the Ford Focus (6.6 tons) also have relatively low carbon footprints. On the high end, the Lincoln Town Car emits 10.2 tons per year, the Audi S6 emits 11.4 tons, the Ford Explorer 4WD emits 12.2 tons, the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG emits 13.1 tons, and the Bentley Arnage RL emits 16.6 tons annually.

Obviously, the best way to reduce your car’s carbon footprint is to choose a more efficient car when you’re purchasing a new vehicle. However, no matter which car you drive, you can take certain measures to reduce your car’s carbon footprint. For instance, you can keep the tires properly inflated, change your air filter regularly, avoid sudden acceleration, keep the air conditioning turned off as much as possible, and keep the car at 55 miles per hour on the highway. Of course, you could also car pool to work, ride a bike, or take public transportation whenever possible.

Finally, in a recent meeting with top automotive executives in an attempt to reduce car emissions, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger identified a number of strategies that go “beyond the tailpipe,” according to the San Diego Times-Union. These strategies include synchronizing traffic signals so cars idle less, equipping more cars with GPS systems to they can avoid congested areas, and removing older, less efficient cars from the roads. All good ideas — and all valid goals as drivers, automakers, and governments work together to reduce carbon emissions.

Drivers Switch Gears to Fuel-Efficient Cars

Looking for a way to reduce your monthly bill at the gas pump? You’re not alone. All across the country and beyond, drivers stung by rising fuel costs are looking for relief, and many are taking action by trading in larger vehicles like SUVs for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Sales of the Toyota Yaris (above), for instance, soared by 46 percent in April, when compared to the previous year, while sales of the Ford Focus jumped 32 percent in April, according to reports.

It’s easy to see why – the Yaris with a manual shifter ekes out 36 miles per gallon on the highway, according to the EPA. Thanks to its 11-gallon fuel tank, you can fill it to the brim for 25 or 30 bucks or so, while drivers of big SUVs are shelling out $60 or $80 (or more) per fill-up. The Ford Focus manages a respectable 35 miles per gallon on the highway, comes with six airbags, and can be equipped with such high-end features as the Ford Sync voice-activated communication and entertainment system. These days, it’s a bargain in more ways than one (prices start at under $14,400), and it could represent the wave of the future.

In fact, many automotive observers and experts believe we’ve reached a tipping point, which arrived when gas prices crossed the $3.50 per gallon mark. Sales of compact and subcompact cars accounted for about 20 percent of total auto sales in April, a first for the industry, according to The New York Times. And many believe the trend will continue, with sales of small cars continuing to grow steadily while sales of larger vehicles, such as big SUVs, continue to shrink.

So what’s available in showrooms today for drivers who are looking for better fuel efficiency? Quite a lot, as it turns out, including some models you might not expect. The Pontiac G5, for instance, gets up to 35 miles per gallon on the highway, although Pontiac recommends premium fuel, which sort of negates any mileage benefits cost-wise (the car will run on regular gasoline but not at peak performance). The Chevy Cobalt with the 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine and manual shifter manages 33 miles per gallon, while the MAZDA3 four-door sedan with the 2.0-liter double-overhead-cam engine (above) gets up to 32 miles per gallon while still delivering a respectable 148 horsepower.

Of course, trendy cars like the Honda Civic Hybrid (45 miles per gallon on the highway), the MINI Cooper (up to 37 miles per gallon), the Scion xD (33 miles per gallon), and the venerable Toyota Corolla with the four-cylinder, 1.8-liter engine (35 miles per gallon) all represent good options for budget-crunching drivers. The fact that those cars are imports is not lost on Detroit, which finds itself scrambling as drivers migrate away from profitable SUVs to less-profitable compacts and subcompacts. What will this mean for American automakers, and how will they respond to this fundamental shift in buyers’ driving habits? Stay tuned – we’re about to find out.