Posts Tagged ‘hybrid’

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A Hybrid Faceoff: Kia Optima and Ford Fusion

April 11, 2012


By Roger Witherspoon

Nobody knew what to make of the Toyota Prius when it first hit the American roadways.

It was an odd looking little car. It wasn’t ugly or a plain sub-compact box with wheels. But it wasn’t a styling gem, but wasn’t unattractive, either. The Prius carved its own styling niche at a time when Toyota was selling hybrid efficiency, not looks.

But times have changed. The Prius has become more stylish to look at and more comfortable ride in. And its success has spawned competition – and not just at the sub-compact level. The Cadillac Escalade hybrid anchors the opposite end of the fuel efficient spectrum and, if you want high end, sports car efficiency, there is the Porsche Panamera hybrid offering relative fuel efficiency at more than150 miles per hour.

But for the average household looking for hybrid efficiency in a family sedan, there are now significant options stretching from Korea, with the Kia Optima; to Detroit, where Ford has rolled out the Fusion Hybrid.

            With the Optima, Kia continues its tradition of offering a lot in a car for less. At $32,000, the stylish, midsized, Optima sedan meets a lot of family needs. On the outside, the Optima looks like a sport sedan, with a wide racing grill and black side air scoops which makes it the type ofcarStatePolice just love to follow. And there is good reason for cops to keep an eye on the Optima: It is such a quiet, well shielded car that there is virtually no wind sound in the cabin even when the car is rolling on 17-inch wheels past 100 miles per hour. The Optima makes it real easy to lose your license, even though it has a modest power plant and is sluggish when taking off.

Under the hood, the Optima has a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine producing just 166 horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque. It is paired with an electric motor producing an additional 40.2 horsepower and 151 pound-feet torque which. The combined power plant produces a lot of horsepower for a relatively light-weight vehicle. But the combined 300+ pound-feet of torque, going directly to the wheels, allows the Optima to be extremely responsive once it gets going

In the fuel department, the Optima Hybrid carries an EPA rating of 35 miles per gallon in stop-and-go driving, and 40 miles per gallon on the highway. While the EPA estimates are usually exaggerated, the test car got 38 miles per gallon in mixed driving. .  While most full hybrids allow the car to be driven in electric-only mode for just the first 25 or so miles per hour, the Optima can drive on just its electric power plant at speeds up to 62 miles per hour.  That is why the stats for this hybrid are reversed, with higher gas savings on the highway than in the city where frequent accelerations lower the performance.

            Kia did not cut costs in the interior features, either, beginning with the wood accents and the double, powered sunroof. One would expect quality, ventilated leather seats in a $32,000 car, as well as the ability to heat the pair in front. But the Optima goes one better by offering heated and air conditioned front seats as well as heated rear seats – an option usually found only in high end luxury cars – and a heated steering wheel.

For entertainment there is a 7-inch touch screen for the easy to use navigation systems and the clear backup camera.  The Optima has Sirius satellite radio, which also provides the navigation system with traffic and weather updates. The package is rounded off with USB, iPod and MP3 connections and Bluetooth for cell phone or audio use. The entertainment, Bluetooth, and cruise controls can all be accessed via fingertip controls on the steering wheel.

But you can’t get to Korea without passing Detroit, where the folks at Ford have something to say. You need a large parking lot to handle all the competitors in the midsized sedan category, since all the car makers have at least one entry in the segment. The question they all faced was how to carve a niche and manage to stand out in the crowd chasing the Toyota Camry?

For the folks with the crayons at Ford, the answer was the Fusion, a car with its own distinct styling characteristics, including a wide, three-layered grill. And if you put together a checklist of the most popular items or enduring features in the Toyota Camry, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, or Honda Accord, for example, you could check off virtually all of them in the Fusion.

For those interested in fuel economy, there is the Fusion Hybrid. The Fusion Hybrid’s gasoline engine itself is rather anemic, a 2.5-liter, four cylinder engine producing 152 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque. Its electric motor cranks out 35 horsepower, and 106 pound-feet of torque. Together, it’s a small power plant, and you are not going to do any drag racing in a fusion. But then, you don’t get a hybrid if you have a lead foot.

