Driving Northwest: Cleaner, affordable, fun cars

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by TOM VOELK / KING 5 News

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KING5.com

Posted on November 26, 2009 at 12:02 PM

Even if you don’t own a pricey ride, the freedom that basic transportation offers is something to be thankful for. Hey, in today’s traffic, a Corolla gets you to work at the same pace as a Porsche 911. Just as dry too.

Still, we all love gadgets and technology. The great thing about the fierce competition that’s raging on? Features that were once exclusive to luxury cars are now available on reasonably priced vehicles. The tech trickle-down makes our cars cleaner, affordable and more fun. Here are some of the highlights:

Engine Technology

OK, so it’s not as sexy as satellite navigation but modern engines are a huge step forward. First of all, for those of us that breathe to stay alive, they are much better for our environment. Especially modern diesels. Diesels are no longer dirty and stinky, they’re clean, quiet, and very efficient. The most affordable come from Volkswagen as the 2.0 TDI. For those who really enjoy driving, they are a great alternative to hybrids. Their low-end torque provides the power off the line that Americans crave.

As for gasoline engines, direct fuel injection improves power and fuel economy. DI pressurizes the fuel and injects it via a common rail fuel line directly into the combustion chamber (standard fuel injection squirts it into the cylinder port). In direct injection, the fuel is a very fine and controlled mist targeted very close to the spark plug at the end of the compression stroke. Simplified, this ultra managed system allows for more power and less pollution. Always good.

Turbo charging isn’t just for performance cars now. Ford’s twin turbo EcoBoost has all the advantages of a 6-cylinder engine with the power of a V8. Turbos work by using the exhaust to drive a small turbine that spools up to compress air and direct it back into the cylinder. Just like blowing on a fire, getting more air into the combustion chamber makes it more efficient. Used to be “turbo lag” was a problem (the small amount of time it takes for the turbo to spool up to provide the extra oomph). Even on inexpensive cars like MAZDASPEED3 and VW GTI, turbo lag is hardly noticeable anymore.

Hardtop convertibles

Lexus, Volvo, Mercedes, BMW and Cadillac offer them. So do Mazda and VeeDub. Their ballet-like movements are great fun to watch but the real advantage is sound isolation, durability and security. Tough to rip an aluminum top with a knife.

The Mazda MX-5 Miata has it as an option. Its top is very slick in that it doesn’t take up much trunk space when folded. That’s good since it doesn’t have huge cargo holds to begin with. The VW Eos top with a glass panel that acts as a sliding sun roof when the top is up and in place. Because of this, I consider its top one of the best, regardless of price.

All-wheel drive

Yeas ago it was primarily found only on trucks, Subaru’s and Audi’s. Now AWD is popping up across the board. It’s expected on crossovers like Equinox, RAV4 and CR-V. Shoppers forget it’s also available on mainstream cars such as Fusion, Milan, Taurus, Matrix, and others. Its sure footing is great for slick wet roads when trying to cross a busy intersection. Also, enthusiasts will enjoy these computer assisted systems on tight twisty roads because AWD increases stability, even on dry roads.

Keyless ignition

Once the exclusive domain of expensive cars, keyless ignition is showing up on basic rigs. There is a key of sorts, kind of a transponder that tells the car that you are nearby. Many systems allow the driver to leave the transponder key in pocket or purse and just touch the door handle to unlock the vehicle.

The engine comes to life by push button or twist of a knob. And when you leave, touch the handle to lock up. At the low end, Suzuki SX-4 and Mazda3 offer it. Check the options when you buy to see if it’s available on the car you’re considering. Women, who tend to lose keys in packed purses seem to enjoy this feature the most.

Comfort and safety features

Here’s a big catch-all segment. Heated seats are nice but add cooling ventilation and they’re better. Nothing like cool air blowing up on your Levi’s on a hot day. Buick LaCrosse and Lincoln MKZ get them standard in certain models. They’re even found as an option on Dodge Ram pickups. The Buick and Dodge also feature heated steering wheels. It’s a great feature, even better than heated seats in my opinion.

Giant sunroofs like one in Volvo XC60 and Ford’s Flex and Edge are becoming popular. Yeah, we’re getting into more expensive vehicles at this point but used be they were only found on ultra luxury rides. The Flex even offers a refrigerator that even swallows a six pack of soda. You have to move up to a Maybach to get anything similar (or the Lincoln MKT).

When it comes to safety features, backup cameras are especially welcome on larger SUVs and crossovers. Toyota Highlander and Chevy Equinox offer them standard on certain models. Let’s not forget electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes. Much is said about airbags and crash protection but it’s better to avoid the accident in the first place, right? Hyundai made a name for itself by providing ESC on even its most affordable cars.

20 years ago, a driver’s side airbag was a big deal. Now most cars come with at least six of them. In addition to the front, curtain, and side units built into the front chairs, some manufacturers such as GM, VW, and Hyundai offer optional side torso airbags in the rear seats as well. I’m big on that since I like my kids and that’s where they ride. They’re generally optional since some people seldom have folks in the rear.

So there ya go. If one or a number of these features look appealing, know that they’re trickling down from luxury cars to vehicles us everyday folks can afford. That’s something to be thankful about on a Thanksgiving Day like today.

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