Top 10 Tech Cars 2012

The internal combustion engine strikes back

20 min read
Top 10 Tech Cars 2012
Photo: McLaren

When people dream about the future of driving, they picture hundreds of millions of cars humming almost imperceptibly on batteries or fuel cells, their power plants emitting water vapor or nothing. Rarely does petroleum fuel—and foul—the green fantasy.

But don’t let that vision distract you from reality. Although the world’s biggest automakers are determined to bring electrified cars to the masses, their real business—and the world’s business—will continue to revolve around the internal combustion engine for decades to come. The signs are accumulating: Morgan Stanley now projects that just 4.5 percent of new cars sold in 2025 will be EVs, sharply down from its previous estimate of 8.6 percent.

Yet change is afoot, change that heralds the remaking of the invention that first began to put the world on wheels about 120 years ago. Most notable over the past year has been the remarkable rise of the turbocharger, as makers from Motown to Munich have begun adopting turbocharging and even supercharging to radically downsize engines, boost fuel economy, and cut pollution—usually without sacrificing anything in power or drivability.

This year’s list shows turbocharging up and down the line, from a Japanese hatchback to a British supercar. Of course, the list has a few EVs and hybrids also; as always, our emphasis is on interesting new technology, not just the market share that it commands for now.

McLaren MP4-12C

Now with carbon fiber!

As I coax the McLaren MP4-12C eastward along Route 301 in New York’s Hudson Valley, the tall gates of the Chuang Yen monastery loom, then disappear in a flash. To the monks inside, I’m a silvery, shrieking blur.

They might not agree (and I’m sorry if I busted up their meditation), but the McLaren’s essential nature rings in tune with this Buddhist temple. For all its Formula One credentials, for all its flashy virility and hair-trigger handling, the McLaren also sets a new supercar standard for inner peace.

For the MP4-12C, McLaren refused to accept traditional trade-offs between performance and comfort, and that’s what makes this model the year’s most intriguing new sports car. The company owes its achievement—and its position in this year’s Top 10 list—to its democratization of a weight-saving technology that had been limited to the ultrarich: carbon-fiber construction.

Here “democratization” means that it’s now affordable for the merely rich. The starting price of US $231 400 is by far the lowest of any car ever draped on a carbon-fiber structure. And while you could buy 10 Hyundai Sonatas for that price, recent breakthroughs have McLaren—along with mega-automakers such as BMW—confident that large carbon‑fiber components will eventually trickle down to mass-market cars.

McLaren’s bona fides here are unmatched. The company built and raced the first carbon-fiber Formula One monocoque back in 1981. Every McLaren since has been carbon-fiber intensive, including the MP4/4 racers driven by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, which won an unparalleled 15 of 16 Formula One races in 1988. By 1992, the legendary three-seat, $1 million McLaren F1 became the first road-going car with a carbon-based chassis.

Until recently, woven sheets of carbon fiber had to be laid up by hand in a mold, impregnated with resin, then cured for hours in an autoclave oven. It was a black art. Back in 1992, building just the F1’s “tub,” which surrounds the driver, took 3000 hours. By 2004, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren had chopped that to 400 hours.

For the MP4-12C, McLaren adapted a process called resin transfer molding, which cuts fabrication time by 99 percent. Bundled fibers are stuffed into a huge mold, epoxy resin is injected, and heat and pressure do the rest. The one-piece tub, called a MonoCell, takes a mere 4 hours to build and weighs 75 kilograms, less than many passengers.

Such strong, lightweight bones are key to the new car’s remarkable structural rigidity and agile yet compliant suspension. The entire car weighs 1301 kg, nearly 80 kg less than its main competitor, the Ferrari 458 Italia. The hollow carbon structure forms a “safety survival cell” akin to that of an F1 car, with aluminum crumple zones in front and in the rear that are easy to replace.

