Market Trends – Model Year 2019
In 2018, for the fourth consecutive year, more than 17 million cars and trucks were sold in the United States, up about 0.6% from 2017. The industry predicts a possible market slowdown through 2019, citing the end of a post-recession sales boom and rising interest rates on auto loans. With low gas prices, consumers in the market for new vehicles are flocking to crossovers and SUVs. In response, automakers are announcing major cuts to car models to allow them to focus on crossovers, SUVs, and pickup trucks. In coming years, Ford will cut 80% of its car offerings, while GM is cutting at least six cars from its lineup including the popular Chevy Volt – one of the industry’s most-popular plug-in hybrids to date. However, in the face of a rapidly changing market, automakers continue to push forward with innovative technology and safety features, including highly advanced powertrains, infotainment, and driver assist systems. Fuel-efficient options are appearing in vehicles that until recently fell short of the 20-mile-per-gallon mark. Automakers are adopting technologies that meet consumer needs while saving money at the pump and reducing environmental impact.
Internal Combustion Engines
Following decades of investment and innovation, the internal combustion engine continues to power the great majority of vehicles sold today. Revolutionary design and technology have brought vast improvements to the efficiency of gasoline engines, solidifying their dominance in the market for some years to come. Automakers continue to replace V6 and V8 engines with turbochargers and fewer cylinders, improving efficiency and power at the same time. No matter what type or size of vehicle you wish to buy, you can find a model with advanced efficiency and performance technology.
Highly efficient engine design
Engine efficiency is a measure of how much energy stored in gasoline that an engine can convert to usable energy for moving the vehicle down the road, called thermal efficiency. Nearly all modern engines utilize a variety of design elements to improve their efficiency. But some automakers have doubled-down on these improvements as they move toward thermal efficiencies above 40%, previously thought to be impossible or too costly.
Downsized turbocharged engines are the most common way to achieve higher efficiency, but automakers are exploring other paths in their lineups. Toyota and Mazda have focused on developing state-of-the-art engine designs and turning to advanced control systems, materials, and manufacturing techniques to reduce fuel consumption. Toyota’s “Dynamic Force” engine technology is one such example that pushes thermal efficiency above 40%. First appearing in the 2018 2.5-liter four-cylinder Camry, it now comes standard in the 2019 Corolla Hatchback’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Toyota plans to adopt this technology across its fleet, including its V6 and V8 engines, in the future.
Variable Compression Ratio Engine
Another breakthrough in engine design is Nissan’s variable-compression-ratio gasoline engine, which will first appear in its 2019 QX50. An engine’s compression ratio is the ratio of the volume of the combustion chamber when the piston is at the bottom of the cylinder, to the same (but smaller) volume when the piston is at the top of the cylinder. A high compression ratio can increase efficiency or power, or both. Unfortunately, gasoline engines with high compression ratios are subject to detonation (or “knocking”) under certain driving conditions, in which the compressed fuel-air mixture ignites spontaneously before the spark plug fires.
The ability to change the compression ratio provides two benefits. It allows the engine to save fuel by operating with a more efficient high compression ratio under certain driving conditions when it’s safe to do so. It also allows the engine to operate with a much lower ratio under other driving conditions, such as acceleration when more power is required.
Nissan’s new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder can operate with a compression ratio of anywhere from 8.0:1 to 14.0:1, improving fuel economy up to a 27% improvement compared to the 3.5-liter V6 that it replaces. The engine operates at high compression when power load is low such as during highway driving, with significant fuel economy benefits.
The Year of the 48-Volt Mild Hybrid
Mild hybrid systems operate much like traditional hybrids, where a motor-generator recovers some energy during braking which is then stored in a battery to help move the vehicle at a later time. This can provide major efficiency improvements, as the gasoline engine will do less work under conditions where engines are inherently less efficient, like accelerating from a stop. Mild hybrids differ from traditional hybrids in that they typically operate at a much lower voltage, utilizing smaller batteries and less powerful motor-generators. While a mild hybrid can’t provide the same efficiency boost as a traditional hybrid, mild hybrids can provide up to 70% of the efficiency benefits of traditional hybrids at 30% of the cost. This is why automakers are turning to these affordable systems for a wide variety of vehicles.
