Some auto execs express concern about an imminent affordability crisis." But if customer rebellion is coming, the revolt won't be instigated on the perception that automakers are milking profits by foisting outmoded drivelines on the motoring public. The 1996 model year may be short on truly all-new products, but the advances in powertrain development are of near epic importance.

No, there aren't many all-new engines for the 1996 model year. There is, however, a staggering number of powertrain-related tweaks, improvements and emissions-satisfying action. Up, down and across the industry, there is a common accomplishment: 1996's engines are in general more powerful, yet simultaneously offer improved fuel consumption and lower emissions.

Speaking of emissions, it's the first year for full-scale industry adoption of the sophisticated OBD II onboard emissions diagnostics systems (see p.54). All new vehicles must comply with OBD II requirements for the 1996 model year.

Customers couldn't give a hoot about that stuff. Does the engine move their new vehicle with authority? Is the powertrain quiet, smooth and economical? Count on it. It's 1996 and powertrains, on the whole, probably have never been so impeccably optimized.

Hoss Race

General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Div. and Ford Motor Co. swear it isn't a "horsepower war," but, truth be told, they're toe-to-toe on muscle cars again. How else to explain the identical 305-hp ratings for the top versions of the Camaro/Firebird F-cars and Ford's Mustang?

The F-cars do it by taking the soon-to-be-replaced iron-block 5.7L OHV V-8 and feeding it cool charge air via functional "Ram Air" hood scoops (surprisingly, rather refined in appearance) and their associated plumbing. The 305 hp represents a 20 hp improvement over the standard 5.7L's 285 hp, raised 10 hp this year with less restrictive dual exhausts and deuced catalytic converters.

It's Year Zero as far as Mustang aficionados are concerned: Finally, for '96 the 'Stang is fitted with two distinct versions of the 4.6L modular of the 4.6L modular V-8 already found in service throughout Ford's lineup.

For the Mustang GT, a SOHC 4.6L delivers 215 hp at 4,400 rpm and 285 ft.-lbs. (386 Nm) of torque at 3,500 rpm. These are negligible improvements over the previous 4.9L OHV V-8, but the range of usable power is greatly expanded with the new overhead-cam 4.6L.

Limited-edition Mustang Cobras get the real smoking gun, a quad-cam, all-aluminum 4.6L that develops 305 hp at 5,800 rpm and 300 ft.-lbs. (407 Nm) of torque at 4,800 rpm.

The Cobra's V-8 looks to be an uprated version of the DOHC engine found in the Lincoln Mark VIII, but John P. Bicanich, powertrain systems engineering manager-Mustang powertrain system, says that "This is not the Mark VIII engine. There were over 200 pieces changed between this (the Cobra engine) and the Mark VIII."

The 4.6L DOHC V-8 features an elaborately over-engineered bottom end, with cross-bolted main bearings (six bolts each), a deep-sump oil pan replete with windage tray and baffles to prevent oil frothing at high rpm and starvation in hard cornering plus a ribbed, deep-skirt block in which the head bolts extend to the main bearings.

Most of the DOHC 4.6L V-8s increased power over the SOHC engine comes from the siamesed, dual-length intake runners and longer duration camshafts, says Mr. Bicanich. The DOHC engine is pulled off the main 4.6L engine line in Romero, MI, and sent to a special "niche" finishing line where two-person teams perform final assembly by hand.

Although the 305-hp Mustangs and F-cars are the volume big-horsepower winners for '96, specialty products are not forgotten.

Chevrolet couldn't let the Corvette's ultimate superiority be usurped by the F-cars, so the 5.7L V-8 is boosted to 330 hp -- by employing roller rocker arms, high-flow heads and injectors, etc. -- for the Corvette Grand Sport and all other manualtransmissioned Corvettes for 1996. The 330-hp engine is called LT4 (automatic Corvettes stick with the 300-pony LTI); it and the Grand Sport are meant as farethee-well's for the Corvette and the LTI, both of which are redesigned for 1997.

Ford has grafted a free-flow exhaust to the previously mentioned 4.6L DOHC V-8 in the Lincoln Mark VIII and, echoing Chevy's tactic with the Grand Sport, has resurrected the LSC model designation for the new package, which offers 290 hp (a 10-hp jump over standard Mark VIIIs).

Chrysler Corp. went searching for more power for the Viper -- and as you might gather if you've read this far, found some among its 10 V-arranged cylinders and 8L of displacement. With exhaust now routed to the rear rather than through those gnarly sidepipes, Chrysler says 15 extra horses emerged; the OHV V-10's rating thus climbs to 415 hp at 5,200 rpm, with torque increased 38 ft.-lbs. (52 Nm) to a titanic 488 ft.-lbs. (661 Nm) at 3,600 rpm. With those numbers, don't look for Chrysler to be backing up any tire warranties.