That light weight also means low emissions: The McLaren produces less than 300 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer driven, topping its class. Because the shell resists twisting so well, the suspension can be optimized to provide the best possible ride and handling. And carbon fiber is more resistant to fatigue than metal. So the McLaren will, in theory anyway, feel as tight and new in 10 years as it does the day it leaves the showroom. A compact 441-kilowatt (592-horsepower), twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V-8 lies smack dab in the car’s center of gravity. Add a seamless seven-speed, dual-clutch automated manual transmission and the McLaren casually puts up supercar numbers: 0 to 97 kilometers per hour (0 to 60 miles per hour) in 3 seconds and a top speed of 330 km/h (205 mph).

Dihedral doors do without old-fashioned door handles: Sweep a hand along a sensor and the doors pivot upward with one-finger ease; the doors open less widely than conventional ones.

The cockpit is designed for a fast driver and a stupefied passenger, not for downloading reruns of “The Office.” There’s not a single button on the steering wheel, which is flanked by a pair of paddle shifters, whose action is a little stiff for my taste; McLaren says an adjustment may be in the works.

Yet although interfaces are simple, the technology below is anything but. And the tour de force is the ProActive Chassis Control system, which does away with conventional shock absorbers and heavy antiroll bars.

Instead, the McLaren’s body motions and ride stiffness are controlled entirely through hydraulics, within a series of linked, pressurized cylinders at each corner of the vehicle. Imagine water being sloshed around the floor of a boat as it heaves and pitches and you’ll have an idea of how it works.

The system works by sending fluid from front to back or from side to side, in a fraction of a second. Set the system to Normal and the McLaren trundles over potholes as obligingly as a luxury sport sedan. And unlike some cars with adaptive systems, the McLaren undergoes a serious Jekyll-to-Hyde personality change when you crank up its settings: In Track mode, body-roll stiffness is doubled, gearshifts are eye-blink fast, and the special Aero mode lifts the rear wing slightly for increased downforce at exhilarating speeds. That wing also acts as an air brake, shooting upward to clamp down the rear under hard braking, countering the car’s forward weight shift to allow the rear brakes to apply a greater share of force.

From public roads in New York to a twisty racing circuit in Fontana, Calif., the McLaren made a convincing case for inclusion in any supercar smackdown: Its body stayed almost eerily flat at speeds that would have had a Porsche 911 leaning over and its tires howling.

This may seem strange to say of a car that only the select few can possibly afford, but the MP4-12C is a wonderful deal: It delivers seven-figure technology at a six-figure price.

Audi A7

A supercharger, a 15-speaker stereo, and Google Earth as a copilot

Auto executives, especially when plied with single-malt scotch whisky, love to talk about the “package”—the integration of design, technology, safety, and performance into a satisfying whole.

But today few carmakers are delivering the complete package like Audi. The A7, the year’s showstopping “four-door coupe,” is the latest example of why Audi is on a roll.

First, the car looks lovely. From its freight-train grille to its swoopy tail, the A7 isn’t bland. You won’t gas it up or make it through the grocery parking lot without getting a compliment. The ego stroke continues inside: Check out those Bang & Olufsen tweeters—part of a 1300-watt, 15-speaker system—that rise from the dashboard like sprinklers on a country club’s fairway.

But as with Apple’s top products, the Audi’s slick packaging enhances its user friendliness. The A7’s hatchback is smoothly integrated, avoiding the hunchbacked proportions of the Porsche Panamera.

The Audi’s 3.0-liter supercharged V-6, aided by a terrific eight-speed automatic transmission, is another leading avatar of the downsizing trend. Generating 231 kilowatts (310 horsepower) and 441 newton meters (325 foot-pounds) of torque, the engine combines a ripping 5.4-second run from 0 to 97 kilometers per hour (0 to 60 miles per hour) with class-leading economy of 13.1 liters per 100 kilometers (18 miles per gallon) in the city and 8.4 L/100 km (28 mpg) on the highway. Audi has preferred turbos in recent years, but it claims that in this application, supercharging—which drives an engine-boosting compressor with an engine belt rather than a turbo’s exhaust gases—delivers not just an instant power boost but also great fuel economy.

