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10 Techno-Cool Cars

Spectrum picks the 10 most technically sophisticated cars for 2003

8 min read
Volvo Safety Concept car
Photo: Volvo

The auto industry is quick to entertain new ideas but slower to implement them. Although Robert Bosch perfected diesel fuel injection in the 1920s, it was decades before the technology made it into the mass market for gasoline engines. Mostly, the auto industry waited for technology to prove itself elsewhere. Antilock brakes were first used in aircraft landing gear; GPS navigation in military and nautical applications; seat belts and noise abatement in aircraft; and build-to-order sales in PC manufacturing. Car companies, for the most part, contented themselves with the niceties of design—artfully molded sheet steel, glowering grilles, white walls, and cup holders.

In defense of Detroit, there were sound reasons for this technological wariness. A fuel-saving gizmo costing more than the fuel it saved would make no sense. Safety features that were godsends to sailors and aviators mattered less in cars, least of all to the drivers who had to pay for them. Neat inventions that made engineers salivate often left dollar-wise buyers cold.

For some time, though, this picture has been changing. Pressure came first from auto manufacturers outside the United States, where drivers often cared deeply about what went under the hood or behind the dashboard. Thanks to the technological expertise they acquired, those auto companies could often turn on a dime when governments, oil cartels, or some other deus ex machina suddenly put the screws on fuel economy, emissions control, oil supply, or plain old safety. The technological rivalry was quickened in recent years as microchips and other electronic wizardry got about as cheap to toss around as confetti.

Many of these technologies are hatched in specialty companies such as Robert Bosch GmbH (Gerlingen, Germany) and Delphi Corp. (Troy, Mich.) and tend to seep into the entire industry all at once, making it hard to single out one or another car for special praise. Therefore, in IEEE Spectrum’s list of top technocars, we preferred ideas expressed in a unique exemplar, preferably a vehicle from the current or the upcoming model year. We looked for significant jumps in performance, convenience, or comfort, rather than the incremental improvements that, chained together, account for most automotive progress over the long haul. We favored bold technologies, knowing full well that some might not trickle down to the family sedan for many years, if ever. Also, we wanted the stuff to be cool. Engineers, after all, are entitled to salivate once in a while.


Volvo Safety Concept Car

Showcasing safety beyond the box

Based on the S60 sedan, this two-door sport wagon has, since 2000, been showcasing futuristic safety technologies, which are even proving practical in some cases. Surely production cars will inherit at least a few of this Volvo’s many tricks for conveying relevant visual information to the driver, including night vision and see-through A-pillars [see photo]; controls that automatically adjust seat, pedals, and even the floor when the driver, for which it has been preprogrammed, sits down; warning systems that cover blind spots and use sound and light alarms; and rotating headlights that follow the lead of the front wheels as they turn.

Then there is a fingerprint access system that locks out thieves and a heartbeat detector that sniffs out left-behind infants and pets. In the worst case—when a sensor detects a hostile life form, Star-Trek style, hiding in the car—the driver can hit a button that alerts the police. The truly paranoid, with access to a freewheeling aftermarket, might prefer to fit the button to an ejection seat.


Saab 9-3

Bluetooth connects it all together

As the first car equipped with Bluetooth wireless technology, the 9-3 links all the car’s wireless devices that obey the driver’s voice—cellphones, PDAs, computers—through a voice-control system. If you’re wearing a headset, you can make a telephone call from up to 10 meters away. The car, which lists for US $26 000 to $39 000, can access the Internet as well as satellite navigation, including a guidance system that helps avoid traffic jams.

Other gadgetry includes a range of a driver’s own custom-set preferences for features ranging from the temperature controls to the rain-tolerance of the windshield wipers and whether or not the burglar alarm is armed. Safety features, always a Saab specialty, include head restraints that move closer to your head during a crash, plus air bags all over the place. Oh, yes, it also has an engine: a 2.0-L, turbocharged version of the four-cylinder Ecotec, made by Saab’s owner, General Motors.

honda civic

Honda Civic GX

Refuel it at home with an optional $1000 (natural) gas station

Relying solely on natural gas, this Honda has been languishing in fleets since its introduction four years ago for lack of enough "true" gas stations. In the 2004 model year, Honda will break out of this niche by selling the car for US $20 510 at retail along with a home refueling station. The stations are to be made by FuelMaker Corp. (Toronto), in which Honda has a 20 percent equity stake, and will feed off a home’s piped-in cooking gas to recharge the compressed-gas tanks overnight.

