Since when did suppliers find time for market research to find out exactly what the driving public wants in a personal vehicle?

Consumer clinics, of course, are critical when it comes to automakers marketing their products.

But it would seem difficult for suppliers to do extensive studies on their own specific products when their primary purpose must be to satisfy the ever-shifting demands of their automaking customers.

Yet, the 1999 model year arrives with a number of vehicles equipped with new features that seem so logical that someone must have been doing their homework.

Among supplier goodies: A Thermos-like canister that stores engine heat for instant warmth on the coldest of mornings. Tire treads lined with gooey tar that automatically seals punctures. An ozone-eating radiator that will turn new Volvos into rolling air cleaners. Adjustable pedals to make easier footwork for small-framed drivers of sport/utility vehicles.

On with the highlights:

Leave it to a Canadian company - Centaur Thermal Systems Inc., a joint venture between ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc. and Standard Motor Products Inc. - to come up with a product to make winter driving a little more tolerable.

The Centaur Heat Storage System collects hot engine coolant in a stainless steel vessel and stores it when the car is not running. On the next cold start, even after several days of nonuse, the hot coolant flows into the engine and warms it quickly, resulting in nearly instant warm air to the vehicle and windshield, within 10 seconds.

The product does more than take the edge off a January morning for a Northern driver. By dramatically reducing warm-up time and fuel consumption, Centaur minimizes the carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbon exhaust emissions, which are at their highest levels on a cold start.

Five police vehicles in Anchorage, AK, were equipped with Centaur in 1994, and tests found that emissions of carbon monoxide were reduced an average of 66%, and hydrocarbons were reduced an average of 65%.

Centaur went into production last year and is available as a dealer-installed option in Volkswagen Golf and Passat models in Europe.

For the new model year, the product will be offered as a dealer-installed option on pickup trucks from one of the Big Three automakers, says Fred Nader, sales and marketing manager for Centaur, of Cambridge, Ont.

The company also has a letter of intent from another U.S. automaker to use Centaur on minivans and potentially other light trucks, Mr. Nader says.

Other North American and European automakers are considering Centaur for original-equipment application. As a dealer option, Centaur costs between $500 and $700 to the consumer, but Mr. Nader says the price tag will drop considerably if Centaur becomes a factory-installed option.

The problem is packaging. Centaur vessels store between 4.6L and 9L of coolant, so it takes some work in the engine compartment to make them fit.

"After working with this product for eight years and having it in my personal vehicle, I think that once this product gets into the market place it will be demanded by consumers. I get immediate heater performance," Mr. Nader says.

"I've taken it to Minnesota in winter to demonstrate it, and the No.1 question is, 'How soon can I have it.'"

The 1999 redesigned Ford Windstar minivan is equipped with optional self-sealing tires from Continental General Tire.

When a nail or other object punctures the tread of the Gen-Seal tire, a thick, viscous sealant surrounds the puncturing object and minimizes air loss in the tire. When the object is removed, the tacky sealant is drawn into the hole, forming a tight seal.

It means Mom won't have to worry about changing a flat tire on the way to the kids' soccer practice.

The product is quite different from the equally innovative run-flat tires, which have reinforced sidewalls to allow a motorist with a punctured tire to drive 50 miles (80 km) or more to a service station for repair.

Gen-Seal can close any hole in the tread area up to 3/16 in. (0.5 cm) in diameter. The sealant maintains even consistency and distribution in all weather.

The Windstar isn't the first vehicle available with Gen-Seal. The tires already come on the Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac TransSport minivan, as well as on Buick LeSabre.

On the environmental side, the Volvo S80 will include radiators treated with a patented PremAir catalyst system from Engelhard Corp.

A catalytic coating is applied to the exterior surface of a car radiator to remove dangerous, smog-forming ozone from air flowing through it. Tests from the company show that as much as 75% of the ozone flowing through a treated radiator is converted to oxygen.

The purification effect on hot days and when the air has a high ozone content will partially offset the level of ozone production from the exhaust of a modern car equipped with a catalytic converter, Engelhard says.

Volvo is the first automaker in the world to use the technology, and Engelhard spokesman Sean Healy estimates the treatment will be applied to 100,000 vehicle radiators in 1999. Other automakers are considering using PremAir.

