TAKE A LOOK AT THE UPCOMING '10 AND '11 models and it is easy to imagine 2010 will be the year historians point to as the tipping point where the automotive landscape began to change forever.

It is a line that demarcates when engine downsizing leaped forward and vehicle electrification began in earnest.

Even as fuel prices continue to trend downward in the U.S. from their July 2008 peak, internal combustion engines suddenly are getting smaller, more power dense and more fuel-efficient on a large scale as the industry gears up to improve corporate average fuel economy 40% by 2016.

Hybrid-electric vehicles and plug-in HEVs are being embraced by almost every auto maker on the planet. Even the idea of purely electric vehicles is being taken very seriously.

And in the background, going almost unnoticed, are major advances in active safety that promise to permanently change the way drivers interact with their vehicles.

Engines

On the high-volume front, gasoline direct injection is transforming the family car. A pricey, high-technology feature just a few years ago, General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. are ushering it into the high-volume mainstream.

GM says it will offer more DI engines in North America than any other auto maker in the '10 model year. By next year, the auto maker says it may have as many as eight DI engines in 38 models globally.

GM's 304-hp DI 3.6L V-6 in the Cadillac CTS has been named to the Ward's 10 Best Engines list two years in a row. It now is the base engine in the '10 Chevrolet Camaro as well.

The '10 Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain are the latest to join GM's DI club, in addition to the '10 Cadillac SRX cross/utility vehicle and redesigned '10 Buick LaCrosse sedan.

The Equinox and Terrain feature a 2.4L 4-cyl. engine delivering a peak 180 hp and 172 lb.-ft. of torque (232 Nm).

GM says consumers driving the 2.4L-equipped Equinox/Terrain 15,000 miles (24,140 km) per year will save 134 gallons (507 L) of fuel, or up to $400 annually (assuming gas prices of $2 or $3 per gallon), compared with an '09 Equinox.

As part of its well-known EcoBoost strategy, Ford is embarking on a plan to implement DI technology across a wide variety of mainstream vehicles, combining DI with smaller displacement engines and turbocharging.

The first-generation EcoBoost engine, based on Ford's normally aspirated 3.5L Duratec V-6, already has debuted in the '10 Taurus SHO and Lincoln MKS. The SHO features a tuned version of the engine that produces 365 hp at 5,500 rpm and 350 lb. ft. (475 Nm) of torque.

The standard EcoBoost engine, offered on the Ford Flex cross/utility vehicle and MKS, produces 355 hp and is rated at 16/22 mpg (14.7-10.7 L/100 km) city/highway.

Ford will launch a 2.0L 4-cyl. version of its turbocharged, direct-injected EcoBoost engine next year.

The engine will feature one turbocharger vs. the twin setup found in the 3.5L 6-cyl. EcoBoost and is expected to produce “at least” 230 hp and 240 lb.-ft. (325 Nm) of torque, says Barb Samardzich, vice president-Ford Global Powertrain Engineering.

Samardzich declines to reveal what product will host the first 2.0L EcoBoost but says it's unlikely to wind up in the base Focus C-car.

“You have to think about our EcoBoost strategies where it's substituting for a V-6, and that's what we really have to get people's mindset around,” she adds.

The engine, based on Ford's current 2.0L 4-cyl. architecture, will feature twin-independent variable cam timing (Ti-VCT) and deliver a 10%-20% fuel economy improvement, compared with larger V-6 engines, without sacrificing performance, Ford says.

Hyundai Motor America is using DI to alter its standard engine lineup, as well. It will not offer a V-6 in its next-generation Sonata midsize sedan, which goes on sale in the U.S. early next year.

The new Sonata, instead, will have an upgraded version of Hyundai's 4-cyl. Theta engine with DI, making Hyundai the first auto maker in the 4-cyl. midsize-sedan segment with the technology standard.

The DI 4-cyl. mill in the '11 Sonata, which is expected to be unveiled in January at the 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, will boast improved horsepower and fuel economy. The '09 Sonata achieves 175 hp and 22/32 mpg city/highway (11/7 L/100 km).

Chrysler Group LLC is introducing a few fuel-saving tweaks as well, although integration with Fiat Auto SpA has slowed its product cadence to a crawl.

Headlining Chrysler's technology advances are “Interactive Decel Fuel Shut-Off” and a new international-market 2.2L 4-cyl. common-rail diesel engine.

The fuel shut-off system portends efficiency improvements of up to 1%. It will be featured in each of the three engines available in the '10 Dodge Ram light-duty pickup, as well as the 3.7L V-6 offered as standard equipment in the Dodge Nitro SUV and its platform-mate, the Jeep Liberty.

Transmissions

A number of new transmissions also are debuting this model year and next.