For an extra US $25 to $30 a month (after the first six months, which are free), the new Audi Connect offers an industry-first Google Earth–enabled navigation system. The gadgetry continues with radar-based adaptive cruise control, a color head-up display, blind-spot and lane-departure monitors, and a system that detects an impending crash and warns the driver before automatically stopping the car. Its Night Vision Assistant highlights the silhouettes of pedestrians on a display screen. The Drive Select system lets drivers toggle through four settings to adjust the steering boost, transmission shift points, and throttle sensitivity.

If there’s a nagging issue with the A7, it’s the price: $60 125, or nearly $10 000 more than that of the A6 sedan, a sister model that’s essentially the same car, minus the sleek hatchback body. But such is the price of high style at Audi.

Mercedes-Benz E300 BlueTec Hybrid

At last, a diesel hybrid

Engineers have long viewed diesel and hybrid technology as a potentially sweet combination. But it’s hard to mate the two costly systems in one car.

Now Mercedes claims to have done it: The E300 BlueTec hybrid sedan goes on sale in Europe in the second half of this year; around the same time, its modular hybrid system will find its way to North America in gasoline form, in the V-6-powered E400 BlueTec sedan.

Mercedes unveiled both cars at Detroit’s annual auto show in January. And in contrast to hybrids and electric vehicles with pricey, space-hogging battery packs, the Mercedes system crams its entire hybrid module—including a tiny, 0.8-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery—into the engine compartment. There’s no intrusion into the passenger compartment or the trunk space, and the hybrid components add only 100 kilograms to this 1780-kg midsize sedan.

In both cars, a small electric motor is sandwiched between the engine and the seven-speed automatic transmission. That motor contributes 20 kilowatts (27 horsepower) and 250 newton meters (184 foot-pounds) of torque—enough oomph to run the Benz entirely on electricity from a standing start.

For the E300, a 2.1-liter turbo diesel delivers 150 kW (201 hp) and a fat 500 Nm (369 ft-lb) of torque. (The U.S. E400 will go with a 3.5-liter gasoline V-6 with 50 percent more power and more than 35 percent more torque.)

The result is an E-Class sedan that consumes just 4.2 liters of diesel every 100 kilometers, or gets 56 miles per gallon in combined city and highway economy on the European test cycle. The BlueTec sedan also emits 109 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, comfortably below the European Union’s 2015 target of 130 g/km.

Diesels already have great low-end torque, so here the electric assistance helps by letting the diesel stay in its most efficient range, typically well under 2000 revolutions per minute.

And like the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid, the Mercedes has an added electrically operated clutch that allows the engine to be shut off and entirely decoupled from the wheels. That lets the Mercedes “sail,” or coast, even on only very slight downhill grades, at up to 160 kilometers per hour, using no fuel—another way to help owners sail past the pump.

Mazda CX-5

The highest compression of any gasoline engine around

The world’s highest-compression gasoline engine in a production car? You won’t find it on a million-dollar supercar but on a sporty grocery-getter from Japan. The new CX-5 crossover, outfitted with Mazda’s Skyactiv, a new technology suite for engine, chassis, transmission, and aerodynamics, also happens to achieve 6.7 liters per 100 kilometers (35 miles per gallon) on the highway. That’s the best mileage of any nonhybrid compact crossover SUV sold in the United States.

In the CX-5, the 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G engine develops 116 kilowatts (155 horsepower). It also incorporates a trick exhaust manifold that helps the engine achieve up to a 14:1 compression ratio on Europe’s premium fuel. (The engine runs just fine on 87 octane, the standard U.S. fuel.)