The cost to automakers for the process is less than $50 per vehicle, Mr. Healy says.

Engelhard had been working closely with Ford Motor Co. to develop a radiator catalyst several years ago, but the project faltered as the research centered on the use of expensive precious metals for the chemical coating, Mr. Healy says.

In 1995, Engelhard discovered that inexpensive base metals could be used in the process, opening the door for PremAir.

The product has been installed on bus radiators in Palm Springs, CA, and has been tested on residential air conditioners in Los Angeles. Engelhard's relationship with Volvo is not exclusive, so another automaker could have PremAir on a vehicle as early as model year 2000, Mr. Healy says.

On the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, Johnson Controls Inc. provides the first-of-its-kind electronic vehicle information center in the overhead console, allowing the driver to personalize up to 16 different features from changing the headlamp delay to setting the horn sound upon locking the vehicle. The HomeLink communications system in the overhead module provides links to home security, garage door and lighting.

JCI makes the headliner out of recycled material, including soda bottles. The headliner also serves as the first worldwide application of JCI's new CorteX energy-absorbing material to enhance head-impact protection.

And for those who need more evidence that trucks are no longer for brutes, the special edition 1999 Ford F-Series pickup will sport never-before-seen woven leather upholstery by Eagle Ottawa Leather Co. The pronounced texture, created by a special embossing process, is part of a trend Eagle Ottawa predicts will sweep through automotive interiors.

But the F-Series is not alone. The 50th anniversary Cadillac DeVille D'Elegance also will sport the fancy new leather.

Speaking of trucks, Teleflex Automotive Group will offer the first electrically adjustable throttle and brake pedals in the '99 Ford Expedition/Lincoln Navigator, providing shorter drivers more clearance from air bags.

Also at the high-end, OnStar, General Motors Corp.'s mobile communications service, will add two new services - accident assistance to coach drivers through the reporting process after a minor fender-bender, and medical assistance to provide a personal medical history of drivers in the event they are unconscious.

The new features will be standard on the Cadillac Escalade this fall and will be optional on other GM vehicles.

New additions to the OnStar lineup for 1999 include the Pontiac Grand Prix, Chevrolet Blazer, GMC Jimmy and Oldsmobile Intrigue and Bravada.

In many cases, however, supplier contributions to 1999 vehicles may be hard to detect for consumers but are significant to the industry, either by cutting costs, reducing weight or streamlining production.

Delphi Automotive Systems supplies its new Multec 2 fuel injectors for the 1999 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups. The new injectors are 25% lower in height and about one-third the mass of Delphi's Multec 1 injectors.

Delphi says its new injectors have the greatest linear range and the lowest tip leakage in the industry, which directly translates into reduced exhaust and evaporative emissions.

The instrument panel on the new Mercury Cougar is a hybrid combining a traditional steel structural beam along with a ductile thermoplastic. Collaborating on the project were Ford and its Visteon Automotive Systems, Textron Automotive Co. and Dow Automotive.

The hybrid approach eliminates 10 parts (including seven steel brackets from the cross-car structure), reduces weight by 4 lbs. (1.8 kg) and cuts the cost of a traditional instrument panel. It's the first hybrid IP system on a Ford vehicle.

On the Grand Cherokee, Eaton Corp. had the role of "systems integrator" in coordinating the engineering of the valvetrain for the vehicle's all-new 4. 7L V-8 engine - a job traditionally handled internally.

Eaton provides the valves and lash adjusters, and the other components, including springs, valve stem seals and rocker arms, come from other suppliers. The powdered-metal camshaft is supplied by Federal Mogul Corp. subsidiary Weyburn-Bartel Inc. using technology from Nippon Piston Ring of Japan.

"We've done similar programs at Ford, but not to this degree," says Steve Zirkle, general sales manager for Eaton's Engine Components division. "This was more hands-on."

The project brings Eaton one step closer to its goal of supplying full cylinder heads for automakers. The company has acquired Amtec SpA, a cylinder head maker in Turin, Italy.

Mr. Zirkle says Eaton will supply the complete cylinder head assembly for a non-domestic vehicle in the near future. Amtec will machine the head.

We'll have to wait at least a few months for more details.