Such steps are necessary because the GX’s 1.7-L, four-cylinder engine was from the first optimized for natural gas, unlike "flexifuel" designs that also burn gasoline. That means it can take full advantage of the fuel’s high octane level, providing excellent performance and superlow emissions (and 20 percent less greenhouse gas, too). Among the technical tricks used to achieve all this is a continuously variable transmission. A tankful will carry it more than 300 km in the city, 420 km on the highway.

honda vcx

Honda FCX

Fuel-cell powered, ultracapacitor equipped

The FCX is the first car for the U.S. market that is powered purely by fuel cells. It meets zero-emissions standards by exhaling water vapor—no noxious fumes and no greenhouse gases. In the coming year, Honda will lease about 30 of the four-seaters in California and Tokyo, areas where it plans to set up fueling stations selling compressed hydrogen gas [see photo].

The proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, provided by Ballard Power (Burnaby, B.C., Canada), put out 78 kW. When supplemented by an ultracapacitor, whose porous electrodes afford far more surface area per gram than do the nonporous plates of conventional capacitors, the car can accelerate about as well as Honda’s Civic. The ultracapacitor also stores energy recouped during braking, when the motor runs backward to function as a generator. The 156-L fuel tank goes under the floor, rather than in the trunk, so the driving range is about 350 km, yet cargo capacity is normal. Honda made two crucial technological decisions: to achieve zero emissions, it opted for hydrogen rather than natural gas, and to avoid a hybrid (gas-electric) design, it went with the ultracapacitor rather than batteries.

cadallac xlr

Cadillac XLR

Suspended on electrorheological goo

This all-new two-seater, descendant of the 1999 Evoq concept car, uses several high-tech features to control the ample output of its 4.6-L, V8 engine, in a rear-wheel drive configuration. The most novel feature is a ride-damping device based on an electrorheological fluid, whose viscosity changes from one millisecond to the next as an imposed magnetic field affects a suspension of magnetic particles. It fits into Delphi’s suspension-management StabiliTrak system, which is also used in other Cadillacs, to sense changes in the road surface electronically and manage damping and roll control accordingly. These controls, and the chassis itself, are to be shared with an upcoming Corvette, which presumably will be tuned more for tight control (and less for smooth ride) than the Caddy. A third feature is the radar-enhanced automatic cruise control, which maintains a constant speed until the car gets too close to a vehicle in front of it, at which point it slows down enough to maintain a constant distance. The XLR, estimated to sell for US $75 000, is the first U.S. marque to carry keyless entry and ignition (pioneered in 1999 by Mercedes-Benz), in which a card in the driver’s wallet opens the car and lets him start it up by simply pushing a button.

audi a8

Audi A8

Computer controls galore

The most wide-ranging computer-coordinated electronic systems are to be found in this US $73 160 Audi, whose Multi-Media Interface controls a mobile telephone, satellite navigation system, tautness of the air suspension system, as well as audio, heating, air conditioning, and assorted goodies, all with a dial and some buttons. Other standout features include its aluminum-rich construction, making for a light package, even given the extra machinery needed for its four-wheel drive. Also nifty are an override that lets the driver take direct, temporary, manual command of the automatic transmission’s gearbox and shift, plus a radar-enabled cruise control that maintains a constant distance from the car in front (a feature available in several other high-end cars this year). Like the Cadillac XLR, the A8 allows for keyless ignition, but goes it one better by offering a fingerprint-sensing pad, not only to thwart impostors but also to set up a particular person’s desired seat configuration, radio channels, and other favorites.

mercedes benz sl500

Mercedes-Benz SL500

Braking by wire

The SL500’s by-wire braking system, the first in a mass-produced car, equips the driver with a more sensitive, computer-assisted response to crises. The usual hydraulically controlled brakes are no longer prime; the brake pedal you push is like a mouse click to a computer. This, in turn, controls the hydraulic pressure applied individually to the discs on each wheel’s brakes, according to algorithms that account for g forces, wheel speed, steering angle, and engine output, as well as the driver’s responses. If, for example, the driver’s foot suddenly shifts from the accelerator to the brake pedal, the system goes straight into crisis mode.