Released as a late 2018 model, Jeep’s redesigned Wrangler received an optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with a 48-volt mild hybrid system. Not only does this $1,000 option bring an increase in power and torque over the standard V6, but it also improves city fuel economy by 28% and highway fuel economy by about 9%.
RAM’s redesigned full-size 1500 pickup truck similarly makes use of a 48-volt mild hybrid system. RAM’s all-new V6 trucks now come standard with a mild hybrid system, providing an additional 90 lb-ft of torque while contributing to a fuel economy improvement of about 18% over the outgoing 2018 model. The 2019 V8 model can also be equipped with a $1,450 optional mild hybrid system, providing an additional 130 lb-ft of torque and a 12% improvement in fuel economy compared to the standard V8. In both cases, the cost of the mild hybrid system will typically pay for itself in fuel savings in the first few years of ownership, and pickup buyers will enjoy the additional torque of the electric motor.
Other automakers are turning to 48-volt mild hybrid systems in multiple vehicles, including the 2019 Audi A6. The 48-volt electrical system supports many new opportunities and benefits beyond the mild hybrid functionality such as improved engine stop-start, more-effective emissions controls, and a growing array of entertainment and automation features. We expect to see fast growth in the number of vehicles featuring 48-volt mild hybrid systems in the coming years.
Automation technologies continue to penetrate the vehicle market. Though no production vehicle today is capable of fully-autonomous driving, manufacturers can combine available technologies to offer semi-autonomous driving in certain conditions. As such, these technologies are the essential building blocks to a future of self-driving cars.
Automated vehicle technology is usually deployed to make cars safer, capable of preventing or reducing the severity of crashes. A side benefit of preventing crashes is to reduce traffic jams, saving fuel and reducing emissions where engines would otherwise sit idling. A variety of connected and automated systems also promise to save energy directly, by accelerating and driving more smoothly, finding fuel-saving routes, and even adjusting the engine and transmission operation to deal with upcoming terrain. All major manufacturers are moving forward to incorporate some level of automation, and ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft have lofty goals to offer autonomous rides in coming years.
Automated technologies offer many advantages. However, the environmental and energy implications remain to be seen. From a technology standpoint alone, two to four kilowatts of electricity are required to process a large amount of data and power the array of sensors. For a typical gasoline vehicle, powering this technology could decrease fuel economy by 3% to 6%. In the case of autonomous battery electric vehicles, these systems would be powered by the same battery that provides power to move the car down the road. This would reduce an EV’s driving range – losing about 10 miles of range for each hour on the road and thus adding time spent at a charger. While technology manufacturers will undoubtedly find ways to decrease energy requirements of automation, automated technology, and especially autonomous vehicles could possibly increase vehicle emissions and energy use. Self-driving vehicles could make commuting by car more attractive, resulting in more people favoring cars over more efficient public transportation or increasing the number or length of trips. 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 is simple: first evaluate your needs and your budget, then look for suitable models with the highest green scores. Even though our top 2019 ratings go to vehicles with some form of electrification, 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 continuously variable (CVT) and automatic transmissions. The good news: you can find cleaner and more efficient vehicles throughout the market. The Greenercars.org database lists hundred of vehicles beyond those listed in this table.
Buying green does more than fulfill your own personal commitment to reduce pollution and protect the environment. It sends a signal to manufacturers. As more consumers buy green, automakers will increasingly view environmentally friendly design as an opportunity rather than an obligation. They will be motivated to invest more in improved technology, leading to more green vehicles in the years ahead.
Finally, keep in mind that the average car or light truck runs 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.