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New vehicles are beyond science fiction

Ideas that bordered on fantasy just 10 years ago are here today — even in lower-priced vehicles.

What can we say about new vehicles? Technology galore!

With every new generation, automakers keep adding, refining and pushing the technological envelope ever further. As was apparent at the recent AJAC TestFest, the 2013 models are no exception.

Ideas that bordered on science fiction just 10 years ago are now not only available but widely so — and often in relatively low-priced vehicles.

Things like automatic parking systems, for example. Or voice control for almost any function, including the ability to send and receive texts and emails or communicate via Facebook while driving.

Nowhere is the technology in greater flux than in the powertrain, as the ongoing quest for greater fuel efficiency becomes even more intense.

Indicative of the sea change in progress, the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), for the first time ever, included a City Car category for vehicles with ranges less than 200 kilometres (read “electric vehicles”) in its competition this year. There are already five EVs for sale in the Canadian market and more coming soon.

There was a plug-in hybrid too, joining last year’s Chevrolet Volt in the ability to charge its battery from an external source, sufficient to provide some upfront driving on electrical power alone before the car’s conventional hybrid operation takes over.

And of course there were more conventional hybrids. They just keep coming and coming.

Unlike not so long ago, they’re not, for the most part, being treated as something out of the norm or deliberately designed to be different. They’re just very good all-round vehicles that happen to have hybrid powertrains.

Many vehicles among this year’s entries quietly included “micro-hybrid” automatic stop-start systems that shut off the engine when you stop, such as at a traffic light, and restart it automatically when you release the brake. You’re not wasting fuel if the engine isn’t running.

Even more apparent among this year’s entrants is the trend to smaller engines equipped with direct injection and turbocharging. This maintains peak power levels when you need it and saves fuel when you don’t.

Some automakers have chosen a different way to maintain or increase power levels while improving fuel economy at the same time. They’ve started from scratch by completely redesigning their engines to optimize every aspect with fuel-efficiency in mind — with some spectacular results.

Variable valve timing has been commonplace for several years — variable valve lift and control not so much. We’re seeing them more and more, even at an entry-level price point, enabling much more precise control of the incoming airflow to the engine, again improving efficiency.

So effective have these technical advances become that V6 engines are now becoming an endangered species — particularly in mid-size vehicles. Fours rule!

But the search for fuel economy doesn’t stop with the engine. Until the last few years, three- and four-speed automatic transmissions were the norm with some five- and six-speeds offered in higher-end vehicles.

Now those five- and six-speeds are the norm, even at the bottom of the price range, and seven-, eight- and nine-speeds are commonplace further up the price scale.

CVTs (continuously variable transmissions) are also becoming increasingly common, finding their way upmarket from small cars and CUVs into intermediate sedans and crossovers.

Why? Because all engines operate most efficiently within a relatively narrow range of engine speed and load. And the more gear-ratios you have available (a near infinite number in the case of the CVT), the more potential you have to keep the engine running at or near that efficiency sweet spot.

Whatever type of vehicle you may be interested in, you can be sure it employs one or more technologies, probably several, aimed directly at reducing your fuel consumption — and cost.

  • New vehicles are beyond science fiction

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