This is a full, dual motor system, meaning you can drive up to about 47 miles per hour on just the 40 horse power electric motor. That’s faster than any other hybrid on the road except the Optima. But Ford’s electric motor can accelerate at higher speeds than the Optima without engaging the gasoline engine for support. They accomplish this with a form of battery overdrive system.  As a rule, hybrids never completely run down their batteries – there is about a 15% to 20% reserve. With the fusion, there is an “Eco boost” which taps the reserve for additional power on acceleration, power provided on most hybrids by engaging the gasoline engine.

That helps explain why the Fusion Hybrid has an EPA rating of 41 miles per gallon in stop-and-go driving – 10 MPG higher than the Toyota Camry Hybrid – and  36 miles per gallon on the highway. The Fusion also encourages you to drive in the most economic fashion with an animated set of gauges in the form of green leaves which wave in an electronic breeze when happiest.

Inside, the Fusion has a powered sunroof over the front, and both the seats and doors are padded with leather, thick, attractive, double stitched leather. The front seats can be heated and are power adjusted.  The rear seats, while not heated, have enough leg room for passengers who stretch well over six feet. 

For entertainment, the Fusion uses the SYNC communications system, with its voice or touch activated screen, audio, and cell phone link. The navigation system is an easy one to use, with traffic and weather warnings and rerouting provided by the satellite radio service. The backup screen has one of the clearest cameras on the market, with guidelines to help motorists judge how far they are from an obstruction.

The Fusion offers Sirius satellite radio with a 12-speaker Sony sound system, as well as USB, iPhone and MP3 connections. There is also Bluetooth for phone or audio connections. The large battery also powers a 110 volt regular power outlet to plug in a computer or game console, in addition to the regular power outlets for cell phones.

Whether or not the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Kia Optima Hybrid can overtake the hybrid version of the leading Toyota Camry remains to be seen. But as they energize their batteries, they are likely to give the leader a run for the money.

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

 

MSRP:                                                                        $32,250

EPA Mileage:                        35 MPG City                          40 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.4-Liter aluminum DOHC 4-cylinder engine producing 166 horsepower and 154 pound/feet of torque; electric motor with 270-vlt Lithium-polymer battery producing 40 horsepower and 151 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; stability and traction controls; anti-lock brakes; 17-inch alloy wheels; independent front and rear suspension; fog lights and high density headlights; backup camera; dual front airbags; front seat side airbags; full-length side curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Infinity Audio system with 8 speakers; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; CD player; Bluetooth phone and audio; voice-activated entertainment system; navigation system with satellite traffic and weather; leather wrapped, tilt and telescoping, steering wheel with fingertip audio, phone and cruise controls; heated steering wheel; heated rear seats; heated or air cooled front seats; powered leather seats; powered sunroof.

2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid

 

MSRP:                                                                        $32,820

EPA Mileage:                        41 MPG City                          36 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.5-Liter, aluminum DOHC 4-cylinder engine producing 156 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque; electric motor with 275-volt Nickel-metal hydride battery producing 35 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque; front wheel drive; independent front and rear suspension; rack and pinion steering; 4-wheel power disc brakes; anti-locking brake system; stability and traction control; 17-inch, 15-spoke aluminum wheels; side and curtain front and rear air bags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Sony audio system with 12 speakers; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; CD player; Bluetooth phone and audio; voice-activated entertainment system; navigation system with satellite traffic and weather; leather wrapped, tilt and telescoping steering with fingertip audio, phone and cruise controls; heated front seats; powered sunroof.

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The Infiniti M-35 Hybrid: Sometimes a Gas Saver

February 21, 2012


By Roger Witherspoon

 

            I knew it was a hybrid. I just didn’t care.

Saving money in a hybrid is mostly a matter of with fulfillment: you want better mileage, so you drive differently than you normally would. Instead of burning rubber, you take off slowly, allowing the electric motor to accelerate the car at a rate slow enough to allow you to finish your morning cup of tea before reaching the nearest intersection.