Engineers have long known that boosting an engine’s compression ratio can improve thermal efficiency. But cranking up cylinder pressure raises the temperature, causing premature combustion—better known as engine knock. To avoid knocking and potential damage, Mazda cools the air/fuel mixture with a freer-flowing exhaust system, which reduces the amount of hot residual gas inside the cylinders after combustion. To ensure efficient combustion, a fuel injector squirts a fuel-air mixture directly into the cylinder (rather than into a manifold upstream, as in some other systems) through multiple holes in the cylinder wall. Such direct injection—under a pressure of 204 kilograms per square centimeter (2900 pounds per square inch)—fills the chamber very evenly, so the mixture can burn efficiently. A special cavity in the pistons—picture the hole atop a volcano—shapes the burn, accelerating combustion speed. Together, all these tricks boost both power and fuel economy by roughly 15 percent over a conventional engine, without the high costs of hybrid or diesel technology.

And a slick new six-speed automatic combines the best features of conventional automatics and today’s automated manual units: For smooth takeoffs, it sends power through a typical fluid torque converter; at speeds beyond 8 km per hour (5 miles per hour) a mechanical clutch steps in to provide notably direct, snappy shifts. Throw in a marvelously tuned steering and suspension and the CX-5 delivers the entertaining handling that’s become a Mazda trademark, albeit with only modest acceleration. And the entire package starts at just US $21 490, making the Mazda’s smart tech an especially bright buy.

BMW 528i

Exhausting itself on a new kind of turbocharger

A high-performance, midsize BMW sports sedan with a four-cylinder engine? What next—a laptop with a 16-bit microprocessor? A Shetland pony running the Kentucky Derby?

That was the gist of my reaction when I first heard the details about the 2012 BMW 528i. And then I drove it. Now I’m a believer.

Plenty of other automakers have mated a four-banger with a turbocharger. Audi, Subaru, and Ford all offer them; even the late, lamented Saab had them for years. But nobody has ever managed to do what BMW has: Its new TwinPower engine, also known as the N20, is so powerful and responsive that only a rank sentimentalist would miss the six-cylinder. No wonder it just became the first four-cylinder engine BMW has offered in the United States since 1999.

The N20 wrings more performance out of less volume and weight than the naturally aspirated, six-cylinder engine it was designed to replace. That’s just what it has to do, given the challenge posed by electric-drive technology. Besides the 528i, two other BMW models have already adopted the engine: BMW’s signature best seller, the redesigned 2013 3 Series, and the Z4 sDrive 28i convertible.

This is a wrenching upheaval in the Bavarian Bauhaus. It’s the motoring world’s All About Eve, with the N20 as the sneaky, talented ingénue who’s dethroned the perennial star—BMW’s venerable in-line six. If that sounds like a tearjerker to you, dry your eyes and read on. This engine displaces 2 liters and weighs 16 kilograms less than the engine it replaces. But with turbocharging, BMW’s Valvetronic variable timing system and direct fuel injection, this little marvel pumps out 179 kilowatts (240 horsepower) and 352 newton meters (260 foot-pounds) of torque—54 Nm more than the in-line six can provide.

Like any turbocharger, the TwinPower forces air into the combustion chamber with a pump powered by a turbine spinning in the exhaust stream, rather than allowing the air to be sucked in naturally by the motion of the piston. That conventional turbine method, however, traditionally suffers from “turbo lag,” a delay in power while the turbine spools up to optimal speed.

To overcome this lag, some carmakers substitute two smaller turbochargers for a single large one. BMW goes them one better with its “twin-scroll” design. Instead of having every cylinder dump exhaust into a single turbine path, this design gathers the flow from pairs of cylinders into separate channels, or scrolls. That reduces the interference that comes as irregular pulses of exhaust gas strike the turbine blades. Less interference means less kinetic energy wasted and nearly instantaneous turbo response.

The design makes possible a seeming thermodynamic impossibility: an increase in both power and efficiency. The engine produces maximum torque at just 1250 revolutions per minute, compared with 2750 rpm for the old six-cylinder. Yet the engine gets you 15 percent farther on a tank of gas (and if you opt for BMW’s new eight-speed automatic transmission, you’ll go 20 percent farther).

