Consumer Reports Test Day: "The Future of the Car"

David C. Holzman
by David C. Holzman
consumer reports test day the future of the car

The biggest surprise at last Friday’s Consumer Reports’ press shindig: no plug-in electric – gas hybrid Chevy Volt. Not a mock-up. Not a mention. Oh, GM was there– with two hydrogen fuel cell Chevy Equinoxes. So never mind all that talk of “reinventing the automobile.” At “The Future of the Car,” the car of the future’s just like your current ride, only cleaner and, mostly, a lot less practical.

The major message from manufacturers’ reps at the scenic East Haddam, CT auto test site: incrementalism. Brett Hinds bragged about Ford’s EcoBoost (formerly Twin Force). Ford’s Advanced Engineering Design and Development Manager called their 3.5-liter V6 twin-turbocharged direct injection engine “a near-term solution… with improved fuel economy and less CO2.”

Diesel loomed large– in more ways than one. Audi’s Christian Bokich claimed that European manufacturers had refined diesel engine efficiency for two decades. He alluded to racing TDI Audis recently at American Le Mans and Sebring. But the Audi Q7 TDI, which will launch next year, is a porky (>5000 lbs) torquey (406 lb-ft) gas-guzzling (25 mpg highway) SUV.

Not to be outdone (as if), Rob Moran of Mercedes said MB is planning an ’09 release for a gas – electric hybrid S400 (with lithium ion batteries) and a diesel hybrid. According to Rob, despite the higher cost of diesel over gasoline, oil burners offer a 15 percent lower cost of ownership. According to Consumer Reports’ literature, fuel accounts for about 26 percent of the cost of new car ownership over five years. Never mind.

BMW’s Dave Buchko (he of the TTAC press car ban) quoted an Environmental Defense Fund report that concluded that BMW’s fleet average for CO2 emissions dropped by 12.3 percent between 1999-2005– despite bigger engines, bigger, safer cars with “six airbags instead of one, ABS, ESC, etc.”

Two new offerings glossed BMW’s green sheen. Their new 2.0-liter, four-cylinder twin-turbo 123d belts out 204hp/290 lb-ft while sipping 45/50 mpg (Euro-only, Euro specs). And the new 335D, a 3.0-liter variable twin-turbo 265hp and 425lb-ft@1750 rpm inline six, rates 23/36 mpg (USA specs). Buchko reports he achieved 37 mpg on the way back to headquarters last Friday, at 75 to 80 mph (tsk-tsk). Both cars were a hoot to drive around CR’s aggressively windy, hilly test track; the engines felt very refined. Alas, no clutch stateside on the 335D.

Nonetheless, burning a gallon of diesel emits about 15 percent more carbon dioxide than gasoline, so diesel mpgs exaggerate their greenitude (BMW in particulate).

The somewhat ad hoc nature of the event was belied by the presence of a three-wheeler that looked like it’d lost its way to Boston’s Larz Anderson Auto Museum’s annual microcar show, and two backyard battery electric conversions.

Floor the 1989 Jetta EV conversion and it feels like someone’s [barely] pushing. The other: EV: a 1981 DeLorean (of course). When the absence of commercial non-hybrid battery electrics was noted in the discussion, Jennifer Watts of the Electric Drive Transportation Association said, “We’re all looking to see how the Tesla performs.” (Join the club.) She also mentioned A123, an MIT battery-building spinoff [still] hoping to supply the Volt’s cells. Unfortunately, these pose no apparent threat to ICE.

Honda’s hydrogen fuel cell FCX Clarity has the understated elegance associated of an Audi inside and out. The FCX’s crisp steering and handling, and responsive acceleration, comes with just a hint of a whine from the power plant. If you live in LA and you’re lucky enough to be Jamie Lee Curtis, you can lease one for $600/month for three years. The range is 280 miles, similar to an RX-8. The EPA fuel economy is 74 mpg equivalents on combined cycle.

The General currently boasts more than 100 fuel cell vehicles on the road. GM’s Dan O’Connell noted that 40 customers have driven GM’s fuel cell vehicles roughly 350k miles. The Equinox SUVs “average close to 50 mpg equivalents, and have a 170 mile range.” The Equinoxes feel a little bloated, and they kick you in the pants when you first hit the gas.

O’Connell said that real world fuel cell reliability is improving, costs are falling, and it’s all Big Oil’s fault. “I’ve seen little evidence of motivation to delivery hydrogen on the part of oil companies,” he asserted.

Spencer Quong of the Union of Concerned Scientists, (who did not attend the event) told TTAC that the auto manufacturers have made huge progress on fuel cells over the last ten years. But “they’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit,” and success is by no means assured. “We’re hoping in ten to twenty years you’re going to see a cost effective vehicle.”

If global warming is as urgent as experts would have us believe, the CR green car hoe-down indicates that manufacturers are fiddling while Rome burns (ice caps melt, etc.). If not, well, get a new four-banger Bimmer and party on!

Join the conversation
2 of 42 comments
  • Tassos The EQS is the best looking BEV, better than even the only Tesla I would ever consider (the S) and more luxurious inside etc etcThe self driving features will come in handy when I'm 110 and my eyesight and reaction times start to suffer.But that's four decades away, and only Tim recommends 40 year old "used cars"
  • Tassos "Baby, Baby light my fire!""Oh God please give me a Kia Forte" --Janis Joplin
  • Tassos The fugly looks of any Subaru, and especially the non-sporty non-elegant, fugly, low-rent looks and interior of the WRX are alone a sufficient turnoff to never want to own one.One can be a 100% car enthusiast but ALSO demand a beautiful AND luxurious vehicle one can be truly proud of and which makes one very happy every time one drives it.The above is obviously totally foreign to Subaru Designers and managers.
  • Thehyundaigarage Am I the only one that sees a Peugeot 508?
  • Lou_BC I realized it wasn't EV's burning by the absence of the usual suspects.