Wednesday, December 21, 2005

2006 Small Cars

Newer Faster Cars
It has been twenty years since I have purchased a brand new car. Like many people, I've been driving cars six to fifteen years old. Last year I helped my mother get a nearly new Buick and I was amazed at its quietness and pep. You no longer have the feeling of speed in you ears or your tush in these new cars. Now wonder people drive like crazy these days. They have no sense of how fast they are going but numbers on a dial. Just stand or park near the driving lane of any major street in town and you will quickly learn what I mean. Venture onto I-95 and cars will blow past you like you are standing still while you are doing 75. Speaking of dials, my 1979 6.6 Liter V-8 Trans-AM's speedometer only went to 100 MPH (I wrapped it well past that on the autobahn). Dials and cars today go to even higher speeds though there is no public place in the US to drive that fast without killing someone. Why tempt fools?

Smooth and Quiet
My mother rode with me to the city in my 94 Chrysler and complained she couldn't hear the radio. She was used to her newer, much quieter Buick. The wind and tire noise in my top of the line older LHS was annoying to her. Today's cars have a drag coefficient of 0.31 or better while even the sleakest designs 10 years ago were 0.45 or more. Just wash and wax a new and an old car. You will experience banged and bruised fingers if you are not used to the many uneven surfaces and protruding trim on older cars.

All of the new small cars I tested were more powerful, quieter, more efficient, more convenient and user friendly than anything I've owned. Although I looked at some of the least expensive cars sold, they are all well equipped with standard features only found on high end cars in the past.

Four speaker AM/FM/CD players (no MP3's), lightly tinted windows, plus small items like remote trunk and fuel door release, outside temperature reading, dual visor mirrors with covers, intermittent wipers, reading lights, engine and trunk lights, power tap, low fuel warning, split folding rear seats, remote control mirrors, larger glove boxes and console bins, more cup holders and storage in the doors are all standard features on these economy cars under $15,150. Big items like A/C, large alloy wheels & tires, pwr windows, remote pwr door locks, and cruise were sometimes included in the base price or packaged in the next higher model.

I've had a pet pieve for many years. Newer cars are all geared too low! Newer engines must run at ever higher RPM's at highway speed. In 1975 I had a new Levi's Gremlin with a big straight six engine and electric overdrive on a 3-speed manual gearbox. I purchased a tachometer (not normally available) and was gratified to find my engine doing 1,600 RPM's in overdrive at 55 MPH on I-5. Back in those days 55 was the enforced national speed limit, so we had plenty of time to think about stuff like RPM's, play with the radio, and look at the scenery. Perhaps that's why so many Baby Boomers are such lousy drivers today.
Anyway, the cars I just tested are all doing at least 2,000 RPM's at 55 and 2,500 to 3,000 at 65. That's screaming by my standards. I can't understand why engineers would do this to otherwise well designed cars.

Efficiency Game
There must be a reason for such low final gear ratios (4.18 typically). I could blame it on the unrealistic EPA test that never goes over 55 for the highway mileage test. Or I can try to explain it as an engineer might.

For fifty years, until 1979, the basic engine, crank, stroke, and valves of large block six or V-8's remained pretty much the same. A typical GM 400 cubic inch V-8 had a long stroke, one intake and one exhaust valve, and produced it's best torque between 1,400 and 4,200 RPM's. I know people who've driven them 350,000 miles with no engine repairs (78 Pontiac). Typical 4-speed final gear ratios were 3.24 to 3.5. Drag racing ratios were 3.90 to 4.11. Anything lower was strictly for pulling stumps.

Today's smaller engines with dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder are like Indy cars of decades past. Honda's Formula-1 racing engines are designed by the same engineers who've been making street legal 9-12,000 RPM racing engines in motorcycles for decades. Today's car engines are de-tuned versions of these same engines with torque curves that run from 2,000 to 6,000 RPM's. Improvements in crankshafts and flywheels make these tiny powerhouses run smoother than older V-8's. Friction is controlled by finer tolerances and excellent standard lubricants. Today's 1.8 Liter 4's with electronic valve timing put out 120 to Honda's 150 HP. That's nearly twice the HP of their original 1.6L US engine in 1966. You can cruise all day at 75 doing 3,500 RPM's and barely hear or feel these engines. Add an aftermarket turbo and you can get 400 HP (until it blows up). I have no idea how long stock engines will last but I'd estimate maybe 100,000 miles, if you are lucky. Germans typically have their engines rebuilt after 120,000 km of autobahn driving (see NASCAR Winston-Cup Series for comparison).

Still, that doesn't explain why Toyota, whose 1.8L engine is like Honda, Mazda, Kia and others but has a higher 3.94 axel ratio, does 500 fewer RPM's at 65 than the Mazda 3i with 4.18 rear end, and gets at least 6 MPG better hwy mileage. Wake up rice burners--gear up!

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