On the highway, you avoid the passing lanes and go with the slow flow. If you have to change lanes, you wait till there is an opening rather than hitting the accelerator and jumping into a small, moving slot.  All the while, you are watching a luminous dial by the speedometer giving you a second by second reading of your gasoline miles per gallon – and you really, really like the number to be north of 50. It’s a sensible, safe, self-taught, economic way to drive – but only if you are in the mood to be sensible, safe, and economic.

Which brings this discussion back to a sunny day with a dry, nearly empty highway, and the 2012 Infiniti M-35 hybrid. At the push of a button, the eight-inch, color navigation screen  readily shows you where the power is coming from – the 302-horsepower, V-6 gasoline engine, the 67 horsepower electric motor, or both if you mash the pedal to the floor.  The latter move, of course, defeats the purpose of a gas saving hybrid.

But then, the hybrid combo can be viewed as a gasoline engine enhancer, rather than a gas saver – and the nearly 200 pound-feet of additional torque provided by the electric motor directly to the axels pushes this hybrid, family sedan into the category of a sports car.

So I floored it. The 18-inch rear wheels dug in as the M shot forward, the speedometer hitting 60 in just over five seconds and passing 100 and the quarter mile in just over 13 seconds. And then, since one can’t go too far or fast on the Northeast highways without upsetting the guys with the sirens and guns, it was time to slow down, act responsibly, and enjoy the ride.

One can actually get a speeding ticket while acting responsibly in the M-35 – its electric motor is capable of pushing the car past 60 miles per hour, about twice the norm for most hybrid electric motors. The combined system provides the power of a V-8 engine while sipping gasoline like a more sedate 4-cylinder, Audi A-4. The sedan has an EPA rating of 27 miles per gallon in the city and 32 miles per gallon on the highway – but if you drive for fun the actual mileage is likely to be considerably lower and you’ll just have to grin and pay at the pump.

      There are a number of thoughtful features in the M, beginning with the notion that if you pay $65,000 for a car you want a lot of comfort and amenities in addition to speed. Buyers in this range are looking for more than mere transportation: The car, as an art form, has to have an irresistible, aesthetic appeal. With the M-35, you can start with the sculptured theme of flowing raindrops. The outer shell is wide with a hump over each front wheel, tapering towards the rear as if the car were comprised of a flattened bubble flanked by two stretched raindrops. It is a theme repeated inside, with oak wood grain flowing in gentle curves across the dashboard and around the chrome door handles.

Infiniti’s designers also gave some thought to pedestrians, who might not hear the car coming if it is in electric mode. The biggest danger to pedestrians comes when cars are slowing down to turn, and those who listen but don’t look are particularly threatened by hybrids and plug-in electrics. So the electric motor has a built-in whine which comes on when the car starts, and gets louder as the car drives, cutting off at 15 miles per hour on the assumption that pedestrians aren’t in the middle of fast moving traffic.

The central console is nine inches wide, containing a cup holder designed to securely hold two large cups or water bottles side by side, and a thickly padded arm rest over a deep storage bin. The arm rest is wide enough to be comfortably shared by the driver and passenger, and adds to the spacious feel of the interior.

The wide leather seats are power adjustable, have powered lumbar supports and as expected, the may be heated. The leather-wrapped steering wheel telescopes and tilts, contains fingertip audio, cruise and Bluetooth controls and at the touch of a button is also heated – which is really appreciated at this time of year. The leather padding on the dash and side walls are offset by generous use of wood trim made from Japanese ash.

Like most cars of this era, the M-35 uses an “intelligent” electronic key, which merely has to be inside the vehicle in order for you to start it by pushing the ignition button. But this key is a bit smarter than most. Once you have set your seat, mirrors, climate controls and turned on the audio system to your preferred sounds, the key memorizes it and makes any necessary adjustments as soon as you start the car.

For sound, the M comes with XM satellite radio, as well as a USB port and iPod connections. The Bluetooth, which is easy to set up for cell phones, also serves to provide music from a smartphone or other Bluetooth music system. It has a single disc CD player and surround sound provided by a 16-speaker Bose system. In addition, there is a 9.3 Gigabyte hard drive music box to store 1,000 or so of your favorite jams. The XM satellite system also serves to provide real-time traffic updates for the navigation system, which is both easy to use and see on an 8-inch color pop-up monitor.

