The automakers of the world are tearing the veil off their latest techno marvels, and this year their hottest offering is the automated car.
No sooner did Nissan introduce the world’s first steer-by-wire car—the Infiniti Q50 highlighted in our 2013 Top Tech Cars—than Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn pledged to bring a self-driving car to showrooms by 2020.
As our 2014 top-tech selections show, cars are adding cameras, radar, lasers, sonar, and GPS to serve and protect drivers and passengers, with the ultimate goal of rendering human drivers superfluous. In August, Mercedes’s self-driving S500 Intelligent Drive prototype—just a bit more advanced than the showroom S-Class reviewed below—drove itself 100 kilometers (62 miles), from Mannheim to Pforzheim. That trip followed the route that Bertha Benz, wife of company founder Carl Benz, completed in 1888, after pilfering his Patent Motor Car from the factory to go on a joyride with their two sons. Like today’s tech visionaries, Bertha hoped to prove a point to skeptics and even to her husband: This invention had a future.
Automated cars promise safer highways, better use of time and energy, and cleaner air in exchange for surrendering the occasional pleasures of controlling a fine machine. Whether that bargain strikes you as fantastic or Faustian depends on your temperament. Ghosn, for one, envisions senior citizens extending their driving years and teenagers starting younger. Other backers envision intelligent transportation pods that never crash, eliminating the need for air bags and other safety gear. Even driving enthusiasts might be happy to sit back and text during a slog through traffic.
Nevertheless, we realize that many drivers aren’t quite ready for retirement. So we’ve also chosen hands-on pleasures, such as an overachieving Japanese small car and a German plug-in that’s likely the world’s most advanced sports car.
Almost a robotic chauffeur
As the world’s most popular vehicular status symbol, the S-Class is the fallback for everyone from royals to Russian oligarchs, with plenty of doctors, financiers, and celebrities in between.
But to ensure that the S-Class remains a hands-down choice, Mercedes is trying a hands-off approach: The S-Class convincingly shows that the automated car has hopped most of the technical hurdles. The steeper barriers will be posed by laws, safety regulations, and highway infrastructure. Only California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, and Washington, D.C., sanction self-driving cars, and Europe currently allows only “corrective steering functions,” rather than full autosteering, at speeds above 10 kilometers per hour (6.2 miles per hour).
The new Mercedes has plenty of firsts. Drivers can select a scent to waft through the cabin—the sweet smell of success, no doubt. Air bags in the rear seat-cushion bottoms ensure that a reclining passenger won’t slide beneath the shoulder belt during a collision. All the light comes from 500-odd LEDs, making this the first modern car without a single incandescent bulb.
Semiautonomous driving is provided by “sensor fusion.” An array of two dozen sensors integrates stereoscopic 3-D cameras with near- and far-infrared cameras, ultrasonic sensors, and short-, mid-, and long-range radar, wrapping the Benz in a 360-degree cocoon of sensory awareness. The whole shebang is tied to an antilock brake, stability control, power train, and electric steering system.
Setting out from Manhattan in the S550, I satisfied myself with a few 4.8-second 0–100 km/h runs—with me steering and controlling the car’s silken 335-kilowatt (449-horsepower) Biturbo V-8. Then I switched on Benz’s Distronic adaptive cruise control. The windshield-mounted cameras, scanning a 45-degree field of view, are the heart of the Intelligent Drive system, complemented by radar that tracks the car ahead and the one ahead of that. The Mercedes faithfully paced traffic, smoothly braking and accelerating on its own, allowing me to drive for miles without touching the pedals. On rural two-lane roads north of New York City, the camera scanned for oncoming cars, vibrating the steering wheel when I strayed from the lane, then applying brakes to the appropriate wheels to pop the Mercedes back onto the proper path.
And on gently curving highways, the cameras and radar actually command the steering wheel to keep the Benz centered in its lane. It’s an assistant rather than a full-on robot: If I took my hands off the wheel for more than 10 seconds, the display would tell me to put them back on again.
The Mercedes also scans for cross traffic and pedestrians. It can automatically prevent a collision at speeds up to 50 km/h and mitigate the damage at up to 74 km/h if the driver fails to act. I resisted the temptation to test this capability on unsuspecting New York taxicabs and jaywalkers, but I did get a demonstration at a German test facility. It works.
Sensors at the rear scan for potential collisions, firing seat-belt pretensioners if necessary, closing windows and sunroof, and applying brakes to keep the Benz from being driven into cars or intersections ahead. At night, the heat-seeking Night View camera system identifies moving impediments—including humans and some large animals.
