|The 2016 Mazda Miata (Image Credited Link)|
Buzzed by Ideas
Something about the idea of "lighter" cars intoxicates me with vehicular fantasies of a world with perfectly maintained roads free of congestion & risks, an open road where you can feel freedom in twisty curves, hurling through the lands of the Earth in a machine that controls the power of explosions in a mechanical modern marvel called a reciprocating piston engine, something that echo's back to the start of the industrial revolution with exhaust notes that sing from well designed engines like the one powering the Lexus LFA.
All of this vehicular fantasy contrasts sharply against those virtues & ethics I learned on the long road to becoming an environmental scientist during about a decade of college. Tail pipe pollution creates all kinds of problems, but Earths atmosphere soaks it up without complaining much, though climate change seems like a heavy cost to the cheap energy we get as people by burning carbon of different kinds. Noting that even air breathing humans oxidize carbon in our lungs, breathing out carbon dioxide or oxidized carbon when we exhale.
While electric motors & batteries are sufficient to give the Model S its gusto, today its the wild west in electromotive technology. Lighter designs make electric cars better too! I often dreamed of how much better the Nissan Leaf S would have been if it had been made out of Aluminum. An instructive example of an answer to such a curiosity can be found in the mostly carbon fiber BMW i3. The answer was that BWM was able to use a smaller battery 16kWh to give the same range ~100mi as Nissan 24kWh because the lighter design of the i3 requires less energy per mile at a given speed than the Nissan Leaf. The driving dynamics of the much lighter 2635 lbs i3 were greatly superior to those offered by the heavier 3354lbs Leaf : thats 719 lbs different in BMW's favor ^^ though an expensive difference noting the price differential between the i3 & the Leaf.
Getting away from a discussion about vehicle power technology, lets us focus on vehicles form factors, designs, the materials used in construction, and how these things combine to affect vehicle performance, energy efficiency, driving dynamics, ride quality, noise vibration or harshness, cornering grip & skidpad, brake stopping distance, acceleration, roll pitch & yaw, cabin feel, and aerodynamics vs downforce via cross-section. Lets see how making a vehicle lighter can help to create some sizzle to sell the "steak" : not that anyone needs to build super light vehicles to move millions of units in a world of many very confused people. ( I view myself & everyone else to different degrees as flawed, limited, finite, hypocrite, childish, and foolish; I intentionally write on this blog to share my thoughts with the goal and hope this writing will edify at least one other person)
Lighter by Design
Less mass = easier to move & manipulate, better overall performance
Less mass = more expensive (energy intensive complication @ manufacturing stages)
Less mass = less grip on uneven or unstable road surfaces (loose gravel on concrete etc)
Less mass = less safe in collisions with heavier vehicles (force vectors- think physics)
Less mass = smaller engine or motor gives similar performance to heavier combinations
The $23K Polaris Slingshot weights in at just under 1800lb, a 3 wheel motorcycle alternative to the otherwise exceptional 1742 lb KTM Xbow for $157k, especially given that you the MSRP of a 3455 lb BMW i8 starts at $140k!
Creature comforts & safety along with Price and "sizzle" seem to sell cars, not light weight or super energy efficiency, though VW was able to pre-sell all 250 XL1's: a vehicle that uses the german automotive engineering talent of VW in every possible way to make the XL1 tips the scales at a remarkable 1753 lb, just 11lbs heavier than a KTM Xbow.
|KTM X-BOW : Image via Link|
|Polaris Slingshot : Image via Link|
|VW XL1: Image via Link|
Safety Complication & Cost
Automakers stick to existing designs to save on R&D costs associated with the passenger safety cell core. In the case of the Mazda Miata, extensive use of the Mazda 3 design was integrated in order to achieve remarkable safety with minimal tooling change or R&D heavy lifting (expensive in both case, money & time). Getting a vehicle through DOT certification for crash safety integrity with the IHSI and NTSB and other related government regulatory agencies involves crash testing, airbags, crash dummies, lots of technology and science. Automakers have to destroy more than 20 units of a car to get that model crash safety certified.