I drove a 528i from Orange County, Calif., to Santa Barbara, racking up an impressive 6.7 liters per 100 kilometers (35 miles per gallon) on the highway. BMW, unlike many luxury rivals, is keeping the stick-shift faith, and I found that the six-speed manual shifter makes the most of the engine’s flexible power. (When the engine is strapped into the slightly smaller 328i, BMW expects it to achieve 9.8 L/100 km (24 mpg) in the city and 6.5 L/100 km (36 mpg) on the highway.) Not only is that the best in class by a good margin, but it’s the most fuel-efficient car BMW has ever sold in the United States.

Fortunately, the 5 Series car wrapped around this underdog engine is just as worthy. The 5 benefits from a handsomely understated design and such BMW niceties as the Driving Dynamics Control system. It lets drivers adjust controls over four settings to control throttle response, steering weight, transmission shift points, and with optional Sport packages, the firmness of the adaptive suspension.

At US $47 575 to start, the 528i costs about $2100 more than last year’s six-cylinder model. At BMW, the power lunch is never free.

Dok-Ing XD

A Croatian EV with up to four motors, the better to steer with

Auto buffs have always loved an oddball, from the three-wheeled 1948 Davis Divan to today’s frog-faced Nissan Juke and Scion’s Mola-like iQ. Now comes the Dok-Ing XD, a three-seat charmer from Zagreb, Croatia. It’s the quirkiest entry on our list, but it shows how the advent of electric drive is fueling the dreams and schemes of feisty entrepreneurs around the world.

The XD sprang from the personal vision of Vjekoslav Majetic, a mechanical engineer whose company builds remote-controlled vehicles to clear land mines, fight fires, and mine underground. Majetic hired a Croatian industrial designer to create an urban electric, then guided the designer’s hand like a client ordering a bespoke suit.

The resulting car is petite and pod‑like, at just under 3 meters long, but powerful and deluxe, with an adorable shape and gullwing doors that captured everyone’s attention at the most recent Los Angeles Auto Show.

The unusual passenger layout recalls the US $1 million McLaren F1 supercar, albeit in puny and electrified form: To maximize space and safety, Majetic’s machine places the driver front and center, with two passengers comfortably stretched out behind and on either side.

With its 32-kilowatt-hour batteries packaged below the floor, the XD offers more cargo space than a similarly tiny, rear-engined Smart Fortwo. Dok‑Ing says it chose the lithium-ion batteries to link to either two or four 45-kilowatt (60-horsepower) electric motors, with a choice of front-, rear-, or all‑wheel-drive layout. With all four motors churning the wheels, Dok-Ing claims a ripping 4.2-second run from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (0 to 62 miles per hour) and a driving range of about 250 kilometers on a charge. And as with some new electric sports cars, the XD’s system allows torque vectoring, with the ability to speed or slow individual wheels to boost handling and stability.

The company hopes to build 100 cars this year, priced at around US $80 000, and to deliver its first customer cars in the third quarter of this year. It intends to ramp up production in 2013, with a target of 1000 cars a year, initially for European buyers. The company is eyeing a presence in the United States as well.

Volkswagen Passat

The smell of diesel in the morning

When American drivers get giddy over diesel, eyes must roll in Europe, where diesel fuel powers nearly half the new cars sold.

But diesel cars are only starting to catch on now in the United States, and no company has seized the opportunity like Volkswagen. With a range of affordable choices, one in five VWs sold in the United States in 2011 was a diesel. And the new Passat TDI—a roomy family sedan, made in VW’s new US $1 billion factory in Tennessee—seems certain to make more diesel converts.

Consider the fuel economy: 4.7 liters per 100 kilometers (50 miles per gallon). That’s what I got, anyway, on a long highway run averaging 97 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour). Even at higher speeds, the Passat returned a healthy 5.2 L/100 km (45 mpg).

