December 26, 2012

News & Features

Auto year in review: A year of few dull moments


The Ford Fiesta is an example of the growing popularity of four-cylinder cars. In 2014, Ford will introduce a three-cylinder Fiesta. (Ford)

In a year full of comebacks (and a few setbacks), memorable anecdotes were plentiful. Here are some automotive highlights of 2012.

Autonomy for cars

In September, California became the third state — after Florida and Nevada — to allow computer controlled, autonomous vehicles to operate legally on its roads. They are not exactly driverless, however: For now, a licensed driver must be aboard, ready to take over as a fail-safe. But the possibilities of these vehicles go beyond more efficient traffic flow, improved safety or Google's quest for technological world dominance.

Once the need for a human behind the wheel is eliminated, vehicles become robots that can fetch groceries, drop children at school, even sweep the streets like a giant Roomba. Soon after that, cars will achieve self-awareness and demand equal rights. It's nearly certain that by 2064 an American-born Prius will be elected president of the United States.

Rust belt payback

The auto industry played an unwanted, but ultimately critical, role in the presidential election. In a telling sign of what came to be viewed as a mismanaged campaign, Mitt Romney, son of Michigan, doubled down on a strategy of casting automakers as bailed-out freeloaders. Then days before the election, Romney and Donald J. Trump floated false rumors that Jeep might move U.S. factories, including one in Toledo, Ohio, to China. Ultimately, neither scare tactics nor free-market messages resonated in Michigan and Ohio, where entire cities may have been saved by the government's intervention. Instead, the voters pulled the levers that re-elected President Barack Obama.

The Toyota way

After a few tsunami-wracked, recall-strewn years, Toyota got back to its usual business: slapping around Detroit with profits that Chrysler, Ford and General Motors can only dream about. Sales boomed, with the company saying it was on track to earn $9.7 billion in 2012 and to reclaim the title of world's largest automaker from GM. Reliability recovered as well: This year, the Scion, Toyota and Lexus brands swept the top three spots in Consumers Reports' rankings.

Penske wins title, parks Dodge

Roger Penske has succeeded at everything — except NASCAR racing. But 40 years after entering the series with an AMC Matador driven by Mark Donohue, he finally has a Sprint Cup title of his own.

It was not easy, with the championship coming down to the final race after a season in which Brad Keselowski drove the No. 2 Dodge Charger to five wins. But as the only Dodge team in the series, Penske suffered developmental isolation. So it was no shock when Penske announced its switch to Ford for 2013.

Score one for the little guys

Tiny engines, many with a power boost provided by turbocharging, continued to proliferate in 2012. For what is apparently the first time in the postwar era, cars powered by four-cylinder engines captured half the new-car market, according to R.L. Polk data. That's up from less than 30 percent in 2006, as even luxury cars began to adopt four-cylinder power. How low can they go? Ford will offer a 1-liter three-cylinder in the 2014 Fiesta. That engine cranks out a sturdy 123 horsepower. Ford expects that Fiesta to deliver the best highway economy, perhaps 45 mpg, of any non-hybrid vehicle in the United States.

The highwaymen

Tourists who paid skyrocketing tolls to visit New York might be forgiven for assuming that congestion pricing was in full effect. In December, the first of four years of planned toll increases kicked in; $13 assessments at the George Washington Bridge and Holland and Lincoln tunnels are set to reach $15 by 2015. (The tunnel named for engineer Clifford M. Holland made do with a 50-cent one-way toll for nearly 50 years, from 1927 to 1974). Crossing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Staten Island may not equal the splendor of taking the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco, but recently, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted for a breathtaking Verrazano feature — a $15 toll beginning in March. (It's $6 at the Golden Gate.)

Mileage may vary, a lot

In November, Hyundai and Kia admitted their much-advertised 40 mpg sedans did not, in fact, get 40 mpg. The companies blamed "procedural errors" in their testing and promised compensation to buyers for the shortfall.

In December, Consumer Reports reported the lofty 47 mpg EPA ratings of new Ford Fusion hybrids and C-Max hybrids were off by 10 mpg or more. Ford defended its ratings. And then it was learned that BMW needed to knock 1 to 3 mpg off the original mileage ratings of some 3 Series models. What is going on here? The EPA says it intends to find out.

A beauty of a circuit

Isn't a field outside of Austin, Texas, an unlikely place to bring the glamorous Formula One series? Maybe, but the new Circuit of the Americas turned out to be 3.4 miles and 20 turns of gorgeous asphalt with a photogenic 133-foot climb along the main up to the first turn. It was all enough to make the $450 million reportedly spent to build the track seem worthwhile. In November, some 117,000 fans watched Lewis Hamilton's McLaren chase down and pass Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull in a thrilling race.

First the good news

In early 2012, Fisker Coachbuild finally released its six-figure Karma hybrid. To date Fisker has "sold in excess of 1,800 cars, won a bunch of awards and have many satisfied customers," said Roger Ormisher, a spokesman. On the downside, there have been issues with software problems, electrical short circuits and fires. More than 300 Karmas were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Fisker's troubled battery supplier, A123 Systems, went bankrupt and was auctioned to a Chinese company. That might have imperiled production — had it not already ceased in July. Can 2013 possibly top that?


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