The M-35 offers a lot for those interested in a comfortable, fuel efficient, luxury sedan. It also offers a lot for those who are primarily interested in performance sports sedans and consider gas mileage a secondary consideration.

Sometimes, it’s nice to have choices.

2012 Infiniti M-35 Hybrid

 

MSRP:                                                                        $65,395

EPA Mileage:                        27 MPG City                          32 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    5.2 Seconds

            ¼ Mile                                                            13.9 Seconds at 103 MPH

            Top Speed                                                      140 MPH

3.5-Liter DOHC aluminum alloy V-6 engine producing 302 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque; 50 KW electric motor producing 67 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque; hybrid net power 369 horsepower;  rear wheel drive; 7-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual shift mode; double-wishbone, independent front suspension; multi-link independent rear suspension; regenerative brake system; 4-wheel vented disc brakes; anti-lock braking system; 18-inch, 5-spoke, aluminum-alloy wheels; rear view camera; high-intensity, bi-functional Xenon headlights; traction and stability controls; side impact airbags; roof-mounted curtain side impact air bags; blind spot and lane departure warning systems; blind spot intervention.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; Bose digital audio system with 16 speakers; single disc CD player; MP3, iPod and USB ports; Bluetooth phone and audio; 9.3 GB hard drive Music Box; 8-inch video screen; backup and forward monitor; heated steering wheel and front seats; voice activated navigation system; leather, tilt and telescoping steering wheel with fingertip audio, cruise, and phone controls;  Japanese white ash wood trim; front and rear seat climate controls;  power, tinted sunroof; power rear sunshade.

Competition: BMW 5 Series; Mercedes Benz E-Class

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A Taste of Green Sports: The Hybrid Honda CR-Z

February 18, 2011

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

A car doesn’t have to be ugly to be fuel efficient.

Nor does a car have to sacrifice pizzazz to save the planet.

Starting with those dictates, the challenge to the guys with the crayons at Honda was to come up with a low end, compact sports car, which had hybrid technology and better gas mileage than the little, Plain Jane, Honda Fit or its stalwart workhorse, the Honda Civic.  So the designers threw out the old templates, melted their crayons drawing something that oozed a sense of hot and, since they couldn’t think of a clever name for it, settled on the CR-Z.

Outside, the CR-Z is a stunning little sports car with a tapered front and aggressive little grill, sliding to a flared rear end. From its profile, the CR-Z resembles a jet engine waiting to be ignited. It is the kind of car that easily passes the whiplash test – it fairly screams for a second glance. And there is nothing about it that says, well, Honda.

That part’s the good news. The rest of the car needs some work.

Under that sloping hood is a two-part power system: the gasoline engine, and the electric motor. The primary power comes from  a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gas engine producing just 122 horsepower, followed by an electric motor feeding off a 100-volt, nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The combination is mated to a six-speed manual transmission that, in typical Honda fashion, is quick and responsive. The car is not as fast as it looks, however, and the handling is, well, ordinary.

This is not, however, a full hybrid in that you can’t drive on just the electric motor. Rather, the motor serves as an augmenting system for the gasoline engine, shutting it off when you are idling or stopped.  That boosts fuel efficiency to an EPA estimated 37 mpg. That is still good  fuel mileage, and places the CR-Z fifth among all cars behind the 50-mile per gallon Toyota Prius, 42 MPG Honda Civic Hybrid, 41 MPG  Honda Insight, and the 39 MPG  Ford Fusion.

The power system in the CR-Z differs from other hybrids in another manner: it is not automatically activated when you turn the car on. While the electric motor does shut the gasoline engine off when you are in gear, if you turn on the car to warm it up, the gasoline engine just keeps chugging away. The car is also noisy at higher speeds, something that comes as a surprise given its svelte shape and the fact that Honda’s are generally quiet cars.

