This article was first published in 2006.
Car manufacturers have a tough job coming up with
new technologies and ideas. And once they have an idea, it needs to make it
past the bean counters, durability tests, market testing and a bunch of other
hurdles. But despite this, there are quite a few technologies and ideas that
make their way into production - only to fail. In this article we’ll look at some
innovations that have died in the marketplace - or are taking their last gasp
Porsche helped push the idea with the late ‘70s
release of the 928, but pop-up headlights really starting appearing in numbers during the
‘80s. The idea of pop-ups is simple – to achieve a sporty look along with
reduced aerodynamic drag. But what happens at night-time when those
aero-concealed headlights need to step up? Hmmm. Well, let’s just say we’ve
never seen any aero drag figures with the headlights deployed – only with them
Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned the added,
weight, complexity, cost and crash testing considerations. It’s no surprise
pop-ups are now very rare in new cars.
Nearly all major car manufacturers took out
licences for rotary engine technology, but there was only one – Mazda – with the
courage to take Felix Wankel’s design into mass production. (NSU produced rotary
powered vehicle as well, but not in such huge numbers - and only until they effectively went broke.)
Unlike a conventional engine with a reciprocating
piston and conrod assembly, the rotary is much more efficient in that it
achieves intake, compression, combustion and exhaust with a spinning rotor. The
rotary engine has advantages in terms of compactness, weight, vibration and
power production. In Australia we saw the 12A and 13B twin-rotor engines in a
range of vehicles and in the ultimate twin-turbo guise, the rotary cranked out
Unfortunately, the rotary engine suffers
relatively high fuel consumption and emissions and – as a result – it was
withdrawn from sale in 2002. Only recently, with the release of the RX-8 powered
by the massively redesigned RENESIS engine, has the rotary survived. It’s a far
cry from the days when the rotary engine was going to ‘take over the world’...
Another engine principle pedalled by Mazda is the
Miller-cycle. The Miller-cycle engine debuted in the luxury-spec Mazda/Eunos
800M of 1994.
The 800M’s 2.3-litre Miller-cycle engine is unique
in that it closes its intake valves much later than in a conventional Otto cycle
engine - the inlet valves are kept open for the first 20 percent of the
compression stroke. This approach reduces pumping losses when the mixture is
being squeezed during the compression stroke. However, the efficiency of the
Miller-cycle engine must be maintained by adding forced induction because without it, the mixture could reverse-flow out of the inlet valves. It’s for
this reason the Miller-cycle employs a Lysholm-type twin-screw supercharger
with twin air-to-air intercoolers.
So what are the advantages of this
engine? Well, Mazda claimed 3-litre engine performance (149kW) with the fuel
economy of an engine that’s 23 percent smaller. Unfortunately, production costs
and complexity were against it – and now we’re also starting to see some reliability
issues (such as supercharger problems).
Technically interesting – but it never
really got off the ground - except of course in hybrid cars like the Prius, which use much the same principal in their engines.
Another feature popular through the ‘80s was
four-wheel-steering. Again, Mazda got heavily involved in electro-hydraulic 4WS
systems (take a look under an upmarket MX6, 626, 929 or Eunos 800M), although
many other manufacturers incorporated less sophisticated approaches.
It’s interesting reading material from
the time of Mazda’s 4WS release – there are numerous claims of improvements in lane-change stability and manoeuvrability. But today the buzz of 4WS has died away and it’s
become fashionable to poke fun at the idea; technology for the sake of
it is a common opinion.
The reality? Well, it’s probably
somewhere in between...
It’s an obscure feature but one that works
surprisingly well – oscillating dashboard vents!
Appearing in upmarket Mazdas in the ‘80s (and
their Ford equivalents), oscillating vents are an effective way of ensuring even
airflow distribution throughout the cabin without resorting to cranking up the
fan speed to MAX and sitting inside a virtual wind tunnel. Much more civilised
to touch a button and have the vents oscillate left to right like an ol’
pedestal fan you’ve got at home.
A feature that’s never really taken off – but one
that does have some merit.
And here’s an idea that has survived despite some
truly shocking early systems.
Climate control was once regarded as the height of
luxury – you just set the temperature and forget operating the HVAC
system. Incredible. But, in many early systems, it’s not as easy as that... In
Nissans especially, the digital climate control systems can be your worst enemy
– the most irritating aspect of the entire car. You see, when you return to a
car that’s been sitting in the sun and start the engine, you’ll be hit in the
face with a hot air cyclone; the climate control system realises it needs to
work hard to bring down the temperature and it cranks up the fan speed before
the air-con system can effectively cool the air coming out the vents...
Add to this erratic fan speed and a dopey user
interface and it’s amazing climate control systems kept being produced...
Clutch-less Manual Gearbox
A technology that seems to be hanging
on by a thread is clutch-less manual gearboxes.
These are nothing new – the Saab 900 turbo had it
in the mid ‘90s, the Merc A-class had it since its late ‘90s release and the
current Toyota MR-2 has it as well – but we can’t help question the logic. Good
systems will let you blip the throttle during your (clutch-less) down-changes
and it’s a sure way to freak out passengers – but, really, what’s the advantage?
If you don’t like to drive a manual wouldn’t you opt for an auto trans? And if
you are perfectly happy to change gears by yourself wouldn’t using a clutch now
be second nature? Doesn’t make sense. The Toyota MR-2 system is also set back by
its relatively slow gear engagement – incredibly frustrating when you’ve got the
otherwise likable combination of 975kg and 103kW pushed near its limit.
It’s no wonder these systems survive
only in small numbers.
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