The car also oversees the all-too-human species at the wheel: Attention Assist monitors roughly 75 parameters—including the driver’s steering and control inputs—to spot a sleepy driver and even guide him or her to the nearest exit or rest stop. Magic Body Control, the world’s first camera-based suspension, spots speed bumps and pavement imperfections, adjusting air springs to glide over obstacles.
Right now, these wonders can be enjoyed only by the few: S-Class households earn an average of US $371 000 a year. Yet similar tech is already trickling down: Mercedes’s driver-assistance technology is already a $2800 option on the more affordable E-Class, and it will migrate to the entry-priced 2015 C-Class, the company’s best-selling car, this fall. And such preternatural abilities are rapidly filtering into mass-market cars, like the Mazda3.
Automotive automation for the masses
The tiniest companies are often the most willing to innovate: The alternative is to be crushed by the big boys. Mazda is a case in point.
Among the first new cars Mazda developed without resources from Ford, its former part owner, the Mazda3 declares the company’s independence in trumpet-sounding techno fashion. It blends Asian ingenuity and European styling and performance into a zesty dish that seems poised to set a new global standard for small cars.
Mazda’s Skyactiv technology suite kicks off with a chassis that’s 30 percent stiffer and roughly 45 kilograms (100 pounds) lighter than that of the 2012. Two different four-cylinder engines are available, and both are high compression and direct injection. For sedan versions, the standard 2-liter, 116-kilowatt (155-horsepower) achieves 5.7 liters per 100 kilometers (41 miles per gallon) on the highway; even the muscular 137 kW (184 hp) 2.5-L manages 6.0 L/100 km.
The available six-speed manual transmission is the most satisfying stick this side of a Porsche. A novel six-speed automatic transmission marries the best functions of conventional automatics and the dual-clutch units found in luxury models: It combines a fluid-driven torque converter for smooth starts and shifts below 8 kilometers per hour (5 miles per hour), then switches to a locking clutch for sporty gear changes and fuel savings. Fuel conservation continues with i-Eloop, a regenerative braking system that ditches a storage battery for a lighter capacitor to help power electrical systems.
In the surprisingly luxurious cabin, the 3 debuts Mazda Connect, a distraction-limiting human-machine interface that includes a slick main screen and head-up display. It also features upgradable smartphone apps that pair with the car’s onboard system. Integrated into the system is Harman’s Aha infotainment platform, which accesses more than 40 000 cloud-based presets, including Internet radio, audiobooks, and Facebook and Twitter feeds.
The Mazda also highlights the speedy trickle-down—more like a waterfall—of first-gen automation to mainstream cars. Radar- and camera-based systems provide adaptive cruise control and automated high beams, along with lane-departure, blind-spot, and rear-cross-traffic monitors.
Ford C-Max Solar Energi
A car that moves itself to track the sun
Add to the cars that drive or park themselves a car that suns itself actively—it doesn’t just sit there but, like a true sun worshipper, changes its position throughout the day to max out the rays.
A concept version of Ford’s existing plug-in hybrid, C-Max, the Solar Energi packs about 1400 square centimeters (1.5 square feet) of cells on its roof. Still, it generates 350 watts at most, which would be enough to drive just a kilometer and a half for every hour spent in the sun. So to boost that range, Ford designed a separate canopy containing Fresnel lenses that magnify sunlight by a factor of eight. You park the C-Max under the canopy and it moves itself to keep the light focused on the solar cells, inching forward or back along an east-west coordinate as the day wears on.
Ford says that the C-Max can soak up enough light in 6 to 8 hours to pack 8 kilowatt-hours into its lithium-ion battery. That’s enough to cover 21 miles, meaning a worker could, um, tan the Ford during the day, drive home courtesy of Sol, and plug into a charging outlet at night.
Toyota FCV Concept
Fuel cells: Not dead yet
Quixotic or not, the dream of hydrogen fuel cells as the ultimate clean-energy solution continues to fascinate automakers. Toyota has worked on the idea for more than 20 years, and it is now pledging that something very like the FCV will reach small numbers of customers in Europe, Japan, and the United States by 2015. (Daimler, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, and Renault also have fuel-cell models in the works.)
The company says the FCV’s power density of 3 kilowatts per liter is a record for a fuel cell. That’s twice the density of Toyota’s 2008 hydrogen concept, which is why although it’s markedly smaller and lighter, it produces at least 100 kilowatts (134 horsepower). And did we mention that all it emits is water vapor? Bob Carter, Toyota’s senior vice president of automotive operations, says the company has slashed fuel-cell and hydrogen-tank costs by 95 percent in just five years.