Unlike the Honda Civic which has four seats – even though the ones in the rear have very little leg room – the CR-Z is not designed for rear passengers. There is no second row of seats, just two bins on a shelf, or you can lay the trunk lid down and extend the rear cargo area. There are usable storage areas for cell phones and other items, including a small pop up bin on top of the dash.

The test car had a navigating system and a 6.5-inch screen and voice recognition. Surprisingly, however, the CR-Z only offered AM/FM radio and a single-disc, CD player but no satellite radio system or capability.  Lack of satellite radio is surprising for a $23,000 car, but the navigation system is a good one. And the backup camera is crystal clear.  The sound, from a 360-watt system with seven speakers, was more than enough to envelope the small passenger compartment.

The car does have Bluetooth for easy cell phone pairing, and the layout of the dash was eye catching, with back-lit blue dials surrounded by a pulsing red line which let you know how fuel efficient you were. You can make up for the absence of satellite radio by bringing along your iPod, MP3 player or USB drive and plugging into the car’s sound system.

If there is a major problem it is that the sight lines are atrocious.

The rear side windows are small triangles, which means you can’t really see traffic out of them and you have to depend on the small side mirrors to see if any cars are approaching. That makes changing lanes something of a rolling guess. The rear roof tapers and then is cut off in a four-inch square back. That little window slit is not enough to see what is behind the car, particularly at night.

There are always tradeoffs when you have a roadster. But Honda needs to rethink that one. The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution initially had a wide spoiler across the center of its back window which pretty much blocked out everything except oncoming Mack Trucks. They dropped that spoiler in the 2011 edition of the Evolution because it blocked too much of the rear view. Instead, they mounted a spoiler at the end of the trunk, where it is functional, attractive, and not a road hazard.  The hatchback design of the CR-Z doesn’t lend itself to that solution, but the current system leaves a lot to be desired and is not up to Honda’s usual thoughtful standards or the promise of such a good looking car.

But nearly all new iterations of a car have design pains. And if one is in the market for an attractive, fuel efficient roadster, the CR-Z isn’t a bad place to start.

 

2011 Honda CR-Z

MSRP:                                                                       $23,310

EPA Mileage:                        31 MPG City                          37 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   34 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:

1.5-Liter, SOHC, 4-cylinder engine producing 122 horsepower and 128 pound/feet of torque; 100.8 volt electric motor; 6-speed manual transmission; power assisted Rack & Pinion steering; anti-lock brakes;  vehicle stability assist; daytime running lights; 16-inch alloy wheels; fog lights; high density headlights; dual stage front and side airbags; side curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM radio; 360-watt, 7-speaker sound system; CD and MP3 player; iPod and USB port; tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; navigation system with voice activation; Bluetooth.

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Two for the Road:The Hybrid and the Sports Sedan

May 9, 2010

 

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            There are some songs which seem made for road trips.

            The sun was high, the road was dry and, at 120 miles per hour, the Connecticut landscape was a kaleidoscope of spring floral prints which seemed to throb in time with the bass line of the Temptations’ Runaway Child pounding from the 15 speakers in the Harmon-Kardon sound system.

            It was warm enough to have the windows down and the panoramic sunroof fully open, yet the air flow around the sleek silhouette of the Mercedes S-550 kept enough of the wind noise out of the car that I could pretend I was a teenager again and sing loudly off key along with the storied Motown group.

            Back in the mid-60s, of course, I was driving a Nash Rambler with red bucket seats. Forty-five years later I could hardly fit into trim seats like that and, fortunately, I didn’t have to. The 2010 S-550 has the ultimate in adjustable seating. Drivers and front passenger have a choice of massage settings, heating or cooling, seat lengths, lumbar supports, and side supports, all at the touch of door-mounted buttons. In addition, every time the car goes into a turn, the side of the chair opposite the turn inflates to keep you firmly in your seat like a parent cradling a child. It is surprising at first, as if there is an unseen presence in the car reaching out to you. But you get used to it really fast.

