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.

Car Trends: Small SUVs and Well-Equipped Compacts

Ford received a small bit of good news recently – sales of its Focus compact car (pictured above) were up 24 percent for the month of March 2008. Honda saw sales of its Fit subcompact increase as well, by more than 73 percent. Sales of the Nissan Altima and Honda Civic also were up, by 14 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Those were among the few bright spots in auto sales over the past few months. Sales of trucks and SUVs tanked, as car buyers continued to migrate away from larger vehicles to smaller, more fuel-efficient sedans and coupes. It’s easy to understand why, with gas prices soaring into the stratosphere. And it naturally leaves some automakers (such as Honda and Toyota) in better positions than others.

This shift in car-buying patterns has automakers scrambling to rejigger their fleets, and some are doing that more successfully than others. Ford, for instance, actually posted a profit for the first quarter of 2008 (due in part to the fact that the company has trimmed its workforce substantially and has plans to shut down some shifts at truck plants). And all automakers are eyeing smaller, more efficient cars.

Ford, for instance, has plans to expand its fleet of small cars in 2009 with the addition of the new Fiesta, which Ford calls its first “global” small car. Recently unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show, the Fiesta will be powered by a range of fuel-efficient engines and bring “big car features to the small car segment,” according to Ford.

That’s a trend we’ll be seeing more of in the years to come, as automakers add luxury-oriented features like innovative sound systems to their smaller cars in an effort to attract new buyers. For instance, Ford has added its new Sync feature to some Focus trims, and upcoming trims of the Chevy Cobalt are expected to come equipped with audio systems that include USB ports, so drivers can plug portable thumb drives into their car stereos, adding a new functionality that will make it easier for drivers to take their favorite songs with them wherever they go.

Don’t expect automakers to completely abandon SUVs, but you can expect SUVs to become smaller and more efficient. Audi, for instance, just unveiled its new Q5 SUV at the Beijing Auto Show (although to us it looks more like a crossover vehicle or a hunky wagon than an SUV). Powered by a range of fuel-efficient engines and featuring permanent all-wheel-drive, the Q5 will measure about 15 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 5.4 feet high, giving it a smaller overall footprint than many other SUVs. Audi calls it “an SUV of all-new proportions,” and notes that it will be “sportier than any of its competitors.” Whether it will prove a hit with buyers seeking smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

2009 Cadillac Escalade Goes Green

GM calls it “responsibility without sacrifice,” and perhaps that’s the best way to describe the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, which recently made an appearance at the Dallas Auto Show. The quest for fuel efficiency has reached all the way to the top of automakers’ lineups, and even vehicles with long-standing reputations as gas guzzlers are cleaning up their acts, as the new Escalade Hybrid demonstrates. GM goes so far to call the Escalade Hybrid the world’s first large luxury hybrid SUV.

Like many hybrid vehicles, the Escalade Hybrid uses a two-mode hybrid system, which switches between an electric motor and a 332-horsepower, 6.0-liter V8 gas engine as the vehicle’s speed and power requirements vary. When the Escalade stops at a traffic light or slows in traffic, the gas engine shuts down and the SUV runs on the electric motor to conserve fuel. As the Escalade accelerates, it transitions to both the electric motor and gas engine, and under heavy acceleration or when full power is required, the SUV will run solely on the gas engine. This configuration results in a 45 percent improvement in fuel economy in the city, according to GM, although official mileage estimates from the EPA aren’t available yet.

Regenerative braking, which captures energy whenever the brakes are applied, keeps the on-board battery charged. The Escalade also comes equipped with Active Fuel Management, the first for a Cadillac. The system will shut down four of the engine’s eight cylinders, even at highway speeds, if they’re not required, improving fuel economy even more.

A full-color touch-screen Navigation Radio displays information about the hybrid system, and also displays the standard rear-view camera as well as controls for the Bose 5.1 surround-sound audio system and tri-zone automatic climate control. Nuance leather-covered seats and a power-assisted rear liftgate, which operates at the touch of a button, will be among the Escalade Hybrid’s other standard features.

The exterior design will retain the Escalade’s distinctive grille and chrome accents. Both two-wheel and four-wheel-drive trims will be available when the Escalade Hybrid goes on sale this summer.

New Electric Cars Power Up

With gas prices inching higher every week, and predictions of four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline in the not-too-distant future, it’s not surprising that drivers are starting to look for alternatives. Hybrids have been receiving lots of press lately, but electric cars have been making news as well.

Last month, Subaru displayed its R1e electric car (above) at the New York Auto Show, and announced that two R1e vehicles will join the New York Power Authority fleet as part of a U.S. testing program. About 40 of the electric vehicles are currently in use in Japan, and Subaru plans to test an additional 100 cars in Japan in 2009. No word yet if or when the cars will be available in U.S. showrooms.