The oddly styled, nostril-flaring FCV uses the Prius’s familiar Hybrid Synergy Drive, which gets the car to 100 kilometers per hour (or 62 miles per hour) in a workmanlike 10 seconds. Unlike electric vehicles, the Toyota can refill in roughly 3 minutes; also unlike them, it can cover well over 300 miles on its dual tanks of compressed hydrogen. The near-nonexistent fueling network remains a huge obstacle, yet California has pledged US $200 million to begin developing up to 48 hydrogen stations by 2016. “Stay tuned,” Carter says, “because this infrastructure thing is going to happen.” If you say so, Bob.
Porsche 918 Spyder
Setting a record pace with plug-in power
Plug-in hybrids are on a fast track, and the Porsche 918 Spyder is the proof. In our testing, Porsche’s carbon-fiber phantasm conquered a Spanish Formula One test track like a machine from a more-advanced planet. Porsche says that this performance—including a 6-minute, 57-second trip around Germany’s Nürburgring circuit, better than any other production car in history—could not have been achieved without electricity.
The Spyder gets its oomph from a 4.6-liter, 453-kilowatt (608-horsepower), 9150-rpm V-8 descended from the RS Spyder racer. That midmounted engine mates with Porsche’s seven-speed PDK transmission and a 116-kW (156-hp) electric motor at the rear axle. Front wheels get a 96-kW (129-hp) jolt from yet another electric motor. At full charge, the all-wheel-drive system amasses 661 kW (887 horses) and 1280 newton meters (944 foot-pounds) of torque.
And what a charge it is, in both senses: The Porsche reaches 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in 2.6 seconds, 200 km/h in 7.2 seconds, and 300 km/h in 19.9 seconds. Peak velocity is 344 km/h. Drivers can dial up five operating modes, from virtuous to vanquishing. The default electric-only mode pushes the Spyder for about 18 miles on its 6.7-kilowatt-hour battery while still allowing the car to travel at up to 150 km/h. Diverting engine power, the Porsche can recharge that battery on the fly in about 15 minutes, or in as little as 25 minutes on its home station.
Under Europe’s forgiving way of calculating energy equivalences, Porsche claims up to 3 liters per 100 kilometers (78 miles per gallon), with Prius-like emissions as low as 72 grams of CO2 per kilometer. Based on our test drive, reality should be closer to 9.4 L/100 km (25 mpg), still efficient by supercar standards, or the energy equivalent to 3.1 L/100 km on just the battery.
Electricity also plays a key role in braking: The Spyder’s motors alone deliver enough reverse torque for purely electric stops at up to half a g—as much total deceleration as a typical sedan could muster a decade ago—while recuperating up to 230 kW for the battery pack. When I needed to press harder, as at the end of repeated 281-km/h (170-mph) straightaways, the ceramic-composite brakes reeled in the roadster with heroic force.
Tech aside, the Porsche is glorious to drive. On the Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Spain, I chased an ex–Formula One driver, the irrepressible Timo Glück, who drove ahead of me in a Porsche 911 Turbo S (with a mere 418 kW, or 560 hp). As Glück began sliding through turns, pushing the Turbo S to its limits, I was forced to slow down and wait patiently—as if the Spyder were taking a walk in the park—to allow Glück to maintain the lead.
What kind of car lets an amateur keep pace with a professional racer? A Porsche, one that proves that electrification isn’t the death of fast cars but their salvation.
Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid
The world’s first diesel plug-in
Plug-in cars, hybrids, and diesels are the triple threat of fuel economy. Now, Volvo has combined all three technologies in one wagon: The seductively curvy V60 is the world’s first plug-in diesel hybrid, and it sets a new standard for frugality among family haulers.
An electric motor rated at 51 kilowatts (68 horsepower) drives the rear axle, juiced by an 11.2 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery nestled below the floor. That lets the Volvo cover 50 kilometers on electricity alone. Pop the V60 into Hybrid mode and a 160 kW five-cylinder diesel drives the front wheels, either separately or in tandem with electrically powered rear wheels. Add it up and you’re looking at a wild wagon that dashes to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in 6.1 seconds, with a 230-km/h (143-mph) top speed. Yet in hybrid mode, the Volvo is rated for just 48 grams of CO2 per kilometer. Under Europe’s divorced-from-reality fuel-economy ratings, that equates to about 1.8 liters per 100 kilometers (130 miles per gallon). But in the real world there’s little doubt the Volvo can manage 4.7 or even 3.9 L/100 km.