            The passengers in the back seats don’t have all those bells and whistles. But their seats can be heated or air cooled and recline. And to make up for the lack of personal massagers, each rear passenger has a personal DVD screen built into the back of the front seats and wireless headsets and controls for personal viewing. And if it’s a really sunny day the driver, at the push of a button, rolls a sunscreen across the back windshield. Each of the rear passengers controls their own window screen.

            The S-550 is near the top of the Mercedes luxury line, offering modest speed – it tops out at 130 miles per hour – with its trademark sleek styling and handling. It looks and feels like a car costing $120,000.

            It’s propelled by a V-8 engine cranking out a respectable 382 horsepower, and is mated to a seven-speed transmission which shifts seamlessly in automatic mode or manual utilizing the paddle shifts behind the steering wheel. As you might expect, a car like this comes with a $1,000 gas guzzler tax. The EPA estimates the car gets just 14 miles per gallon in city driving and 21 MPG on the highway. The test car had a mixed average of 15 MPG – which means in mostly city driving the sedan was hanging close to single digits.

            If you want the same car with better mileage and no sacrifice in amenities or performance, Mercedes has the S-400H, its first luxury hybrid.  According to the EPA, the S-400H gets 19 city, and 26 highway miles per gallon – which is respectable for a large sedan. In addition, the hybrid costs $10,000 less than the standard model, the S-550. That is an unusual price switch which earned the S-400H plaudits from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

            The UCS (www.UCS.org)  rates hybrids from the standpoint of their greenhouse gas reductions, and their value in terms of the amount of “forced features” they may have. Don Anair, the UCS engineer who maintains the Hybrid Center Scorecard (  http://www.hybridcenter.org/  ), explained that “when you purchase a hybrid, they often come with features which are otherwise options. The value score we created looked at the cost of the hybrid system vs. the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and determined how much you are paying for a percentage in reductions.

            “The Ford Escape’s base model has three trim levels. But you only get the hybrid at the mid trim level – you’re forced to buy the features which are optional on the standard Escape.  It can run to a lot of money: on the Lexus 600 the difference was about $20,000.”

            The UCS gave Mercedes high marks putting the same amenities in both the S-400H and the standard S-550, and the price is lower because the gasoline engine on the hybrid is a V-6 producing 275 horsepower – about 100 less than in the all gasoline version.

            But its ecological improvement was just marginal because the S-400H has what is called a “mild” rather than full hybrid. “You can’t drive on the electric motor alone,” Anair said. “You get a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but you benefit from the idle-off feature which shuts down the gasoline engine whenever you stop.

            “Mercedes has talked about developing a full hybrid, and we hope they move in that direction.  What you get with the S-400H is beneficial but not powerful enough to propel the vehicle.”

            The major cost difference between the S-550 and its hybrid sibling stems from the larger engine and a $6,000 facelift. The all gasoline model has a sleeker silhouette and 19-inch, five-spoke AMG sport wheels.

            Inside they are the same. Both vehicles feature six-disc CD players, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth cell phone interface and iPod and USB port connections. There is also a 40-gigabyte hard drive to store your own tunes or movies. Whatever your musical tastes, the 15-speaker Harman/Kardon LOGIC-7 system bathes you in smooth waves of sound without overwhelming and battering you with noise.

            If there is a downside to the technology in these luxury liners, it’s that the computerized command system is not user friendly and there is a steep learning curve for functions which should be intuitive, such as the radio or navigation system. One should not have to read a manual to locate the FM radio. But once learned, the technological innovations can be impressive.

            On the safety side the cars are equipped with a small camera on the dashboard facing the driver and connecting to the side radar used in monitoring lane control and the adaptive cruise command. During the first 20 minutes of driving above 35 miles per hour, the camera records eye motions and the safety system’s computer monitors how the driver responds to lane changes and sudden swerves and turns. Using that as a baseline, the system then monitors the driver’s attention span.

