Monday, 19 February 2018 22:13

What's New in a New Car?

Written by David LaChance, Bennington Banner
Doug Crossman, a sales consultant at Carbone Honda in Bennington, VT, puts the 2018 Honda CR-V through its paces. Doug Crossman, a sales consultant at Carbone Honda in Bennington, VT, puts the 2018 Honda CR-V through its paces. HOLLY PELCZYNSKI - BENNINGTON BANNER


The steering wheel spins rapidly over to the right, all by itself, as the vehicle slowly backs into the parking space.

It then starts cutting back to the left, perfectly judging the distance between our right front corner and the car parked in front of us, as we ease back in.


A turn to the right, a little bit of forward motion and we're neatly parked---as the checkered flag on the dashboard triumphantly announces.


Is this a Mercedes-Benz? A Lexus? A Tesla, maybe?


No, this is a Ford pickup truck.


Welcome to the new world of automotive technology. Depending on how you use your car, self-parking is either a neat party trick or a godsend. But its appearance on a workday vehicle serves to show the widespread adoption of some sophisticated features that were available only in premium brands, if at all, just a few years ago.


If you haven't been on a dealer's lot since stability control systems and tire pressure monitors were the big news---something that's fairly likely, since the average age of a car on the road in Massachusetts and Vermont is just under 10 years---you might be surprised by what you'll find today. Cars might not yet be self-driving, but it's clear that we're in the midst of a technological revolution that could profoundly change the experience behind the wheel.


Much of this technology lurks in the background, making its presence known only when needed. Though many new cars are now capable of stepping in to take control of accelerating, braking and even steering in certain situations, manufacturers are careful to point out that they are not capable of self-driving. Rather, these features are offered as aids to better driving, to mitigate or prevent an accident for a driver who has made an error in judgment.


"You can still turn on and off the wipers on your own, you can still turn on and off the high beams on your own, and you can start and brake the car, and it might never do anything other than what you tell it to do," said Peter Wirth, general manager of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, MA. "Unless you're about to hit something, and then you probably would want it to do something. ... Very few people will ever experience the car braking itself."


"Technology that is incredible, that I love, that you wouldn't have seen years ago is the autonomous features---adaptive cruise control, lane departure, all things that make the driving experience more relaxing and easier and safer," said Russ Bauer, general manager of Langway Chevrolet-Volkswagen in Manchester, VT.


Though relatively new, autonomous accident-avoidance features are having an effect, reports the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent, nonprofit scientific and educational group dedicated to reducing deaths, injuries and property damage from motor vehicle crashes. The biggest benefit so far, the IIHS reports, comes from front-crash prevention, which it notes that automakers have agreed to make standard equipment on nearly all new models sold by 2022.


Such driving-assist features are part of the technology story. Cars now offer greater connectivity than ever, allowing drivers to make use of their cellphones' apps. At the same time, voice command systems have become nearly ubiquitous, meaning that drivers use those apps without taking their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel.


Cars in general have gotten lighter, integrating materials like aluminum, titanium and polycarbonate in the interest of better gas mileage. In the same vein, engines are smaller and more powerful than before.


The specifications tell the tale. A 2008 Toyota Camry, for instance, weighed 3,340 pounds, was powered by a 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter four, and returned, on average, 25 miles per gallon. Its 2018 equivalent weighs 3,241 pounds, gets 203 horsepower out of its 2.5-liter four, and gets 34 mpg. A 2018 Ford F-150 pickup weighs nearly 400 pounds less than its 2008 counterpart, gets 88 more horsepower out of an engine that's nearly a liter smaller, and delivers 19 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway, versus 14/19.


Automakers have also been embracing gas-electric hybrid technology, and launching all-electric vehicles. Plug-in hybrids have batteries that are charged by the engine and by external sources, allowing short-range trips on battery power, and long-range hybrid operation.


To see some of the new technology in action, we visited six new-car dealers---Mercedes-Benz of Springfield and Haddad Toyota of Pittsfield, both in Massachusetts; Brattleboro Subaru, Carbone Honda in Bennington, and Langway Chevrolet-Volkswagen of Manchester, all in Vermont; and Marchese Ford of New Lebanon, NY---and spoke with some knowledgeable dealers.


We also slid behind the wheel of six new cars: an all-new Toyota Camry, a Ford F-150 pickup, a Subaru Impreza, a Subaru Outback, a Honda CR-V and a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which, this year, swaps a V6 engine for the V8.


Here are some of the features we sampled:


Adaptive cruise control: This not only sets the vehicle's cruising speed, but allows it to follow a slower vehicle at a set distance, using cameras, radar or laser guidance to "see" the car ahead.

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