Ford plans to debut next year a new PowerShift 6-speed dual-clutch transmission, slated for light-duty applications. Compared with a step-shift 4-speed it delivers a 7%-9% fuel economy improvement, Ford says.

The transmission was developed by Getrag Ford Transmissions, a joint-venture between Ford and German supplier Getrag GmbH & Cie KG.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. is introducing a 6-speed automatic, its first, on the Acura ZDX, refreshed Acura MDX and the new Honda CrossTour.

Hyundai introduces its in-house developed 6-speed automatic on the refreshed Azera sedan and also on the ‘11 Tucson CUV and Sonata. The 6AT also is in sister brand Kia's '11 Sorento CUV.

A new 8-speed automatic is debuting on the BMW 760 Li. Produced by ZF Friedrichshafen AG, the new 8-speed will boost efficiency 6% over an upgraded 6-speed automatic, 14% over a 5-speed and more than 16% over a 4-speed, ZF says.

Subaru of America Inc. is adding a continuously variable transmission for its base 4-cyl. engine, replacing the outgoing Legacy and Outback's 4-speed automatic. As expected, Subaru says fuel economy is a large reason for the change.

Electrification Takes Hold

Toyota Motor Corp. continues to make news on the HEV front. In addition to the all-new '10 Prius that debuted earlier this year with an EPA rating of 51/48 mpg city-highway (4.6-4.9 L/100 km) and the Lexus HS 250h offering 35-34 city/highway (6.7-6.9 L/100 km), it debuted a plug-in version of the Prius at the recent Frankfurt auto show.

Toyota says its new Prius PHEV will be capable of traveling 12 miles (19 km) and achieve highway speeds in electric-only mode.

Beginning late this year, the auto maker will deliver 500 Prius PHEVs worldwide in a demonstration program. About 150 will be placed with select U.S. lease-fleet customers for market and engineering analysis.

The U.S. introduction no doubt will steal a little thunder from the introduction of the much-anticipated Chevy Volt extended range electric vehicle and the Nissan Motor Co. Leaf, both of which are expected to debut in late 2010 as '11 models.

Unlike the standard Prius, the PHEV will use lithium-ion, rather than nickel-metal-hydride, batteries. Panasonic EV Energy Co. Ltd., owned 60% by Toyota, will supply the batteries.

One of the most interesting bits of technology available on the standard new Prius has nothing to do with its powertrain. Instead, the car can be ordered with solar panels embedded in the moonroof that power a fan that lowers the interior temperature as much as 30° F when the car is parked.

In the summertime, the temperature inside a vehicle can reach nearly 200°F (93° C).

Volumes will be relatively tiny, but after insisting for years that high-efficiency diesels were the only answer to increasing fuel efficiency and lowering carbon-dioxide emissions, the major German auto makers now are jumping into HEVs and EVs with enthusiasm. They still are trying to market diesels in the U.S., as well, even though others have mostly given up on the idea.

Mercedes-Benz AG is bragging it is the first to offer an HEV powered with lithium-ion batteries. U.S. deliveries of the S400 Hybrid HEV began in September, and engineers already are working on developing an all-wheel-drive version for buyers in the Northeast.

The HEV is based on the V-6 S-Class and features combined fuel economy of 29 mpg (8 L/100 km), a 30% increase from the V-8 S550. The modified 3.5L gasoline engine develops 275 hp, while the electric motor generates 20 hp.

Mercedes also showed off a PHEV S500 concept at Frankfurt, underscoring its growing commitment to electric power.

Likewise, BMW now is jumping into electrification with both feet and will be introducing an X6 HEV in the U.S. at the end of this year and a 7-Series mild hybrid in April 2010.

BMW calls the new ActiveHybrid X6 “the world's fastest all-wheel-drive hybrid.” It combines a twin-turbo V-8 with two electric motors. Compared with the conventional X6, it is 20% more fuel-efficient.

BMW claims the ActiveHybrid 7-Series is “the first car in the world to combine a gasoline V-8 engine, 8-speed automatic transmission and an electric motor as a mild hybrid concept. The electric motor basically serves as an “electric turbo” and means the HEV's acceleration is even better than that of the standard V-8 powered 750i, even though it delivers 15% better fuel economy.

Audi AG and Porsche AG also are introducing HEVs in 2010, and Audi displayed an all-electric concept at Frankfurt as well.

Safety

Unfortunately, all the powertrain technology is overshadowing safety improvements.

Mercedes added its Pre-Safe automatic braking system to the '10 E-Class sedan and coupe this year, as well as its unique attention assist system, which unlike most other driver alertness systems does not use cameras to detect driver drowsiness.

Volvo also is introducing its City Safety system, which automatically brakes for the driver in emergencies at speeds below 20 mph (32 km/h). Both the Mercedes and Volvo braking systems are supplied by Continental AG.

Ford Readies 4-Cyl. EcoBoost Engine

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