April kicks off with our annual roundup of the hottest, coolest, techiest rides on the planet. In "Top 10 Tech Cars" author John Voelcker gathers the most formidable collection of automotive inventiveness of the last year into our pages for your amazement. As you might guess, this year's theme is the great debate over what engineers can do these days with the automobile in a perfect world and what they ought to do in our imperfect world of fuel and emissions concerns.
Let's be wild for a moment and start with the perfect world fantasy of limitless supplies of non-polluting fuel and care-free motoring without a single worry over cost. In that abstract environment, you might choose to drive the 11th entrant in our Top Ten, the Veyron 16.4, from Volkswagen's (that's right) Bugatti division, "the fastest, most powerful, most expensive production car in the history of the automotive industry." This monster boasts an 8.0-liter, 16-cylinder engine and four turbochargers (16.4) that produce 987 horsepower of pure oomph. The Veyron goes from stop to 186 mph in 16.7 seconds—and can crank it up to 254 mph. Its carbon-fiber/aluminum body, front and rear air diffusers, and massive rear spoiler are a sci-fi dream. For US $1.2 million, it's yours (if you can get your hands on one of the 50 available for sale this year). Whew!
Back in the real world, ahem, where most of us really live, there are plenty of choices amidst the price continuum. Going from large to small, let's travel through our Top Ten's technical merits.
2007 Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon: Not exactly tech heavyweights (but decidedly heavy), the SUV twins do offer an upgraded OnStar service that opens a dialog between you, your vehicle, and your vehicle's manufacturer. OnStar monitors dozens of functions such as acceleration, braking, steering angles, body roll, oil pressure, fuel level, and even can tell when a vehicle is being driven "too aggressively." If OnStar determines the car's on-road activities are too extreme, an operator calls to make sure everything's all right.
2007 Mercedes-Benz E 320 Bluetec: This model boasts the cleanest diesel engine in the world. To crack the vast U.S. market, it needs it. With strict emissions requirements in most states and a lack of the cleaner diesel fuel used in Europe, few diesels make the trip across the Atlantic. To achieve a cleaner-running engine, Mercedes-Benz employs three catalytic converters in the Bluetec, a 3.0-L turbocharged V6 diesel that generates 208-hp and gives you an economical 35 miles to the gallon of fuel.
2006 Chrysler 300C Heritage: This four-door sedan offers a V8 engine that automatically shuts down four valves when the load is light. It comes with the new SmartBeam headlight system, which uses forward-facing CMOS image sensors (a "camera on a chip") built into the interior rearview mirror to switch on the high beams when needed. The technology keeps the brights switched on until it detects either the headlamps of oncoming vehicles or the taillights of vehicles ahead.
2007 Lexus LS460: The leading U.S. luxury brand comes with an alphabet soup of advanced automotive electronics. The latest trick up its sleeve is a new system that automatically parks the car for you, with just a little braking on your part, using front and rear cameras and software that controls both the electric power steering and the "drive-by-wire" electronic throttle. Its Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system even helps you drive it in difficult circumstances.
2006 Volvo s60: An inexpensive option on several Volvo models, the Blind-spot Information System (BLIS) uses camera modules on each door mirror to send signals to LED displays warning of other vehicles in your way as you change lanes. The cameras process 25 images per second in a signal-processing chip, which uses software stored in the camera's flash memory. A control processor supervises I/O, data transfer, and communication among the components.
2006 Volkswagen Passat: The midsize Passat sold in the U.S. offers an optional 3.6-L VR6, with two banks of three cylinders at an angle of just 10.6 degrees, making it light and compact and capable of 280 hp. It features an electronic stabilization program that monitors speed, cornering, braking, input from the drive-by-wire throttle, and other data to compensate for slipping traction or sliding tires faster and more precisely than a human can.
Concept Ford Reflex: This subcompact sports diesel hybrid debuted at January's influential Detroit Auto Show. It's powered by a 1.4-L turbocharged diesel engine mated to a parallel 30-kW electric motor that drives the front wheels and an additional, 15-kW electric motor to drive the rear wheels and provide all-wheel drive. The combo produces peppy pick up, letting you move from 0-60 mph in less than 7 seconds. Solar panels on the roof and in the lights help lighten the load on the Reflex's high-voltage batteries.
Mitsubishi Concept-CT MIEV: This proof-of-concept compact four-door hatchback uses four electric motors on the wheels themselves. The Mitsubishi In-wheel Motor Electric Vehicle system is mated to a three-cylinder, 1.0-liter gasoline engine located behind the rear seat but ahead of the rear axle line. Its experimental electric motors follow a hollow-doughnut construction, in which the rotor goes outside the stator instead of inside it, conserving space and reducing weight.
Subaru B5-TPH: The Turbo Parallel Hybrid demonstrates the concept of matching a turbocharged 2.0-liter horizontally opposed "boxer" engine (256 hp) with an electric motor-generator (13 hp), just 58 millimeters thick, between the engine and the transmission. The all-wheel-drive compact coupe also introduces manganese lithium-ion batteries that offer 50 percent greater power density than the nickel-metal-hydride batteries used for hybrids today, as well as faster recharging.
2006 Subaru R2 Type S: Down at the tiny end of the automotive spectrum come Japan's kei cars, which are so small they qualify for free parking on the island nation's crowded streets. Still, they do offer some interesting features. The R2 Type S comes with: all-wheel drive with a continuously variable transmission; a 658-cc, four-cylinder engine, with dual overhead cams, a supercharger, and an intercooler. It can move from zero to 62 mph in about 10 seconds and will take you 42 miles on a gallon of gas.
So, ladies and gentlemen, start your imaginations and your engines—big and small.