The Save mode lets the driver conserve battery power for when it matters most, as in driving through urban centers that charge entry fees to internal combustion cars. The safety-first Volvo also heralds the automated era: A radar- and camera-based system can automatically stop the V60 for pedestrians, cars, or cyclists. U.S. buyers will see a plug-in gasoline hybrid version, likely in 2014. Either way, the V60 is a car that even wagon-averse Americans could love.
Not your father’s land yacht
There is a long history of American carmakers trying—and usually failing—to beat German sports sedans. But Cadillac triumphs with the CTS’s superlative chassis, steering, and suspension, which make a BMW 5-Series or an Audi A6 feel tame in comparison.
Once notorious for lumbering land yachts, Caddy applied a ruthless gram-by-gram strategy to trim weight. The doors, hood, subframe, brake calipers, front suspension, and bumper beam are all aluminum. The engine mounts are not aluminum—too heavy. The new magnesium mounts weigh 680 grams less than the old aluminum ones. Despite being larger, the base CTS weighs 113 kilograms (250 pounds) less than its predecessor, a lightest-in-class 1655 kg.
A trio of engine options starts with a 204-kilowatt (272-horsepower), 2.0-liter turbo four and peaks with a real beauty: the vSport edition’s 313 kW twin-turbo V-6—the most powerful V-6 in GM history. The combination of two fast-acting turbos and very short paths for both exhaust gases and compressed air dramatically reduces “turbo lag”—the time it takes the engine to respond when you step on the accelerator. It also produces 583 newton meters of torque, 176 Nm more than the BMW’s turbo V-6.
The vSport girds its loins with an electronic limited-slip differential, a quicker steering ratio, 20 percent stiffer springs, larger antiroll bars (to keep the car level in a turn), and the aggressive Track mode for stability control. So equipped, the vSport charges from 0 to 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour) in 4.6 seconds, achieves 0.97 g of tire grip on a skid pad, and halts from 113 km/h in 45 meters. Those are numbers you’d associate with a two-seat sports car, not a roomy midsize luxury sedan.
The Cadillac drives with bank-vault solidity and smoothness, with available all-wheel-drive and a cabin rich in tech and trims such as carbon fiber, aluminum, or burl walnut. In tandem with its smaller ATS sibling, the CTS is good enough to impress even the Germans.
A carbon-fiber, electric-drive Bimmer
Following a lukewarm reception for the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, the BMW i3 is the latest test case: Are people ready to spend extra money to drive an electric? The fruit of massive BMW investment in sustainable transportation and designed for future megacities, the four-seat i3 packs efficiency and a charming personality into a toylike yet ultrasturdy shape.
The aluminum Drive module mates with a lightweight carbon-fiber passenger cell for a mere 1200-kilogram (2634-pound) curb weight. That’s 320 kg lighter than the Leaf, despite the i3’s 230-kg load of batteries, with a capacity of 22 kilowatt-hours. The electric motor delivers 125 kilowatts (168 horsepower) and a stout 250 newton meters of torque, which together with a seamless single-speed transmission send the rear-drive BMW from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in 7.2 seconds. It tops out at 150 km/h and covers 130 to 160 km on a charge, or 200 km in frugal Eco Pro Plus mode. An optional 650-cc, two-cylinder gasoline engine extends that range to 300 km.
A low center of gravity and sophisticated suspension—this is a BMW, after all—create a surprisingly fun-to-drive runabout. A 9.8-meter turning circle helps the i3 shred city traffic and negotiate tight spots. On sale already in Europe, the BMW will come to the U.S. and Japanese markets later this year.
Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
A featherweight muscle car
Most supercars have certain things in common, starting with carbon-fiber panels, an aluminum chassis, and an active suspension. But the all-new Corvette offers all of those things, along with a sticker price that starts at US $54 000. This seventh-generation ’Vette puts the long-dormant Stingray name on a ferociously modern sports car. Even the car’s most ardent fans back in the swinging ’60s couldn’t imagine a Corvette getting to 60 miles per hour (9 kilometers per hour) in 3.8 seconds, with a top speed beyond 190 mph, and the ability to pull nearly 1.1 g in lateral acceleration.
The roof and hood are carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer; other panels mix such fiber into a hybrid composite. Beneath that skin lies a 60-percent-stiffer chassis made of extruded, hydroformed aluminum.