The two-seat R1e employs the latest electric-motor technology, including a fast-charge lithium ion battery that can take quick or partial charges without a decrease in battery life. In fact, it can be charged to 80 percent capacity in just 15 minutes, or fully charged overnight. The R1e, which Subaru envisions as an urban car, has a range of up to 50 miles on a single charge and a top speed of 65 miles per hour.

The R1e joins a growing list of electric cars that are in various stages of development. California-based ZAP, for instance, recently announced that it expect to start selling its three-wheel Alias electric car sometime in 2009, and has started taking reservations on its website. (The company is charging a $5,000 reservation fee for the $32,500 car.) The automaker notes that the two-seater will have a range of 100 miles on a single charge, a top speed of around 100 miles per hour, and reasonably quick acceleration, jumping out from 0 to 60 in 7.7 seconds. It’s one of a number of electric cars, including the Xebra sedan and truck, the automaker hopes to eventually offer to car buyers.

Tesla recently started production of its electric-powered two-passenger Roadster, which will run for 220 miles on a charge, and accelerate from 0 to 60 in just 3.9 seconds. The entire 2008 production run has sold out, and the company is currently taking reservations for the 2009 model year. The automaker also plans to add a five-passenger sport sedan in 2010.

Finally, across the pond, U.K.-based Lightning Car Company has started taking reservations for its super-sleek, electric-powered GTS Roadster, which has a top speed of more than 130 miles per hour. A high-efficiency Hi-Pa electric drive, developed in Great Britain, powers the GTS. The powerplant also include NanoSafe batteries, which can be charged in about 10 minutes and deliver more power per unit than conventional lithium batteries, according to the automaker.

Features include an antilock braking system, traction control, regenerative braking, a satellite navigation system, and leather interior trim. You can reserve yours by visiting the automaker’s website and plunking down 15,000 pounds (just under $30,000 dollars). And may we suggest Electric Lightning Blue for the exterior color. It seems appropriate.

Mazda2 Heads List of World’s Top Cars

Following the announcement of the World Green Car at the New York Auto Show last month, World Car of the Year awards were handed out in a number of other categories, including World Design of the Year, World Performance Car, and the overall Car of the Year.

Top honors went to the Mazda2 (above), which was selected as the 2008 Car of the Year by a panel of 47 automotive journalists, out of an initial field of 39 entries. Completely redesigned for 2008, the Mazda2 made its debut at the Geneva Auto Show, and initially will be sold in the United Kingdom and Europe, as well as in Japan, where it’s known as the Mazda Demio. According to reports, the Mazda2 will be available in the U.S. in 2009 with some minor tweaking, although it will be rebadged as the Ford Fiesta.

The Mazda2 supermini car, similar in size to such cars as the Toyota Yaris, features a sporty, aerodynamic exterior design, a three-spoke steering wheel, white instrument gauges, and an all-new center console. It’s powered by 1.3-liter and 1.5-liter gas engines, as well as a turbocharged diesel, although U.S. powerplants have yet to be determined. The lightweight five-door hatchback has been designed to handle nimbly in traffic, thanks to electric power-assisted power steering and a short-throw gear shift. And despite its compact size, the Mazda provides plenty of storage spaces inside for all types of gear. Two trims are currently available — the TS2 and the Sport.

The top three finalists for the Car of the Year also included the Ford Mondeo and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, while the Cadillac CTS, the Volvo C30, and the Audi R8 were among the other contenders.

While the 2008 Audi R8 (above) didn’t take top honors, it was singled out by the awards committee as the World Design of the Year, as well as the World Performance Car of the Year. Not bad for a consolation prize.

Organized and conducted by automotive journalists from around the world, the World Car of the Year awards is a non-profit, non-affiliated program designed to select the world’s top cars using objective criteria. For more information, visit the World Car of the Year’s website at www.wcoty.com.

Would you consider buying a Mazda2…er, a Ford Fiesta?

Two New MINI Coopers Debut In U.S.

Although they made their official world debut at the Geneva International Motor Show earlier in March, the MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop and MINI John Cooper Works Clubman took their U.S. bows on Thursday, March 20th at the New York International Auto Show. The two new performance-oriented trims, which will be available this summer, feature upgraded powerplants as well as suspensions, exhaust systems, manual transmissions, electrically power-assisted steering, and high-performance brakes developed by British-based John Cooper Works and inspired by the shop’s fifty-year racing history.

In the 1940s, John Cooper, who was trained as a toolmaker, teamed up with his father Charles to create the Cooper 500 Formula 3 race car and form the Cooper Car Company. As a result of his success on the racing circuit, Cooper was tapped to create race-oriented versions of the British-made Mini, starting in the early 1960s. Mini Coopers, as they were dubbed back then, proved popular for decades. Today, the relationship continues, as John Cooper Works, now under the direction of John’s son Mike Cooper, has recently merged with MINI and will create high-performance versions of the popular sub-compact car. The two new MINIs just announced are the first to appear under this relationship.