As we've discussed before (see WAW--Julu '95, p. 77), GM has put the Vortec treatment to all its truck V-8s for 1996, with resultant big horsepower gains that, remarkably, don't cause any fuel economy penalty. And later this year, Ford launches its redesigned F-series pickups with the first in its range of overhead camshaft, New Generation Truck (NGT) engines (see feature p.44).

The NGT engines are constructed with iron blocks and aluminum heads. First out is the Triton 4.6L V-8, developed once again from Ford's modular program. The numbers of note are 210 hp at 4,400 rpm and 290 ft.-lbs. (393 Nm) of torque at 3,250 rpm. To follow next fall is a 5.4L V-8 that should be good for about 250 hp -- and if the Middle East oil fields aren't yet run dry by all these trucks, a 6.8L V-10 completes the NGT engine range in 1997.

Vantastic

Glory be! At long last, somebody grasped the notion that minivans need more power. Does anyone in the automakers' ranks drive these things before they're released on the unwitting public" Next time you're not moving in the passing lane, look to the front of the line. Even money has it the vehicle holding up the show is a minivan.

Even if the driver is paying enough attention -- invariably the driver is not, being so regally ensconced in his juice box-holding, hands-free-phoning, Cd-changing, garage door-opening mobile living room -- to realize his indiscretion, little can be done because minivans don't accelerate for squat.

Ford plans to change all that with the injection of 45 snappy horsepower -- total output now 200 hp -- to the Windstar's 3.8L V-6. It's done by "splitting" the intake ports into two distinct intake runners for each cylinder. Butterfly plates in one tract open and close according to engine speed, producing improved low-end power without sacrificing high-speed breathing. Ford says the split-port design is a cost-effective alternative to fitting a pushrod engine like the 3.8L with multivalve head.

The split-port setup also spawns a 4.2L V-6 variant, which replaces the 4.9L inline 6-cyl. engine for Ford's F-series pickups and full-size vans; the 4.2L likely will find its way into the Mustang as the base engine.

Although '96 is the swan-song year for Gm's plastic-bodied APV minivans, Gm's Powertrain bunch decided the much-maligned Olds Silhoutte, Chevy Lumina and Pontiac Transport should go out with a bang. Among the numerous changes from which the APV's benefit for 1996, engineers have fitted a 3.4L V-6 (based on the corporate 3.1L six) as standard. At 180 hp at 5,200 rpm, the 3.4L is a hefty 60 horses better than the previous 3.1L V-6 base engine and superior by 10 hp over last year's optional 3.8L V-6.

Whatta all those letters mean?

TLEV and LEV sound like the letters they brand on those fast French trains. They're really emissions-regulator speak for Transitional Low Emissions Vehicle and Low Emissions Vehicle. The TLEV and LEV are California-mandated (and certain other Northeast states that have adopted California-like emissions programs) standards that call for reduced levels of some types of pollutants, mainly hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen.

Although TLEV and LEV are only in the opening stages of a phase-in period that concludes in 2003, several automakers -- largely the Japanese, who account for heavy market share in California -- believe it's in their best interest to get started early.

Most notable is Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s 1.6L 1-4, one of three 1.6L engines available in its new 1996 Civic range. The 1.6L is the first OEM gasoline engine to be certified with LEV status (LEV phase-in begins for 1997 models); Honda says the new 4-cyl. produces less than half the emissions allowed by current California standards.

Several automakers can boast of gasoline engines that meet TLEV standards, a few specks dirtier than LEV. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. says the 2.4L 1-4 in the Altima can do it, as does Honda with the VTEC-E version of the Civic's 1.6L. Toyota rings in with a TLEV 2.2L 1-4 for the Camry.

Other notables

It seems this year's engine refinements are unending. There's the nice upgrade of the engine formerly known as Quad 4. GM Powertrain raised the displacement by a tenth of a liter to 2.4L and changed the Quad's name to 2.4L Twin Cam.

In addition to last year's fitting of a balance shaft, the new Twin Cam delivers better midrange torque with its longer stroke and optimized cam timing. Engineers say 50% of the Twin Cam's parts -- ranging from piston rings to a plastic composite intake manifold -- are all-new. It also gets extended-life spark plugs and the good-for-100,000-miles (161,000 km) Dex-Cool engine coolant, an across-the-board 1996 upgrade for all GM engines. The 2.4L Twin Cam is available as the upgrade engine in Gm's J-body cars and is standard in the N-bodies.

The General's 3800 Series 11 V-6, voted one of Ward's Top Ten Engines of 1995, gets supercharged this year, for a 15-hp improvement over the old 3800 supercharged's 225 hp.

Finally, if the diesel's coming back it'll be on the basis of the excellent driveability of new-age diesels such as Volkswagen AG's 1.9L TDI (turbodiesel direct injection), which is optional for 1996 in VW's Golf, Jetta and Passat.

