Ok, the pace of change is not quite as rapid – but it has upticked tremendously over the past 20 years. Even more so over the past five years. For example, most 2012 transmissions (manual or automatic) have at least six speeds now – and seven and eight-speed transmissions are becoming common – even in mid-priced, family type cars (the 2012 Chrysler 300, for example). They were almost unheard of just five or so years ago – even in the most exotic and high-priced cars. Within five years, they will be as common as six speed transmissions are now.
What else has changed? Here are a few important ones to know:
* Tire inflation pressures are often much higher now than they used to be –
If you haven’t looked at a sidewall (or new car owner’s manual) recently, you might be surprised to find out that it’s common for new cars to have tires that want 40 pounds of air (or even more) as opposed to the formerly typical 28-32 PSI or thereabouts. The reasons for this include low-aspect-ratio (short sidewall) tires, the trend toward ever-“sportier” handling (even as regards family-type cars) and also the automakers’ quest to find ways to decrease rolling resistance and so increase fuel efficiency. This week, I am test-driving a 2012 Hyundai Accent – an entry-level economy-compact. It has 16-inch, low-aspect-ratio ratio tires that want 44 psi. Such high inflation pressures were uncommon (at least, in common cars) 10 or 15 years ago; almost unheard of 25 or so years ago. The bottom line is, check your owner’s manual. You might be surprised how much more air your new car’s tires need.
* An automatic-equipped car may be your best bet for a higher-mileage car –
In the not-so-distant past, if you wanted best-case mileage from a given car, you wanted the manual-equipped version of that car. The direct physical link between the engine and the drive wheels (this is why manual-equipped cars will stall if you don’t push in the clutch as the car rolls to a stop with the transmission in gear) was more efficient. Automatics – which transmit power to the drive wheels hydraulically, via the pressure of fluid – experienced a degree of slippage, even when in top gear, at steady-state cruise, that resulted in a measurable loss of efficiency – which resulted in a noticeable drop in fuel economy relative to an otherwise identical car with a manual transmission. But all modern automatics have a “lock-up” feature that physically connects the engine/transmission to the drive wheels once you’re cruising along (reducing the slippage losses characteristic of older automatics) as well as more gears (and tighter gear spacing) which makes them extremely efficient. They also have almost-conscious computerized intelligences controlling them that tell them to shift at just the right moment, every time – which not all human drivers can do most of the time and few can do all the time. This is why you’ll discover that the EPA fuel economy ratings often list the automatic-equipped version of the car you’re looking at as much as 2-3 MPGs higher than the same car equipped with a manual transmission. It’s getting rare to find a new car with an automatic that gets noticeably less gas mileage than the same car with manual – the opposite of what used to be the case not so long ago.
If you’ve driven a late-model car with a manual transmission, you may have noticed how easy it was to drive. Part of the reason for this is the adoption, industry-wide, of hydraulically assisted clutches. Even very powerful, ultra-performance cars with manuals are pretty easy to drive now as a result of this (unlike in the muscle car days, when working the clutch was like working the leg-press machine at the gym). But the other, less well-known benefit of hydraulic-assist clutches is that they auto-adjust, which increases the longevity of the clutch itself. Back in the Day, it was routine service to periodically adjust, by hand, clutch take-up. That job now sits with typewriters and cassette tapes in history’s dumpster. And it’s why clutches now routinely last as long as the car – or almost that long. It is not common to go 150,000 miles or more on the factory-installed clutch. That would have been a near-miracle in the ’70s. Most people can expect to get at least 100,000 miles out of a clutch (assuming they know how to drive a manual transmission and don’t abuse it). Back in the ’70s, 100k was a pretty good lifespan for a transmission.
* Gas-burning cars are approaching the fuel-efficiency (and longevity) of diesel-powered cars –
Diesels used to routinely give 50-plus MPGs – which was vastly better than any gas-burning car could manage – but don’t anymore because of recent government regulations that have resulted in reduced the fuel-efficiency of diesel engines. They still have the edge when it comes to max mileage – but not by such a large margin anymore. For instance, I recently reviewed the 2012 Mazda3, equipped with the new “SkyActiv” gas engine. Mazda got 40 MPH (highway) out of it – which is only about 5 MPG behind the reported highway mileage of the soon-to-be-here “Sky-D” diesel engine that Mazda will offer in the 2013 Mazda3. Now, the Sky-D looks to be an impressive engine, combining excellent economy with excellent performance – but a 5 MPG improvement on the highway (and maybe 8 or so MPG in city driving) may not be sufficient to negate the higher per-gallon cost of diesel fuel – as well as the probably higher cost of the diesel engine itself. Another example, higher up the food chain: The BMW 330d (diesel) is rated 23 city, 36 highway. Its MSRP is $44,150. The comparably equipped (gas burning) 335i rates 19 city, 28 highway and costs $42,050. Unless you drive a lot, there’s probably not much savings to be had here – by buying the diesel. Of course, diesel engines can usually be counted on to last for a very long time – potentially several hundred thousand miles. On the other hand, it is no longer uncommon to find gas-engined cars with 200,000-plus miles on them that still run great.
* Oil is more car (and engine) specific –
It used to be safe to use pretty much any oil you found on the shelf in any engine in any car. Maybe not ideal – but it probably wouldn’t hurt anything. That’s not always true now. Some new car engines demand very specific oil – and other fluids, such as coolant – and if you don’t use them, you run the risk of problems with the engine (or the cooling system) … or the warranty. That goes for the transmission, too. You may not trigger a mechanical problem simply by using other-than-recommended fluids (and filters) but if a problem does crop up, you may end up with a warranty problem. Us of non-recommended lubes/fluids/filters may give the automaker an “out” in the event a failure crops up that can be attributed to use of other-than-recommended stuff.
Throw it in the Woods?