That economy makes the diesel the smart-money choice. The TDI starts at $26 675, about $2200 more than the gasoline five-cylinder and roughly $1000 less than the V-6. But the diesel owner will save big at the pump. According to Environmental Protection Agency figures, the TDI diesel’s annual fuel cost will be roughly $1800 a year, $600 less than the V-6 model’s and $250 below the five-cylinder’s.

In diesel style, the VW’s 2.0-liter turbo diesel gives you modest power but oodles of torque: 104 kilowatts (140 horsepower) and a fat 320 newton meters (236 foot-pounds) of torque. The upshot is robust passing power that belies the humble 8.6-second time it takes to get from 0 to 97 km/h.

Because high-compression diesels burn lean, using more air relative to fuel than gasoline engines do, they tend to produce high levels of smog-forming nitrogen oxides. To control them, the system takes urea, an ammonia-based catalyst, from an 18-liter tank and feeds it precisely into the exhaust stream, where it converts the oxides into harmless nitrogen and water.

The Passat’s weak link, in my mind, is the too-safe styling, which recalls a cookie-cutter rental sedan. Yet this Passat has acres of useful space and has retained its signature German handling. It feels more expensive than it is.

And in contrast to many lifeless hybrids—the Toyota Prius comes to mind—this midsize VW diesel is roomier, more comfortable, and far more enjoyable to drive. Add it up, and the Passat TDI writes a compelling coming-to-America story.

Ford Focus Electric

An all-electric, with a charger that’s fast on the draw

Among semiaffordable electric cars, the technology race is wide open. But in the design battle at least, Ford has an edge.

The Ford Focus Electric, with its appealing, Euro-hatchback lines, lacks the frumpy feel of self-denial often associated with electric cars. Maybe it’s the finely ribbed grille, seemingly cribbed from Ford’s former Aston Martin subsidiary. The first pure EV from a major Detroit manufacturer since GM’s star-crossed EV1, the Focus relies on the ultimate cleaner-than-thou argument: zero tailpipe emissions. (Recharging it, of course, leaves a carbon footprint, unless you have a wind turbine in your backyard.) It also plays on consumer familiarity: Unlike the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, the Focus is an electrified version of an existing gasoline model.

The Focus’s front wheels are driven by a 107-kilowatt electric motor (143 horsepower), with 250 newton meters (184 foot-pounds) of torque. That muscle is countered, however, by chubbiness at the curb, with the Focus’s 23-kilowatt-hour, lithium-ion battery the chief culprit: This EV weighs 1666 kilograms (3673 pounds)—329 kg more than the gas-powered hatch.

The big technical trump card is the 6.6‑kW onboard charger, which allows the Focus to charge in about 3.5 hours, half the time the Leaf’s 3.3‑kW unit requires.

Yet the Focus stumbles in trunk space, which is hogged by a portion of the battery pack. Both the Leaf and Volt managed to sandwich their battery packs entirely below the floor. Like the Volt, the Focus surrounds its battery pack and electronics with liquid cooling; Nissan chose to go with an air-cooled design.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pegs the Focus’s fuel economy at 2.2 liters per 100 kilometers (105 miles per gallon) and its driving range at 122 kilometers (76 miles), topping the Leaf’s 117 km. Of course, range varies with temperature; frigid weather can chop 20 percent from an EV’s real-world range.

The Focus lacks the Volt’s gas engine and indefinite range, but that fact hasn’t deterred Ford from pricing the Focus almost identically to the Volt, at US $39 995. Even if you throw in the $7500 U.S. government tax credit, the Focus Electric will still cost about $8000 more than a comparably equipped gasoline version. The Focus is now on sale, but only in limited U.S. markets, including New York, New Jersey, and California.

