Market Trends

Market Trends MY 2018

Model year 2018 brings another year of exciting advances in automotive technology. Vehicle sales plateaued in 2017 following two years of all-time record sales, but the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) still predicts more than 16.7 million new vehicles will be purchased by Americans in 2018. Significant updates to popular cars and trucks like the Toyota Camry and Ford F-150 bring improved fuel economy and an even greater array of safety and infotainment features. The number of fuel-efficient and environmentally-friendly models increases, leaving consumers with plenty of greener choices no matter the type of vehicle they desire.

Electrified Driving

Americans purchased a record number of plug-in electric vehicles in 2017, a 26% increase over 2016.  Electrified powertrains, which include traditional hybrids, plug-in hybrids (PHEV), and all-electric vehicles (EV), achieve gains in fuel economy, often with improved driving characteristics over a gasoline-only vehicle. Matching consumer demand for crossovers and SUVs, automakers are increasing the number of models with a hybrid option in nearly every segment. After much hype, Tesla released its smaller, more-affordable all-electric Model 3. Priced at $35,000 before incentives, the Model 3 joins the Chevrolet Bolt in the category of EVs with a 200+ mile range at less than $40,000. Other automakers are jumping on the bandwagon, announcing plans to sell additional high-range EVs.

PHEVs bridge the gap between conventional hybrids and fully electric vehicles. Pairing a traditional internal combustion engine with an electric motor and a sizable battery, a PHEV can be charged like an all-electric vehicle. Most PHEVs can operate exclusively on electricity for a limited range before turning to the gasoline engine and operating like a traditional hybrid. Some PHEVs operate in a “blended mode,” where the vehicle uses electricity but occasionally requires assistance from the gasoline engine. The mid-sized Honda Clarity, once sold exclusively with a hydrogen fuel cell drivetrain, is now available nationwide as a gasoline PHEV. Starting at $34,290, the Clarity is the least expensive PHEV sedan this year. The Clarity comes with an all-electric range of 47 miles, joining the Chevy Volt as the second plug-in under $35,000 with an electric range of over 45 miles.

The number of conventional hybrid options on the market is expanding while prices are shrinking. Many hybrid options have previously been available only in higher-cost trim packages, putting hybrids out of reach of many consumers. This barrier continues to fall in MY 2018. Having already slashed the starting price of its Highlander hybrid, Toyota will now offer its RAV4 crossover hybrid in lower-cost trims. Starting at $28,130, the 2018 all-wheel-drive RAV4 LE Hybrid is nearly $2,000 cheaper than previous versions. The hybrid option achieves an EPA-rated combined fuel economy of 32 MPG, compared to the standard gasoline version’s 25 MPG.

The availability of hybrid and electric vehicles continues to improve as prices fall. More car buyers can afford to satisfy their personal transportation needs with vehicles featuring electrified powertrains.

Internal Combustion Engines

Whoever claimed “there’s no replacement for displacement” would have to think twice in 2018. Ingenuity is the replacement for displacement, and automakers are pushing clever technology into the mainstream. Enhanced engine design, downsizing and turbocharging, and high- and variable-compression ratio engines are the trends in 2018. These technologies, either completely new or previously found only in high-performance vehicles, are appearing in even the most humble of vehicles.

Enhanced Engine Design

Gasoline powers the vast majority of MY 2018 vehicles, making it clear that the internal combustion engine is here for a while yet. As they experiment with advanced powertrains, manufacturers are also making gasoline engines cleaner and more efficient through small tweaks to existing tech.

The all-new Mazda CX-9 ($32,130) comes with an innovative 2.5 liter turbocharged four cylinder. Thanks to a combination of engine design changes, the new CX-9 gets a 25% to 32% fuel economy boost over the outgoing model. Mazda claims the new motor’s low-end torque, with 310 lb.-ft torque at only 2,000 rotations per minute (RPM), is comparable to that of a diesel engine. This was achieved through a combination of high compression ratios, improved exhaust design, and by a new style of turbocharger that allows the turbo to spin faster at lower engine rpms. The result is a smaller engine that saves fuel when power demand is low but keeps plenty of power on tap.