To address the worry about software bugs and electrical snafus, first voiced when by-wire controls appeared in aircraft many years ago, Mercedes also includes a hydraulic backup system for the front wheels, forgoing any savings in weight or cumbersome connections that the system might have provided. The braking system [see illustration] links seamlessly to a stability control system and an active suspension system, which helps keep all parts of the car on the ground when taking a corner. That ride-smoothing savvy comes with a powerful 5-L V8, which is to be followed in about a year by a juiced-up model equipped with a 5.5-L, turbocharged version of the engine. Mercedes says the new engine in its US $98 000 automobile will be half again as powerful, at around 450 hp (335 kW).

fiat stilo

Fiat Stilo

A smokeless diesel

Diesels, until recently famous for fuel frugality but infamous for smoke, are being tamed all over Europe. Fiat’s Stilo 1.9JTD is one of the best-mannered of them all. Available in Europe for ¤15 360, it incorporates both a new diesel engine, produced in conjunction with parent company General Motors Corp., and a particulate filter.

The 1.2-L, four-cylinder engine begins with the known trick of pre-injecting fuel in order to increase temperature and pressure, then takes it further, splitting the injection into a series of closely spaced, smaller injections. The carefully timed dribble of fuel burns ever so smoothly, eliminating irregularities of combustion and thus heightening performance while reducing noise and emissions. Further cleanup comes in the particulate filter, a silicon carbide structure coated with catalysts that trap 90 percent of diesel particulates, enough to eliminate all smoke. When the filter feels it’s full up—after about every 700 km—it heats itself enough to oxidize the trapped particles into carbon dioxide and water.

chevy trailblazer

Chevrolet Trailblazer

Four or eight cylinders on-the-fly

A new engine technology that switches half the cylinders on or off, depending on load, will debut later this year in the 2004 models in a range of General Motors’ large and medium-sized SUVs. The SUVs will use the powerful Vortec V8 engine, and although GM hasn’t named just which models will get it first, the Chevrolet Trailblazer is a logical choice. GM recently loaded it up with more pulling power than ever before, and it would be nice not to waste all that muscle when idling at a red light.

GM’s “displacement on demand” technology uses a solenoid to switch a valve that shuts off half the cylinders. The process is managed by computer, unbeknownst to the driver, so as to keep the engine near its optimal load and its subsidiary systems coordinated—the throttle, transmission, and emissions controls, for instance. The company claims a fuel savings of 8-25 percent, depending on driving conditions.

toyota prius

Toyota Prius

Hybrid lists for a mid-range $20 480, with delivery

Five years after its introduction in Japan, Toyota’s five-passenger Prius remains the most family-friendly hybrid on the market. Capturing the hearts of drivers as diverse as vehicular engineering consultant Victor Wouk and Hollywood bombshell Cameron Diaz, it squeezes more growl from the liter than the rest, while cutting emissions—this fall it won a tax deduction for clean operation, the first such concession in the United States. The green trick is accomplished by using an electric motor to top off the output of a small (1.5-L) engine. When more power is needed, the gearbox draws on nickel metal-hydride batteries to drive an electric motor, and when more than enough power’s on tap, the excess goes to charge the batteries. A power-splitting gearbox yokes engine, generator, and motor either in parallel or in series, depending on circumstances.

In parallel, the engine, the motor, or both drive the wheels; in series, the engine drives the generator, which in turn drives the motor. This flexible arrangement keeps the engine running at optimal load. Further efficiencies stem from using the motors as generators to recover braking energy and from sculpting curves on the undercarriage, even in out-of-sight areas, to reduce aerodynamic drag. Mileage, estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at 5 L/100 km (45 mpg), on the highway, actually reaches 4.7 L/100 km (50 mpg) in city traffic; some users report more than 3 L/100 km (75 mpg) in particularly snarled traffic.

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