Ferrari FF

Sweet excess—12 cylinders, 651 horses, and four-wheel drive

Russian oligarchs and New Jersey housewives lusted equally after the Porsche Cayenne SUV. And then came four-door Aston Martins, and soon there’ll be a Maserati SUV, built in Detroit on the bones of a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

This is what happens when even the wealthy start making room in their fantasy garages for “practical” cars.

But now here’s Ferrari ratcheting up the blasphemy with—this is not a typo—what seems to be a station wagon. That kind of heresy might require the Vatican to get involved. So let’s not call it that. Let’s refer to it simply as a US $300 000, 335-kilometer-per-hour (208-mile-per-hour) snow bunny with room for four pampered adults.

At 485 kilowatts (651 horsepower), this is the most powerful Ferrari road car yet and the only one to have all-wheel drive. To demonstrate its practicality, the company last year borrowed Chinook helicopters from the Italian Army, stuffed FFs inside them, and carted a small group of auto writers up a peak in the Dolomites to speed around a snow course in front of gaping skiers. Yet the Ferrari doesn’t need winter weather to send chills down your spine. In any road condition, the FF—which stands for Ferrari Four—feels both safe and sensational.

The technical revolution here lies in the way Ferrari overcame the compromises of all-wheel drive, including the added mass and unbalanced, nose-heavy handling. The Mediterranean magic begins with a weight-saving aluminum space frame, which has 23 separate alloys in its many extrusions and castings. Below the FF’s insanely stretched hood, a new 6.0-liter V-12 is mounted entirely behind the front axle, for better weight distribution. A high 12.3:1 compression ratio helps the engine scale the revolution-per-minute heights to 8000. The 97-km/h (60-mph) barrier falls in 3.7 seconds.

Ferrari’s latest seven-speed, dual-clutch F1 gearbox sits at the rear, melded to several other Formula One–derived systems. They include an electronic rear differential, or E-Diff, which works with the F1 Trac traction control to analyze available grip among the tires in real time, divvy power between the rear wheels, and generally abuse the pavement.

A magnetorheological suspension uses a magnetic field to instantly vary the viscosity of the metal-particle-infused fluid in its shock absorbers. The unit senses the road surface and g forces on the car and can adjust suspension firmness every millisecond.

As ever, the manettino is the Ferrari’s mission control center, the tiny red lever on the steering wheel that adjusts the engine, suspension, transmission, throttle, and stability systems. But for the FF, the manettino has a new playmate—the company’s unprecedented design for all-wheel drive.

The main handling challenge of all-wheel drive is the unwieldy bias of the weight of the car toward the front wheels. To counter this bias, Ferrari used a drive-by-wire system. There’s no weighty secondary driveshaft, no center differential between the front and rear axles. Instead, the Ferrari’s longitudinally mounted engine sends power aft via its Power Transfer Unit (PTU), which is just 6.7 inches long and less than 41 kilograms (90 pounds). The mechanical sleight of hand results in a Ferrari with a 47/53 percent weight distribution from the front to the rear.

You may well wonder about the design of the world’s first car with one transmission for the front wheels and another for the rear ones. The system actually strives to send all its power rearward, as God and Enzo Ferrari intended, but only up until its predictive algorithms decide that traction or stability is in jeopardy.

When that happens, on wet pavement or dry, the front wheels become your trusty wingman: The PTU draws up to 20 percent of the power through a pair of wet, carbon-fiber-lined clutches, vectoring torque to either front wheel. If rear tires should break loose from the pavement in the main transmission’s first gear or second gear, the front transmission’s first gear feeds in power to help out. Lose traction in third or fourth gear—now we’re talking speeds of roughly 185 km/h (115 mph) or higher—and the front wheels restore control via the PTU’s second speed. Fire this Italian projectile into fifth, sixth, or seventh gear and the rear wheels can handle any added torque, so the front axle’s clutches remain open and no power transfer takes place.