Ford continues to innovate in its EcoBoost line of downsized, turbocharged engines. Both the 2.7-liter V6 and the 3.5-liter V6 come with an improved intake design, paired with a combination of port and direct fuel injection. This allows optimum fuel-air mixing both at low engine speeds and loads (port injection) and at high engine speeds and loads (direct injection). The 3.5-liter engine’s compression ratio was increased from 10.8:1 to 12:1. These relatively simple engine design changes use existing and proven technology to boost both power and efficiency. When combined with a new 10-speed automatic transmission, the 2018 F-150 sees a 1 to 2 mpg improvement in fuel economy over the outgoing models.

Downsizing and Turbocharging

Manufacturers continue to downsize engines to improve efficiency, and combine them with turbochargers to maintain acceleration performance. Even a small engine might benefit from downsizing, as the all-new 2018 Honda Accord ($23,570) proves. The new 1.5-liter turbo four-cylinder replaces a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder, while an optional 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder replaces the outgoing 3.5-liter V6. Both engines bring increases in power and efficiency over the outgoing models, with the 2.0-liter gaining 26 horsepower over the V6. When combined with other fuel-saving technology, the 1.5-liter Accord gains up to 3 mpg over the outgoing model, with 2.0-liter fuel economy yet to be announced.

High Compression Ratios

High compression ratio gasoline engines were historically designed to optimize power in high-performance vehicles, and usually required premium fuels. Manufacturers are now turning to high compression ratio engines to maximize both efficiency and performance in all types of vehicles. The compression ratio of a gasoline engine is a ratio of the volume of the combustion chamber when the piston is at the bottom of the cylinder to its (smaller) volume when the piston is at the top of the cylinder.

A high compression ratio can be used to increase efficiency or power, or both. Unfortunately, gasoline engines are subject to detonation (or “knocking”), in which the compressed fuel-air mixture ignites spontaneously rather than when the spark plug fires. This condition can create major or catastrophic damage to the engine. The higher the compression ratio, the more likely detonation is to happen. Engine designers can decrease the occurrence of engine knock by requiring high-octane fuels; however, the additional cost of these fuels can be greater than savings from the increased fuel economy. Manufacturers are able to safely edge closer to the theoretical limit of high compression engines on regular-grade fuel by improving engine design and using more sophisticated control technology. The number of vehicles available with higher-compression engines continues to increase in 2018.

Miller Cycle

The basic operation of gasoline and diesel engines can be described by physics principles called “thermodynamic cycles.” These cycles describe the processes that enable the engine to convert thermal energy from the burning of fuel into motion. Most engines operate on the Otto cycle, with most hybrids and a few traditional engines operating on the more-efficient Atkinson cycle. The all-new Volkswagen Tiguan ($25,345) adopts yet another cycle, a variant of the Miller cycle. While not the first modern Miller cycle engine (that distinction goes to the mid-90’s Mazda Millenia), Volkswagen’s new 2.0-liter four-cylinder is the newest to operate on the Miller cycle. The Miller cycle is similar to the Atkinson cycle, which keeps the intake valves open for longer than the traditional Otto cycle. Keeping the intake valves open longer during the compression stroke effectively reduces the compression ratio, requiring less energy to compress the air and fuel mixture before combustion. Unlike Atkinson cycle engines, the Miller cycle requires a supercharger or turbocharger to operate.  Miller cycle can increase an engine’s efficiency by about 15 percent. This puts it in line with other affordable methods of making the internal combustion engine more efficient.  

10-speed automatic transmissions

Transmission design is also central to both efficiency and performance. About 5-6% of total engine power is lost in the transmission and drivetrain due to friction and other losses, preventing some engine power from making it to the wheels. Transmission efficiency gains are possible by using low-friction components, improved designs, and low-friction lubricants. A greater number of gears in traditional automatics can also increase fuel economy by allowing the engine to operate where it’s most efficient more of the time, with the added benefit of smoother shifts and improved acceleration. Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVT) offer even greater improvements, allowing the engine to operate where it’s most efficient across all driving conditions.

