From soft tops to cool bottoms, supplier contributions to '01 models are plentiful

Ever driven a Jeep Wrangler? Did the experience leave you with ringing ears or loose fillings? OK, that's harsh, but you have to admit the Wrangler requires a hearty disposition. Experience in a saddle doesn't hurt.

The 2001 Wrangler sets out to silence some of that criticism. It arrives with a new soft top that reduces cabin noise by an average of 3.2 decibels over the last-generation top.

It's all in the fabric. The Haartz Corp. used sheets of vinyl, rubber and fabric in developing the "acoustically superior" multi-layer top. Haartz ships the material to the Kinetex division of Decoma International, the lead supplier of the soft top for the Wrangler.

Laboratory and real-world testing proved the material significantly reduces interior noise over the entire range of frequencies. Plus, the new top wears better in all weather, is more tear-resistant, and it adds minimal weight, the company says.

The same material is used on the 2001 Corvette convertible top, produced by Collins & Aikman's Dura Convertible Systems, for the first time.

And if you find door panels exciting, Johnson Controls Inc. has a new one that appears first on the 2001 Chrysler Sebring convertible.

JCI produces the panel with its new Eco-Cor process and material, an "environmentally friendly" blend of renewable natural fibers and polypropylene. The cover skin can be molded in one step - no lamination necessary - reducing part cost.

Eco-Cor requires no glue and allows for lower tooling costs, increased strength, improved acoustics, reduced weight and enhanced side-impact protection. The elimination of fasteners is another big bonus.

Trunk security release levers are another feature that will arrive en masse in the new model year. General Motors Corp. is going a bit further. The world's largest automaker has a sensor that detects motion and body heat and automatically opens the trunk. GM first announced in June 1999 that it was working on the product.

Donnelly Corp., a company better known for automotive mirrors, developed the relatively inexpensive Smart Release system. It uses an infrared sensor, mounted in the trunk just below the rear window, to detect motion and body heat. A short time later, the trunk automatically opens.

The system really works. A Ward's editor (not me) recently climbed inside a trunk, and after a few minutes the horn started chirping to signal trouble. Then the trunk opened right up.

Why the delay in opening the trunk? Individuals sometimes get locked inside due to kidnappings or other violent crimes. So GM consulted the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which suggested that the appropriate activation time was a few minutes.

For the '01 model year, Smart Release will be standard equipment on Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo.

And seats are getting cool, literally. Even before average consumers came to embrace the idea of heated seats in their cars, a two-way seat arrives on the market - one that keeps your backside warm in winter and cool in summer.

Not that Amerigon Inc.'s Climate Control Seat is brand new. It has been available on the Lincoln Navigator for more than a year. Now it appears as optional equipment on the '01 Lexus LS 430 luxury sedan.

For the 2002 model year, the Climate Control Seat will be a standard feature for seats in the Lincoln Blackwood "luxury utility vehicle." Lear Corp. will produce the Blackwood seats and will integrate the Amerigon technology.

The system is equipped with an advanced heat pump that can heat or cool the ambient air available inside the vehicle. The pump uses no environmentally sensitive coolants and is built around a solid-state thermoelectric device that allows heated or cooled air to be circulated throughout the seat.

Other goodies:

Volvo Car combats smash-and-grab theft by offering its S60, S70 and S80 models with optional side windows made from Enhanced Protective Glass (EPG) supplied by Solutia Inc. The glass is made with polyvinyl butyral, a new category of laminated glass designed specifically for vehicle side and rear windows. Breaking an EPG window takes up to two minutes. By then, a smart thief would give up - or look for another car.

Motorola's Digital DNA yields yet another innovation - the Timeport digital phone. The latest in wireless in-vehicle communications is available on all '01 Mercedes-Benz vehicles. The phone is equipped with an Internet mini-browser feature and is deeply integrated with the vehicle, allowing for voice recognition and hands-free capability.