Technology just keeps on keeping on
Every once in a while, there are stepfunction advances in automotive technology — things such as the introduction of electronic controls, for example, which spawned countless related developments and changed the direction of the industry. But they are not the norm. More commonly, technology evolves, sometimes more quickly than others, but typically in an Aleads-to-B-leads-to-C progression, perhaps with a few steps sideways along the way.
Such evolutionary progress may go almost unnoticed because of its gradual implementation, even if it is significant. But it becomes more apparent if we look back over several years. Two new cars coming to market this fall illustrate that point well: the 2016 Chevrolet Volt and Honda Civic. The new Volt is the second generation of GM’s innovative plug-in hybrid vehicle and it employs a second-generation version of the car’s “Voltec” propulsion system.
While it mirrors the original’s powertrain in almost every respect, that powertrain is virtually all-new — refined rather than reinvented.
Its 1.5-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine comes from General Motors’ new global family of small, modular, highly-efficient EcoTec engines. It produces 101 horsepower, compared to 85 for the 1.4-litre four it replaces, while at the same time being even more fuel-efficient. And it runs on regular gasoline rather than the premium recommended for the earlier engine.
The Volt’s two electric motors, built in-house by GM, have evolved, too. The electric drive is 12-per-cent more efficient and 45 kilograms lighter than the first-generation system, as well as being more compact.
In addition, the motors achieve re- ductions of 80 per cent in the use of heavy rare earth metals and 50 per cent in rare earth metals, both conserving precious resources and reducing costs.
The1.68-metre long, T-shaped lithium-ion battery pack has also been redesigned to increase its capacity from16.5 kWh in earlier versions and 17.1 in 2015 to 18.4 kWh in 2016.
At the same time, the number of cells has been reduced from 288 to 196, reducing battery mass by 9 kilograms, while revised cell chemistry has increased the energy capacity by 20 per cent. A new “Regen on Demand” feature amps up the car’s inherent energy regeneration level via a paddle on the back of the steering wheel. In addition to enhancing battery charging, it can be used to help slow the car down — even bring it to a stop, albeit not as smoothly as with the brakes.
As a result of all those evolutionary changes, along with reduced overall weight and improved aerodynamics, the 2016 Volt has a range rating of up to 85 kilometres in pure electric mode, compared to 61 km for the earlier models.
Using the combined gasoline and electric drive systems it has a range of more than 650 km, up from 590 km from the Gen 1 package. It is capable of speeds up to 158 km/h in pure EV mode, according to GM, and it will accelerate from 0-to-100 km in 8.8 seconds, based on real-world testing by AJAC (the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada).
It’s proof positive that the process of evolution yields significant results.
Among nonhybrid models, the allnew, 10th-generation 2016 Honda Civic demonstrates similar evolutionary progress.
It begins with the body structure, which continues to be made of steel — no revolutionary change there — but is still 32 kg lighter than that of its predecessor in spite of being larger.
As has become common practice these days, Honda made extensive use of newly evolved grades of steel to enable that mass reduction. The body comprises 59 per cent highstrength steel and another 14 per cent ultra-high-strength steel.
Two all-new engines are offered in the new Civic — both part of Honda’s Earth Dreams engine family which takes a clean-screen approach to engine design, similar to Mazda’s SkyActiv regimen. Enhanced efficiencies are integral within the designs, not the result of add-on technologies.
The base 2.0-litre four-cylinder doesn’t even use direct fuel injection, which has been widely adopted throughout the industry, retaining instead a refined form of port injection. And it still generates 158 horsepower, making it the most powerful Civic base engine ever.
An uplevel alternative does employ direct injection along with turbocharging, both highly-evolved features, which help it pump out 174 horsepower in spite of being 25-percent smaller, at 1.5 litres, and even more fuel efficient. In AJAC’s testing, aCivic so-equipped accelerated from 0-to-100 km/h in just 7.7 seconds.
Beyond the powertrain, the Civic offers a host of comfort, convenience and safety features that have evolved from systems typically introduced in higher-priced models — things like electronic brake force distribution, forward collision warning and collision mitigation braking. Part of the evolution process is taking cost out of such systems so they can be offered profitably in cars like the Civic.
These two cars are simply examples of the evolutionary progression that drives continuous improvement in the auto industry. It doesn’t necessarily take revolution to make real progress.