If automakers were free to build motor vehicles like it was the 1940's using year 2000+ technology, they could bake together 1000lb vehicle that performs like a monster using tiny amounts of fuel while offering almost no safety to the passengers while drowning them in noise, vibration & harshness. In engineering you can usually think of a design in terms of size, cost & performance : three variables where you can improve two at the expensive of making one worse. For example, if Honda made the Cr-z out of mostly aluminum, it would be lighter (size metric) and perform better, but would cost more! Usually making something awesome requires a lot of effort that increases costs, energy consumed, emissions and other externalities of higher costs.
Tire grip performance depends on the mass of the vehicle pushing the tires into the road surface. There seems to be some napkin calculation magic at the 1500lb mark, after which extensive down force wings are needed to yield good road grip for dynamic stability. Think of the example of F1 cars, a somewhat cost naive example of automotive engineering extremes. Free from the safety constraints & creature comfort design criterion of road going passenger vehicles, track car designers are free to focus on aerodynamic efficiency, grip performance, energy performance and vehicle dynamic control & stability.
Automakers have to deal with huge challenges when designed a car like the Honda CR-z to be affordable & safe. To cope, Honda made extensive use of the G-Con design from the second generation Honda Insight to build a cheat strong steel body which enabled the affordable price of the CR-z. At 2670lbs, given the dimensions and steel dominate design, you can see that Honda was able to strike a nice balance. 140ft-lbs of Torque starting at 1000 RPM afforded by the IMA's electric motor assist, the paltry 130hp means that you have to put the CR-z in sport mode for highway action, especially climbing mountain roads. Shaving 300lbs out of the CR-z would do wonders for its performance, as would tuning the 1.5L LEA engine beyonds its 111hp OEM configuration. Combining some light engine tuning with weight reduction measure would be the equivalent of sport tuning in Forza Horizon 2, an Xbox One game that I play for fun.
Steel vs Lighter Alloys
Steel dominates automotive production as a material because of its cost to strength ratio, unmatched by any other metals, even though steel alloys are prone to costly rusting (oxidization), which ultimately self consumes the body frame of a vehicle exposed to the elements (nature). Steel is a heavy metal, iron at its core, purified with oxygen in special furnaces to burn out funk whereby alloying elements like silicon & chromium are added to enhance the iron into steel alloys of many different kinds. Modern vehicles like a Honda Accord are made of up to 9 different grades of high strength steels through the space-frame body, a G-CON safety cage design variant that Honda took great pride in developing. Compact strength yet another virtue of steel alloys that dominate knife and sword making the material of blade making. There is a deep culture to steel blade making, art, science and storied history.
The problem with making cars out of steel comes only in the performance robbing weight created by making the body frame out of steel. The newest Ford F150 made use of an aluminum intensive design & this resulted in 752lbs of weight reduction. If the Tesla Model S was made mostly of Steel it would have shorter range per charge & would weigh about 1000lbs more; would have slower acceleration, worse cornering performance and longer stopping distance. Aluminum allows Tesla to install a huge 100kWh liquid cooled battery without a significant weight penalty. The Lithium Ion batteries themselves heavier because of steel (with some irony). The Segway MiniPro that I ride is made of magnesium alloy & weights about 23lbs. If they had made the frame out of steel, it would easily weigh 40 lbs with about the same design. Magnesium alloys are some of the lightest strong metal alloys. Porsche once made their engines out of magnesium alloy, many of these engine blocks ended being burned as a spectacular metal fire fuel in social bon-fires with motor vehicle enthusiasts. Porsche was using magnesium to keep the rear engine weight to a minimum in order to reduce the pendulum over-steer rear corner swing out of control effects of having a rear mounted heavier engine in a 4 wheel road going vehicle.
During the 1990's I noticed that engineers & middle age women tend to dominate the Mazda Miata owners groups. During my teen years I had a keen interest in small sports cars that caused me to gain access to this unusual demographic information. At the time I had isolate a few vehicles that fit into this small affordable efficient sports coup class. The Toyota MR2, Mazda Miata & Lotus Elise always seemed to peak my interests. I ended up getting a drift car dreamer vehicle, a 1992 Nissan 240SX type X. Ironically I totally destroyed it by drifting into a large landscaping boulder.