            If you are drifting outside your lane or the camera’s computer notices what appears to be inattention and your eyes closing, a warning sound is produced and a message pops up in the midst of the speedometer asking is it “time for a  rest?” accompanied by the image of a steaming coffee cup. It is not quite the computer system governing the automated, interactive Audi driven by Will Smith in I Robot – but it’s heading in that direction

            The driver monitoring system is augmented with an infrared night vision camera which pops a thermal image of the road ahead in the middle of the dash in place of the speedometer – which becomes a digital readout at the bottom of the screen. The infrared screen can see images 500 feet in front of the car and pedestrians are bracketed to make sure the driver notices them. The ability to detect body heat is a serious advantage in places like upstate New York, where Bambi and her cousins run into more than 1,200 cars each week. And while Mercedes doesn’t advertise this, the infrared beam can spot the heated engine of a police car waiting behind bushes with its lights out long before the car is in range of a radar gun.

            Slowing down, staying awake and avoiding tickets are very good things.

 

 

 

2010 Mercedes Benz S-550

MSRP:                                                                       $116,995

EPA Mileage:                        14 MPG City                          21 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   15 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:       

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    5.4 Seconds

            Top Speed:                                                     130 MPH

5.5-Liter, 32-valve, aluminum V-8 engine producing 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque; 7-speed transmission with automatic and  manual mode with paddle shift; all wheel drive; electronic traction control;  rack-and-pinion steering;  air suspension; internally ventilated disc brakes; 19-inch AMG 5-spoke wheels; dual chrome exhausts; active bi-xenon headlights and cornering lights; driver safety system; night vision;  dual stage front airbags;  front and rear side airbags; head curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite and HD radio; 6-disc CD player; iPod and USB port; 40-gigabyte hard drive; 15-speaker Harman/Kardon Logic-7 surround sound; power sunroof; power sunscreens; leather, adjustable seats with massager; wood trim; rear DVD players.

2010 Mercedes Benz S-400H

 MSRP:                                                                       $105,230

EPA Mileage:                        19 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   21 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety: 

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    7.2 Seconds

            Top Speed:                                                     130 MPH

 3.5-Liter, 24-valve, aluminum V-6 gasoline engine producing 295 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque; 3-phase, mild hybrid, 120-volt electric motor producing 20 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque.

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Toyota Prius: Leading the Hybrid Pack

January 4, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

            There are few cars which have come along over the years and defined a change in the industry as much as the compact Toyota Prius. This was the car that showed what the potential of a hybrid could be, and it met with predictable scorn from its American and foreign competitors.

            It was small, the rear seats were uncomfortable, and there was the nagging fear – partly because it was new and partly because of whispers spread by competitors – that those battery packs were going to blow up. The criticism of the interior space had some validity; the rest was just jealousy.

            But the Toyota had something going for it: advanced technology which set it apart form all the rest of the car makers, and word of mouth advertising about that persistent 50 miles per gallon. And it didn’t hurt that while Prius owners have driven into car accidents, there haven’t been any reports of battery fires and explosions – putting to rest the more colorful of the lies.

            But all things get old and Toyota, never one to sit on its laurels, has now updated its premier hybrid with the intention of eliminating the few complaints which had some basis in fact. And with the new 2010 Prius, they have engineered another trendsetter.

            This Prius still has a 50 miles per gallon rating and, with careful driving, that figure can be pushed up considerably closer to the 100 MPG mark. Without really trying hard, the test car produced 65 MPG, some of it during snow conditions which tend to drag the averages down.

            The new Prius is a mid-sized four-seater which will be able to compete in terms of comfort and appointments with the more established, standard brands in the field. It still has the iconic oval shape, but Toyota’s designers have widened the glass on the sides and extended the glass to include the trunk area. The effect is to feel as if you are driving in a glass bubble with comfortable leather seats. And those seats can be heated which, on snowy northeastern days, is appreciated. The pair in the rear have enough leg and head room for a pair of small NBA forwards, about six-foot four- inches – which means there is plenty of room for the rest of us. These seats also fold flat to enlarge a surprisingly ample trunk area.

            In addition, the Prius’ hatchback look is deceptive. There is a lot more room inside than is readily apparent. Teresa Doherty, who teaches earth science and information technology at Corcoran High School in Syracuse, N.Y., knew she wanted a car with low emissions and low gas mileage. But Doherty is the outdoors type, and her car had to have room for her nine-foot-long kayak, her mountain bike, and a week’s worth of camping gear – including the air mattress and tent.