As the name implies, the TDI injects fuel, under extremely high pressure, directly into the cylinder. While fuel economy is outstanding (in a Golf, 60 mpg [kml] at a steady-state 56 mph [90 km/h]) it's the excellent torque, 149 ft.-lbs. (202 Nm) peaking at just 1,900 rpm, 0-to-50-mph (0-to-80 km/h) acceleration time of 8.5 seconds and superior NVH refinement that put the TDI worlds apart from old-tech oil burners. If that's not enough, VW says fast-fire glow plugs deliver reliable starting at temperatures down to -20[degrees] F (-28[degrees] C) TDI's are so clean-burning -- particulate "smoke" is never seen -- manual transmission-equipped cars don't even need a catalyst, VW boasts.

Five speeds and more

Getting the power to the road is getting more sophisticated, too. As with engine development, the goal is triple-pronged: increase fuel economy, improve refinement, deliver more power.

In conventional terms, this means more speeds from which to choose in a standard gearbox. And right now, that means 5-speed automatics.

Next spring Audi AG will introduce the world's first 5-speed automatic transaxle for a front-drive vehicle in for its new A4 compact. A long overdriven fifth gear gives good cruising fuel economy and a Dynamic Shift Program selects from a remarkable 200 different shift "maps" to select one most closely suited to what DSP believes are the driver's wishes.

Moreover, the new 5-speeder can be hooked to the Quattro all-wheel drive system, which itself can, since '95, be had as a stand-alone option -- one of the best moves Audi's ever made.

Five-speed autos aren't new for rear-drivers, but they are for the Japanese in this market. Toyota's Lexus GS300, an underdog almost since the day it reached our shores, has needed a hook, and this year gets it with a sophisticated 5-speed automatic.

Lexus' new automatic features an intriguing design that slots the overdrive fifth gear set -- normally grafted onto an existing 4-speed unit -- between first and second gears, saving weight and space. An intricate design feature shifts the new overdrive gear in sync with the first three forward gears; a "new" second gear is then established by coupling the overdrive gear with first gear. Then (stay with us on this) the standard second, third and fourth gears effectively move up a notch to become third, fourth and fifth gear, respectively.

The tales of woe Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. experienced with continuously variable transmission (CVT) are well-known: its initial efforts in the Subaru Justy didn't do much to promote the advantages of CVT.

But Honda thinks it has most of the problems licked and fits a nicely refined CVT in the '96 Civic HX model. Briefly, a CVT employs two pulleys, connected by a strong metal "band," to transmit drive. The pulleys are constructed of two halves that are hydraulically pushed together or pulled apart, forcing the metal band to ride higher or lower in the resultant trough. How high or low the band rides on each pulley determines the drive ratio, making for a large range of available gear ratios.

In the case of Honda's CVT, the transmission's final drive ratio can go as low as 0.45:1. And because the CVT can almost instantly match the optimum transmission ratio to engine speed, the engine can operate most of the time at its peak horsepower level. Moreover, there's no need to worry about quelling the "clunk" that comes when common automatic transmissions shift from one gear to the next because the CVT contains no fixed gear sets.

Honda has installed what its engineers call a "start clutch" in its CVT, which eliminates the need for a torque converter and dispenses with one of the most annoying driveability aspects of Subaru's earlier efforts: there was no "creep" in the Subaru CVT, meaning that to initiate minor forward movements, such as inching into a parking spot, one had to goose the throttle, because without any throttle inputs the CVT would not transmit any drive energy. Honda's start clutch allows the car to creep forward if the driver releases the brakes, just like driving a normal automatic transmission.

Chrysler's standout transmission refinement doesn't have anything to do with increasing efficiency and everything to do with just plain fun. New for this year on Eagle Vision TSi is the "Autostick," the first domestic offering of the "tiptronic"-style automatic transmission that is increasingly popular in Europe and initially marketed by Porsche AG.

Chrysler's Autostick allows the driver to pull the automatic transmission's selector lever into a gate that permits manual toggling up and down the gear ratios, one at a time, much the same way a motorcycle is shifted. All the necessary electronics and software are added to the Vision's standard 4-speed automatic.

Autostick allows the driver full command over upshifts and downshifts -- slap the gear lever once to the right for an upshift, once to the left for a downshift, all without lifting the accelerator. Two swats, bang-bang, deliver two shifts. The only time the electronics intervene is to prevent over-revving the engine or if the driver selects a high gear and then comes to a stop, when Autostick chooses first gear to start again.

Autostick is slick and refined and enjoyable. It probably doesn't really add any performance for everyday driving, but has potential to make backroad frolicking more entertaining. Chrysler engineers say the makeover of the off-the-shelf automatic was easy enough -- so why doesn't everybody do this?