Payne: 10 best auto innovations of 2016
The digital revolution continues to transform automobiles, with software affecting every corner of the vehicle (literally the corners, like sonar). Some innovations prove indispensable (rear-view cameras), others annoy (lane-keep assist). But the oily bits aren’t standing still either. A look at the Top 10 auto innovations from 2016.
10-speed transmission: With digital tech, cars are piling on the gear ratios. Will we soon see bicycle-like 21 speeds? Ford and GM have teamed up to make processor-controlled 10-speed (for rear-wheel drive) and 9-speed (front). Manufacturers can maximize the ratios for fuel economy or performance. First applications of the 10-speed went to the Ford F-150 Raptor off-road monster and Chevy Camaro ZL1 on-track weapon. Cracking off shifts in 300 milliseconds, the Camaro’s box beats dual-clutch transmissions found in cars three times more expensive.
Push-to-pass: Digital trannies are about more than quick shifts. Computer processors also enable neat tricks like push-to-pass (inspired by Formula 1). Option Porsche’s Sports Chrono package with its automatic, dual-clutch box, and a button will appear on the lower right quadrant of your steering wheel. Push it while you’re luffing along a two-lane road, and ... look out. The tranny directly downshifts from 7-to-3, revs spike, you floor the throttle and get 20 seconds of instant power. By which time you’ll be halfway to the moon.
Chevy Bolt: And the automaker to make the first affordable 200-mile electric car is ... the Tesla Model 3? Nope. It’s a Chevy. Bolt. Bolt with a “B” (not the Volt plugin hybrid). Call it Bolt EV. Linguistics aside, Bolt EV is a revelation. Like big-battery, low-center-of-gravity Tesla Model S, this hot hatch can boogie. With 238 mile range, you can take it to work – and afford a side detour to Hell, Michigan, to play in the twisties.
Hands-free, kick-open trunk: Yeah, I know, Ford innovated this years ago, but now everyone is adopting a feature that allows Christmas shoppers with full arms to open the trunk with a wave of the foot. Audi, BMW, Caddy and other luxury makers have followed the Blue Oval’s lead. This year’s coolest upgrade comes from the Chrysler Pacific minivan which allows you to kick open, not just the trunk, but the two sliding doors a well.
Brake-by-wire: To e-steering and e-throttle, add e-brakes. The playful 2017 Alfa Romeo is the first to market. Just don’t tell the trial lawyers. Remember the fake news stories about “ghosts in the machine” causing instant acceleration? Yeesh.
Virtual Cockpit: Audi debuted its Virtual Cockpit in the low-volume TT in 2015 – this year it went mainstream in the Audi A4, A3 and Q5 crossover. Using top-of-the-line Nvidia graphics processors (ask your videogame-playing kids), VC offers extraordinary Google map displays. And they’re heads-up in a 12.3-inch instrument panel so you never have to take your eyes off the road. Sexy and safe.
Apple Car Play/Android Auto: The must-have nav-app for cars. No car navigation system (Audi Virtual Cockpit is close) holds a candle to Google maps. Chevrolet and Hyundai led the way on this technology and most every manufacturer has followed. In a bow to the tide Chevy now offers its Bolt EV with no nav option at all – assuming its customers own smart phones.
GKN AWD: What do the Ford Focus RS Hoon-mobile and Buick Envision SUV have in common? GKN-supplied, dual-clutch, torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive. Like the 10-speed tranny, this digitally controlled hardware brings enormous versatility. With the ability to transfer torque to any wheel, the system helps RS carve up race tracks. The same tech rotates bigger-mass vehicles like the Envision to better negotiate tight turns and grueling winter weather.
Alpha platform: The new skeleton of the Cadillac ATS has made it the best-handling sedan in lux. But wait, there’s more. Alpha architecture also made Camaro Alpha dog in the muscle car segment – and on par with BMW’s M3 and Mercedes AMG E-63. Stiff and light, the platform also transfers loads to the vehicle’s spine allowing genius designers like Tom Peters to scult those wicked sheet metal curves in the Camaro’s rocker panels.
30-way seat: For 2017 Lincoln’s Continental changed its grille and offered elegant, window sill handles. All to get you inside where the Conti really wows. Lincoln’s best-in-class, 30-way seats are stuffed with bladders that can be controlled to coddle everything from your head to each thigh. Your bottom half falling asleep on the long drive up north? Let the seat massage your back and extend a pad to cradle your leg. Ahhhh, now that’s luxury.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.