            “I’m 5-foot 5,” she said, “And I wanted to make sure that when everything was folded down flat, there was room enough to sleep comfortably. The tent is fine, but when the weather doesn’t cooperate it’s nice to be able to sleep in the back of a car. I just put down the air mattress and stretch out.”

            So she took her bike and backpack to a showroom, folded the rear and front passenger seat of the Prius, and stretched out.  When she got home with her new Prius, she packed her bike and kayak.

            “I’ve camped out kin Main, the Adirondacks, and gone all across the country with my kayak, bike and gear,” Doherty said. “On warm nights I just use the air mattress and crack the windows and go to sleep.  It all fits just fine.”

            Under the hood is the combination 1.8 liter, four-cylinder, 98-horsepower gasoline engine and the 80-horsepower hybrid motors connected to each axel. The latter are capable of driving the car up to about 30 miles per hour on just the battery, which pretty much obviates the need for gas in city driving. The gasoline engine is not the strongest; it takes nearly 10 seconds to go from 0 – 60 miles per hour. By that time, mid-sized competitors like the Audi A-4 or Nissan Altima are long gone. But you pay a lot more than the Prius’ $32,000 sticker for the difference in speed. On the road, however, the Prius power package provides enough combined power to easily earn a speeding ticket if you want one.  More importantly, it handles as well on snow and ice as its more established competitors.

            Inside, the front seats are divided by an elevated console that is sort of an extended arm rest for the driver with a storage area underneath that easily handles pocket books or brief cases. It’s a design lifted from the Buick Rendezvous, but having the console serve as an arm rest actually works and feels better on the Prius. It is a design change from the earlier editions of the Prius, in which there was a traditional console and you could slide over it and change from the drivers’ seat to the front passenger seat. The raised center blocks that maneuver, though it is ergonomically easier on the right arm and hand, and the storage area under the console is more accessible to the driver.

            The major gauges are set into the center of the dash, hidden from the glare of the sun by a low, sloping roof, providing a peek-a-boo effect which, in this car, is appealing. Electronically, the Prius offers the types of gadgets you would demand in a car of this price range.

            It has a full navigation system with a touch screen and traffic and weather updates, an item borrowed from the Lexus line. For entertainment, the car has AM/FM and XM satellite radio, as well as a 4-disc, CD changer with the music brought to you through eight JBL speakers. There are also MP3 and iPod connections, as well as a Bluetooth system which is easy to set up.

            Toyota also added technology to its safety systems. Its cruise control is now radar guided, allowing you to maintain a set distance from the car in front, slowing down automatically when there is a slower car in front, and speeding up when it gets out of the way. The system also sounds an alert if the car drifts out of its lane – a useful system if one is tired and driving at night, or in really bad rain or snow when it is difficult to see the dotted lane lines on the road. If the system senses that a collision is about to occur, it automatically applies to brakes and tightens the seat belts to lessen the shock.

            As a car designed to maximize the potential of hybrid technology, the Prius is in a class of its own. The newest edition of the Prius continues setting standards which will be hard to match.

 

2010 Toyota Prius

 

MSRP:                                                                       $32,771

EPA Mileage:                        51 MPG City                          48 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   65 MPG Mixed

 

Performance / Safety:

 

1.8-Liter, 4-cylinder, DOHC aluminum engine producing 98 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque; 650-volt electric motor producing 80 horsepower and 153 pound-feet of torque; hybrid system net power 134 horsepower; electronic continuously variable transmission;  independent MacPherson front suspension; torsion beam rear suspension; power rack and pinion steering;  stability and traction control; front and passenger side curtain and knee airbags; dynamic radar controlled cruise system; pre-collision system; lane change warning; 17-inch allow wheels; 4-wheel disc brakes.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/ XM satellite radio; voice activated navigation system with touch screen and XM traffic and weather; 4-disc CD player with 8 JBL speakers; Bluetooth; backup camera; MP3 and iPod connection; heated front seats; leather seats and steering wheel; tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls.

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