The John Cooper Works Hardtop and Clubman both pack a 208-horsepower, 1.6-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine under their hoods. The engine can drive the Hardtop from 0 to 60 in just 6.2 seconds, while the larger, cargo-oriented Clubman takes 6.5 seconds to reach 60 mph. Both trims top out at 147 mph.

The engine in both trims links to a specially modified six-speed manual transmission, and both the John Cooper Works Hardtop and Clubman ride on a sport-tuned suspension and exclusive 17-inch light alloy rims with high-performance tires. In addition, both come equipped with a Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system that incorporates Dynamic Traction Control, the first for a MINI. When the driver deactivates the DSC system, Electronic Differential Lock Control kicks in, providing enhanced stability and cornering ability during aggressive driving. This latter feature is exclusive to the John Cooper Works trims.

Both trims will be created at the factory rather than at the dealer using kits. Of course, the enhancements will boost pricing for both trims by a few thousand dollars, when compared to the standard trims on which they’re based.

World Green Car Announced in New York

For auto aficionados, March Madness of a different sort kicked off earlier this week, when the New York Auto Show opened it doors to the general public. And although it’s late in the auto show season, there were enough debuts and announcements left to make New York interesting, if not on the same level as some of the earlier shows this year.

Among other announcements, the selection committee for the 2008 World Car Awards tapped the BMW 118d Advanced Diesel, available only in Europe, as the World Green Car. Incorporating BMW’s Efficient Dynamic technology, the 118d Advanced Diesel comes equipped with a 143-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo-diesel engine designed for fuel efficiency and low emissions. Fuel savings are also provided by brake energy regeneration, which charges the battery when the driver applies the brakes or when the car is coasting or decelerating. In addition, electric steering and an Auto Start Stop Function, which shuts the car off at stops and automatically restarts it, help provide a 21-percent reduction in fuel consumption, as well as lower carbon-dioxide emissions, when compared to a typical diesel-powered car.

The 118d Advanced Diesel was chosen from an initial field of 10 cars by a selection committee that consisted of nearly 50 automotive journalists. The field of 10 was later narrowed to three cars, including the Smart fortwo cdi and the Volkswagen Passat 1.9 TDI.

A number of other cars debuted in New York, including the 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe, scheduled to roll into showrooms sometime next spring. The rear-wheel-drive coupe comes equipped with a 306-horsepower V6, a manual transmission, Brembo brakes and an independent rear suspension, promising drivers a true sport-oriented coupe that will be price-competitive with coupes from Honda and Infiniti, as well as Ford’s Mustang GT. The Genesis Coupe also will be available with a turbocharged four-cylinder.

Other debuts included the Suzuki Kizashi 3 Concept sedan, which the automaker recently announced will go into production for 2010, and the Pontiac Solstice coupe. Officially a targa, meaning that only part of its hard-top roof over the passenger compartment can be removed, it’s scheduled to hit showrooms in 2009. Drawing its basic design from the Solstice convertible, the Solstice coupe should generate buzz with drivers due to its affordable price, rumored to be in the low to high 20s when it goes on sale.

Safest, Greenest, Meanest Cars for 2008

What do the 2009 Nissan Murano, the 2008 Honda Civic GX, and the 2008 diesel-powered Volkswagen Touareg have in common? They’ve all been singled out for recognition in various automotive categories — some good, some not so good.

First, the good news. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit research institute based in Arlington, Va., has named the 2009 Nissan Murano (above) the Top Safety Pick for 2008. The Murano performed best in front, side, and rear crash tests out of a field of nine mid-sized, four-door SUVs tested. Redesigned for 2009, the Murano now includes electronic stability control as a standard feature, which helped it claim top honors in the competition. It also excelled in protecting passengers from whiplash injury in rear-end crashes, and in protecting the head, chest, and abdomen in side crashes.

The Mazda CX-7 and CX-9 SUVs, as well as the Mitsubishi Endeavor, earned good ratings in the crash tests, while the Jeep Liberty, Jeep Wrangler, and Kia Sorrento came in at the bottom end of the scale.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, an independent, non-profit research group based in Washington, D.C., has assigned environmental scores to all 2008 cars and passenger trucks, and has named the natural gas-powered 2008 Honda Civic GX as the “greenest” car of the year. The innovative Civic GX, which has won this award for five consecutive years, has a 113-horsepower i-VTEC engine that runs on compressed natural gas (which can be refueled at home) and is a near-zero-emissions vehicle.

The Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid, Smart Fortwo Convertible, and Toyota Yaris joined the Civic GX in the top five greenest vehicles for 2008.

At the opposite scale, the diesel-powered Volkswagen Touareg was named the “meanest” vehicle for 2008, meaning that it’s the most environment-unfriendly vehicle. Diesel-powered cars from Mercedes-Benz, as well as a number of the world’s top exotic supercars, such as the Bugatti Veyron and the Bentley Azure, also received poor environmental marks.