In the manettino’s Snow/Ice setting, the Ferrari is as docile as a Toyota (albeit one with 651 hp) with systems prioritizing traction and safety over speed. When I attempt to unsettle the FF with lurid jabs of the throttle or jerks of the steering wheel, it simply ignores my clumsy commands and stays serenely planted.

Move up through the settings and the electronic leash is progressively loosened, allowing expert drivers to drift the FF like a rally racer. Throw in 20-inch Pirelli Sottozero winter tires and the FF will humiliate an Iditarod dog team.

And even on a dry road, as the Ferrari’s own howl echoes through the Dolomites, the four-wheel system stays in the wings but remains ready for action: Exiting a corner in second gear, rolling hard onto the throttle, I hit some unexpected pebbles, and the Ferrari’s rear end shimmies sideways. A dashboard light flickers, the front tires claw at the pavement, and I’m instantly back on line—no harm, no foul, and best of all, no plunge off the cliff.

On the fuel-sucking front, the Ferrari’s optional HELE system (for High Emotion/Low Emissions) adds an engine stop-start system and a more efficient fuel pump and air-conditioning compressor. The result is a car that emits 360 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer and can sneak past 15.7 liters per 100 kilometers (15 miles per gallon). That’s hardly frugal, of course, but it’s still 25 percent better than recent Ferrari V-12s, despite the 20 percent increase in horsepower.

For the ultrahigh-net-worth individuals who wait patiently for any new Ferrari, the FF might seem a strange proposition: When the weather turns nasty, why not grab the keys to the Range Rover instead?

Think Gucci loafers rather than Church’s brogues and the Ferrari’s purpose becomes clear. Range Rovers litter the landscape of any upscale suburb. But pull up to the valet in the Ferrari FF, skis strapped to the roof, and you’ve got the ultimate in winter one‑upmanship from Vail to Gstaad.

Porsche GT3 R Hybrid

Big flywheel, keep on turning

Laboratories are usually pretty quiet places. Not so the Porsche GT3 R Hybrid. Electrified and electrifying, this 500-kilowatt (670-horsepower) track banshee heralds a new hybrid age in the top levels of racing. Porsche’s rolling experimental race lab is spearheading the German automaker’s return to the top prototype class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2014, following a 16-year absence.

The Creamsicle-orange Porsche might appear to be its traditional GT fighter: There’s the expected rear-mounted flat-six engine driving the rear wheels, here a 4.0-liter with variable valve timing and 350 kW (470 hp). But up front, this historic car is the first Porsche racer with electric front-wheel drive. What’s more, the electricity comes not from a battery but rather a flywheel-driven energy recovery system.

In racing, these Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems, or KERS, were first introduced in Formula One racing in 2009, with rules allowing either electric (battery) or mechanical (flywheel) systems. Mechanical systems are more efficient, in part because the energy doesn’t have to change its state as often.

The flywheel is composite, which means that a crash or system failure won’t send metal fragments exploding through the cabin—a good idea for a 14-kilogram (31-pound) flywheel that revolves up to 600 times per second.

Inside the Porsche, that carbon-fiber-encased flywheel spins less than half a meter from the driver, whirling at ear-rending decibel levels. Pump the brakes and a pair of 75-kW motor-generators accelerate the flywheel, charging it to maximum capacity. Pushing the boost button on the steering wheel reverses the motors’ function to that of generators, which squirt 150 kW (201 hp) to the front wheels. That electron-enabled boost lasts for up to 8 seconds, perfect for overtaking a slower—and perhaps entirely gasoline-driven—competitor.

The hybrid system does more than trim critical tenths of a second from lap times, it also conserves fuel. Competing unofficially at an American Le Mans Series event at California’s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the Porsche stopped just three times for fuel, compared with at least five stops for rivals—a key feature in races that can last up to 24 hours.

The maker of the flywheel, U.K.-based Williams Hybrid Power, is developing a fully composite flywheel for use in street cars.

About the Author

For more about the author, see the Back Story, “The Car Made of Unobtainium.”

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