While CVTs are gaining consumer acceptance through steady improvements, manufacturers are making improvements to traditional transmissions as well. Last year, Ford and GM released a jointly-developed 10-speed automatic transmission in the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and Ford F-150 Raptor. For 2018, Ford is making its 10-speed standard on nearly all F-150’s, as is GM throughout its 1500-series SUVs.

Automation Technology

Automated vehicle technologies are quickly appearing in production cars. Manufacturers are combining these technologies to offer semi-autonomous driving in certain conditions. No vehicle today is capable of fully-autonomous driving, but these technologies are the essential building blocks to a future of self-driving cars. Automated vehicle technology can prevent many accidents altogether. This avoids the resulting traffic jam, saving fuel and reducing emissions where engines would otherwise sit idle. A variety of automated systems also promise to save energy on their own by accelerating and driving more smoothly, choosing fuel-saving routes, and even adjusting the engine and transmission to deal with upcoming terrain. All major manufacturers have plans to incorporate some level of automation, with GM announcing ambitious intentions to have a self-driving car by 2019, and Ford expects to offer a self-driving vehicle for ride-sharing by 2021.

This year, Audi’s all-new 2018 A8 gains a new artificial intelligence system which enables autonomous driving in traffic jams, at speeds up to 37 mpg. The system uses six cameras and over a dozen other sensors to watch its surroundings. Nissan launches its new semi-autonomous ProPilot Assist system in the Rogue crossover. While the Nissan system does not provide the same level of autonomy as other systems, it can provide safety assistance such as bringing the vehicle to a stop automatically and keeping the vehicle in its lane.

Automated technology offers many advantages. Fewer road deaths are a certainty. However, the environmental and energy implications are not well understood. There is no guarantee that autonomous vehicles will be electric. From the technology alone, power requirements to process data and power the array of sensors can be as much as two to four kilowatts of electricity. For a typical vehicle, powering this technology could decrease fuel economy by 3% to 6%.  While technology manufacturers will undoubtedly find ways to decrease energy consumption, there exists a real possibility that automated technology and, especially, autonomous vehicles, will increase emissions and energy use in vehicles. Self-driving vehicles could make commuting by car more attractive than before, with more people favoring cars over more-efficient public transportation or increasing the number or length of trips a person takes. Hence, policy has a major role to play in determining the sustainability impacts of these developments.

Greener Choices for Everyone

When it comes to buying a new vehicle, the most environmentally friendly step you can take is simple: first evaluate your needs and your budget, then look for the models with the highest green scores among the cars and trucks that meet your requirements. Even though some of our top ratings go to alternative fuel vehicles, all vehicle classes feature nationally available, gasoline-powered vehicles that score significantly better than average.

Our Greener Choices table highlights top-scoring vehicles available to everyone in almost all major market segments. The list includes only automatics. While in the past manual transmission versions of vehicles on the Greener Choices list often had higher fuel economy, this is less common today, thanks to advances in CVTs and automatic transmissions. The good news is that you can find cleaner and more efficient vehicles throughout the market. Besides looking at the models in this table, use the database to find other vehicles meeting your needs that also score well.

Buying green does more than fulfill your own personal commitment to protect the environment. Naturally, each greener choice by an individual consumer reduces pollution directly. But the market is also a give-and-take between consumers and manufacturers. As more and more consumers buy green, automakers will increasingly view environmentally friendly design as an opportunity rather than an obligation. Then they will be motivated to invest even more in improved technology, and even more green cars and trucks will be available in the years ahead.

Finally, keep in mind that the average car or light truck keeps running for about 15 years. Even if you don’t keep your new vehicle for more than a few of those years, the choice you make now will expand the options available to used car buyers in the future. So instead of putting another gas guzzler on the streets, the greener choice you make today can help cut pollution for years to come.