From Fast & Furious To Baby On Board

Auto makers are pushing the limits on fuel efficiency, safety, and performance for vehicles across the spectrum

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The auto industry loves its jargon, from super-chargers to flex-fuels. And, though carmakers never fail to coin bigger and better terms, the cars they make largely improve along the same lines they always have: fuel usage, performance, and safety.

American consumers are increasingly concerned about energy costs, particularly the price of gas. Ford (F ) and GM (GM ) both addressed those fears when they rolled out their summer marketing plans, each of which is built around fuel consumption and outright fuel credits for the thirstiest gasoline-powered vehicles (see BW Online, 6/2/06, "Detroit's No Good, Very Bad May"). Drivers who pass on Ford's offer to "Drive on Us" and also decline GM's "Gas Price Protection," still have an increasing number of innovative alternative-fuel vehicles to choose from.

Toyota's (TM ) runaway success, the Prius, has garnered massive attention for its gas-electric hybrid engine. Technology from that small, relatively inexpensive sedan is now making the jump to that manufacturer's luxury brand, Lexus. Expect to see a class of new green luxury models from competitors this fall.


  Engineers and consumers alike are giving alternative fuels, like diesel and hydrogen, new consideration. Though cars powered by the latter aren't yet widely available, clean diesel cars are preparing to make a big comeback. Mercedes and Chrysler's (DCX ) Jeep brand are both introducing diesel-powered vehicles with significantly better consumption than their gas-sipping counterparts -- up to 30% better (see BW Online, 4/27/06 "Diesels We Want But Can't Get").

But just as one segment of the industry is pushing forward by economizing on fuel, another is burning as much gas as it can. Power and speed-obsessed auto designers are rewriting the rules on performance and price. Manufacturers around the world have engaged in a horsepower war that has produced a pair of the world's fastest cars.

The Swedish-made, 245 mph-capable Koenigsegg CCR currently holds the Guinness World Record for speed in a production car and costs $722,534 (see BW Online, 3/24/06, "A Revolution in Swede Speed"). At full bore, the upcoming 1,001 horsepower Bugatti Veyron, meanwhile, burns through its entire fuel supply in a mere 12 minutes.


  And in the least exciting but most widely applicable category of auto innovation, cars continue to get safer with each model revision. Passive safety systems, such as the crumple zones which protect passengers during severe collisions and intelligent airbags, are finally becoming ubiquitous. Even affordable vehicles, like Volkswagen's plebian Jetta, are earning astonishingly high side- and front-impact crash ratings. Top-notch safety ratings have, in the past, more commonly gone to larger and more expensive vehicles.

Luxury manufacturers aren't ready to cede that ground yet. They're pushing boundaries with predictive technologies that attempt to avoid accidents entirely. Volvo, which invented the three-point safety belt in the late 1950s, continues to load vehicles with features like dynamic traction control that keeps vehicles from sliding off wet or icy roads. And BMW is perfecting adaptive cruise control, which can avoid collisions by automatically slowing vehicles down when a collision is imminent.

Click here to take a look at some of the most innovative cars on the road.

By Matt Vella

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