The 6.2-liter, direct-injected V-8 cranks up 343 kilowatts (460 horsepower) when equipped with the dual-mode exhaust system. And like the Corvette engines of the 1960s, it has valve pushrods and just two valves per cylinder. Europhiles can scoff, but the fact is that the Chevy’s ever-evolving small block is 10 centimeters shorter and 18 kilograms lighter than BMW’s 4.4-L twin-turbo V-8.
The V-8 can run on four cylinders in Eco mode, lifting fuel economy on the highway to an impressive 7.8 liters per 100 kilometers (30 miles per gallon) with the manual transmission. That nifty stick has seven speeds—just like on the Porsche 911. Flick the shifter and a patented sensor anticipates gear changes, automatically goosing the throttle to match engine revs like a track racer. Powerful Brembo brakes, in conjunction with heroic Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires, halt the Corvette in as short a distance as you’d get from a Porsche 911.
The interior, long a Corvette sore spot, gets welcome upgrades in design and craftsmanship. Body-hugging seats with magnesium frames replace the unsupportive chairs of old. A built-in lap timer helps turn the Stingray into a real-life video game. And Performance Traction Management features a dizzying range of settings for the engine, suspension, traction, and stability systems, including racetrack modes that sharply boost performance without eliminating the safety net. There’s even a tire-temperature algorithm that expands the performance envelope.
And don’t forget the third generation of the Corvette’s groundbreaking Magnetic Ride Control, the magnetic-fluid-based adjustable suspension that’s also being used by Ferrari and Audi.
The result is a Corvette whose stellar performance is easy to love, on road or track. When I took it out on a test track in western Michigan, the Corvette tore around like an attack dog, but it never threatened to bite its master. And if technology is a wonderful thing, affordable technology is better: The Stingray’s style and performance can be had for about half the price of a comparably equipped Porsche 911 S.
Honda Accord Hybrid
At last, a Honda hybrid that really saves on fuel
Honda built its reputation around small cars with small engines. But Honda’s attempts at gasoline-electric hybrids—which included the first in the United States, the two-seat Insight of 1999—have often been half-baked technical curiosities that got disappointing mileage.
Honda’s Accord Hybrid should help demolish that reputation. It uses a technically ingenious hybrid system to turn in a class-topping city mileage rating of 5.6 liters per 100 kilometers (50 miles per gallon).
A pair of electric motors and a complex nest of shafts, gears, and oil pumps replace a conventional transmission. They’re linked to a 2.0-liter gasoline engine that runs on the Atkinson cycle, which saves fuel via lower compression and precise valve control. The main drive motor sends 306 newton meters (226 foot-pounds) of torque to the front wheels, for a 7.1-second sprint to 60 miles per hour (or 7.3 seconds to 100 kilometers per hour).
As in the Chevy Volt, the 105-kilowatt (141 horsepower) gasoline engine is used mainly to generate electricity. That’s where the second electric motor (or “motor generator”) comes in. It spins on the engine’s crankshaft to convert gasoline energy into electrons, which can either charge the battery or power the drive motor. Only at highway speeds does the engine physically propel the wheels via a direct drive that connects the engine via a single fixed gear.
The Accord’s regenerative brakes apply stronger-than-average electrical resistance from the motor to provide robust stopping power, maximizing the energy that’s recaptured. You have to push hard and long on the pedal to bring the conventional mechanical brakes into play. The push-button Battery mode further boosts energy regeneration, producing faster stops the second you take your foot off the gas. That’s useful in city or stop-and-go driving, allowing the “one pedal” driving that electric vehicle fans love.
As with the best modern hybrids, including the Ford Fusion, there is absolutely no mistaking the Honda for an overgrown golf cart. Handoffs between electric and gasoline power are quiet and seamless, although the Hybrid doesn’t feel quite as athletic as a standard Accord, in part due to its low-friction, fuel-saving tires.
Even so, this hybrid, like the Fusion, doesn’t live up to its knockout mileage ratings. Driving carefully, I coaxed 5.9 to 5.4 L/100 km (40 to 43 mpg) from the Honda. That’s still terrific mileage in a powerful midsize sedan, enough to save Americans $650 to $850 a year in fuel in comparison with conventional four- and six-cylinder Accords, respectively. Considering the Hybrid’s roughly $3400 price premium over the four-cylinder model, your takeaway may hinge on a question: Do you see its hybrid tank as half empty, or half full?
This article originally appeared in print as “Top 10 Tech Cars.”