2016 Cars: Bigger Is Better Again

The downsizing trend is officially over as automakers return to the SUVs and utility vehicles that became popular before the economic downturn.

December 1, 2015

Oh, what a difference a year makes. This time last year, the new-car market in the U.S. was still recovering from one of its worst-ever downturns, and motorists were focused on downsizing in a bid for better fuel economy. These days, car sales seem to be heading for an all-time record, and with fuel prices lower than we’ve seen in a decade, the focus is shifting back towards larger cars, utility vehicles, and pickup trucks.

The good news is that even the biggest, most powerful vehicles on the market are delivering better mileage than ever. The new Ram 1500 diesel pickup gets as much as 29 miles per gallon. And the latest Chevrolet Corvette can top 30 mpg.

Manufacturers are pulling off the seemingly impossible: delivering more power, lower emissions, and better mileage. The 2016 models also tend to be roomier and much more lavishly equipped. How are they doing it? Several factors come into play.

There’s more focus than ever on design. In today’s intensely crowded marketplace, automakers know that styling matters. But it’s more than just eye appeal. A good design also translates into better aerodynamics. And cheating the wind is one of the best ways to improve fuel economy.

Today’s cars are also going on a diet. The new 2016 Chevy Malibu, for example, is slightly larger yet several hundred pounds lighter than the sedan it replaces, thanks to creative engineering and the use of super-light aluminum and advanced, high-strength steels. The little BMW i3 battery-electric vehicle makes extensive use of carbon fiber, a material traditionally reserved for exotic supercars and Formula One racers. But as the price of the material falls, it’s moving into the mainstream.

People aren’t downsizing. At the beginning of the decade, pundits were predicting Americans would be trading in their big cars and SUVs for microcars like the newly redesigned Smart ForTwo. That largely hasn’t happened, as the surge in SUV and pickup sales will attest to. Instead, manufacturers have been downsizing what’s under the hood. Today, Ford offers a turbocharged, 2.7-liter V-6 for its full-size F-150 pickup that matches the towing capacity of its biggest V-8 while getting at least 20 percent better mileage.

Digital technology has also made a world of difference. In the R&D labs, it helps engineers bring new cars to market faster than ever. On the road, electronic control systems make your new car more fuel-efficient, more powerful, and safer than ever.

Until recently, the industry adage was that safety doesn’t sell. Don’t tell that to today’s buyers, who are demanding the latest in high-tech safety features. Even some of the lowest-priced models on the road now offer such features as blind-spot detection, backup cameras, and forward collision warning. But the 2016 BMW 7-Series gives us a hint of what’s to come.

The new BMW 750i is a technological tour de force. There are grille shutters that automatically open and close to improve fuel economy. Stereo cameras spot potholes and bumps to automatically adjust the suspension. And the big Beemer even accesses navigation data to automatically adjust its steering boost and transmission shifts. You can take your hands off the wheel on a well-marked roadway for up to 15 seconds; the collision avoidance system will even help steer itself around an obstacle if necessary.

You can even do things like adjust volume and take or reject incoming phone calls with the auto industry’s first-ever gesture-control system. Program a gesture of your own using two fingers — not just the one you might be tempted to use in frustration if all this gets the better of you.

There is a potential downside to all this technology: growing concerns about hackers who might try to take control of your car instead of your desktop computer. A pair of security experts recently demonstrated this by hacking into a Jeep and sending it spinning into a ditch. Look for automotive cybersecurity to become a hot topic over the next few years, but don’t expect it to slow the move towards assisted and autonomous vehicles.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn recently announced his company is on track to put its first fully self-driving vehicle into production by 2020. And the new Tesla Model X battery SUV is coming to market with a semi-autonomous AutoPilot system capable of hands-free operation on well-marked, limited-access highways. The stuff of science fiction is rapidly becoming part of our automotive reality.

But what does that mean for someone looking to buy a new car sometime during the 2016 model year? Here’s our guide to some of the most intriguing vehicles coming to market, along with a look at some of the market’s hottest trends.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.

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