Denver Post – Monday Drive Spectacular
Colorado Open Road
Monday, January 3, 2011
Americans’ driving experience is the best it’s ever been thanks to a historic convergence of automotive quality, fuel economy and environmental impact, safety and innovation.
This is particularly welcome since a recent survey conducted by R.L.Polk & Co. showed consumers are keeping vehicles longer than ever: an average of 63.9 months, up 4.5 months from just a year ago. The overall average age of the fleet is now more than 9.5 years. Even as the economy improves, it’s doubtful Americans will go back to turning over vehicles as often as they once did.
Many new car dealers currently are providing attractive incentives to spur sales. Everything from “Sign, then drive,” and “0% financing – no payments for 120 days on select models,” to “$1,500 cash rebate!” But even with these great offers, most buyers want quality, safety, fuel economy/”green-ness” and innovation.
Longer car ownership goes hand-in-hand with better quality. New car quality is steadily improving. J.D. Power & Associates, which annually surveys automotive quality, looks at the number of problems per 100 vehicles. In 1999, imported brands averaged 150 problems per 100 vehicles and domestic brands averaged 177 problems per 100 vehicles. In this year’s quality survey, Power found that imports now averaged 109 problems per 100 vehicles compared to American-made vehicles’ average of 108.
The Power analysis also showed that initial quality of newly launched models has gone up, so consumers don’t need to wait a couple of years while problems shake out. According to Power, more than a half of the models launched this past year performed better than average in their class. Ford, Honda, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche led in new car quality in 2010.
Fuel Economy and Environmental Impact
The weak economy and environmental concerns combine to drive buyers toward fuel efficient, clean burning automobiles. The Colorado average for regular gasoline in Colorado the last week of December was $2.784/gallon and projected to rise as the economy recovers. Americans still pay much less for gasoline than Europeans do, one reason we’ve been able to afford larger cars, SUVs and trucks.
The U.S. government recently proposed higher future fuel standards, mandating 2016 average fuel economy of 35.5 mpg, up 40 percent over 2009 with a 30 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions
Many models already measure up. The Toyota Prius hybrid turns in 51 mpg city/48 mpg highway. Other low mileage/low emission vehicles include those made by Honda, Ford, Hyundai and GM. Find the list of the greenest cars from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy at Greencars.org.
Chevrolet’s new Volt ($41,000) has an electric motor that goes 25 to 50 miles before the battery is depleted and its gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the battery. The all-electric Nissan LEAF (Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car) has a range of 73 miles and consumes 34 kwh per 100 miles for $32,780. The government is offering subsidies to buyers in the form of tax credits for the foreseeable future.
New cars are the safest they’ve ever been, thanks to lifesaving automotive technology. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported a 10 percent drop in road fatalities from 2008 to 2009 and the lowest fatality and injury rates in U.S. history: 1.13 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2009. This is close to miraculous since the number of licensed drivers has more than doubled and the number of annual vehicle miles traveled has more than quadrupled over the past 50 years (3 trillion miles in 2006).
Besides seat belts and front and side airbags, much more technology is available to protect drivers and passengers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates one in three fatal crashes and one in five serious or moderate injury crashes could be prevented using new crash avoidance features, including:
• Blind-spot detection and warning
• Lane departure warning
• Forward collision warning
• Electronic Stability Control
• Swiveling headlights to help illuminate corners
Ford is pioneering “curve control,” automatically slows vehicles in turns so they won’t roll over. It also has the first inflatable seat belt for rear passengers.
The government’s new 5-Star Safety Ratings System raises the bar for its annual crash tests by incorporating advanced technologies into testing procedures and also by using smaller crash dummies in their tests, simulating effects of crashes on women and children. A redesigned window sticker with safety and fuel economy/environmental impact will be on all new cars by 2012. Car safety information is online now at safercar.gov.
New materials will make cars safer, too. One example is a new kind of metal foam for bumpers that its inventor says will make a 28-mph crash feel like a 5-mph crash does now.
New cars feel like being in a space ship compared to even a few years ago. The array of features in the cockpit is getting better all the time. Already available are voice-activated Bluetooth devices that allow drivers to check email, send text messages and update Facebook with voice commands. cars can locate restaurants, fuel stops and other retail establishments, get driving directions and find and dial phone numbers. You can connect your iPod through the sound system. For back seat occupants there’s WiFi and BMW just introduced a docking system for iPads.
Also on the horizon are windows with electrically controlled tint; holographic windshield displays, so drivers don’t have to look away from the road to see controls; and cars that stop themselves to avoid running a red light.
The ultimate goal – the car that drives itself – is already reality: A driverless van completed an 8,000, three-month trip from Italy to Shanghai, China this summer. It was funded by the European Research Council to pioneer road safety and fuel efficiency and was based on already-available technology.
In new cars, the future is now, and competition among brands means that it comes at an affordable price.