In Search of the CR-z
During the length exhaustive research I performed when isolating the Honda CR-z for addition to our vehicle collection, I never even considered the Mazda Miata because of its highly impractical nature. While the CR-z is no SUV, its folding rear hatch back design gives it loads of cargo space that would be impossible to achieve in other vehicle designs of traditional compact sports coupe layouts. The 75 cu ft of interior space makes the Cr-z more like a sub-compact crossover when compared to the far less practical Mazda Miata. The Prius has more like 125 cu ft of storage volume by comparison, even better for utility! Furthermore, I wanted something that was able to achieve 40mpg in real world driving conditions, something that only a handful of fuel thrifting hybrids are able to actually achieve. Many car makers claimed 40MPG in the 2010 onward marketing materials, but few were able to actually deliver on this quoted fuel economy figure in real world driving conditions.
During the first ~12K miles of operation, the CR-z seems to return between 38 & 42 MPG with its IMA enhanced 1.5L engine mated to a very nicely designed 6sp manual tranny. If I am able to remove 338lbs from the CR-z, it would become as light as a newer aluminum intensive Mazda Miata. For now I have this very CR-z in long term storage mode, having since adopted the use of an inherited 1993 Subaru Legacy L that only returns 23 MPG on my work commute, one often emblematic of traffic congestion peaks on 405. Part of the ideology to this switch was to make good use of the old car but also to avoid having the CR-z being hit in the parking lot of my work where foreign born drivers often crash into parked cars only to subsequently blame the owners of the parked cars. In fact, the very 1993 Subaru that I now drive was hit in this same parking lot years ago when my father was driving it in this parking lot, by a foreign born driver when then blamed him for her mistake. Fortunately the insurance company review brought justice to this situation. All of my co-workers have experience having their parked car crashed into by foreign born drivers in our work parking lot. Addition ideological reasons for using the Subaru vs the CR-z comes down to all the stop & go traffic congestion on 405, where the automatic tranny in the Subaru is heavily advantageous.
I do not want a Mazda Miata, I was only interesting in reviewing light weight cars after reading the founder of Lotus's comments about how making a car lighter improves its fuel economy, lowers its emissions, enhances acceleration performance, shortens stopping distances, and improving corning performance substantial, where simply making a car more powerful generally adds weight and makes corning performance suffer, stopping distances longer, and fuel economy drop while emissions increase. Essentially making a vehicle lighter makes it better in every way, except the unusual property of reducing tire grip on lose road surfaces like gravel, dirty and other things encounter in rally racing, and sometimes in real world conditions. I often reflect on how our Prius or CR-z would be even more efficient if they were made of lighter aluminum, magnesium and titanium alloys instead of high strength steel alloys. I understand that lighter strong metal alloys are generally more expensive, especially than steel alloys, the cheapest of all the stronger metals.
The idea of writing about this one makes me feel sad in ways that we do not have a magic metal. Steel vehicles are easier to repair than vehicles made of aluminum, magnesium, fiber glass, titanium or carbon fiber. In the real world accidents happen.
Today the automotive news headlines abound with reports of angered Tesla Model S owners who are faced with huge aluminum repair fee's for minor accidents. Experts say that you can total a Model S with a baseball batt in under a min without much effort. Aluminum far less forgiving than steel when bent, it makes for a lighter vehicle, but also makes repairs extremely difficult. Aluminum is a strong, light but unforgiving metal. Steel is a strong, heavy forgiving metal. The iPhone 6 onward is made with an aluminum unibody that is very hard to repair if dented or bent.
Composite vehicle parts are even more complicated to repair. In most cases its more of a "replace" procedure than repair. The real bugger comes with core construction of composite materials, like the body shell of the BMW i3 or i8 : made of glue/ plastic/ expoxy/ carbon fiber : the manufacturing there providing interesting youtube video materials (How it's Made") : I love watching the ABB robots apply glue/epoxy and then heat curing these special BASF chemical binders with heat lamps. BMW took the autoclave aspect of CRFP out of the equation, speeding up manufacturing times from 6+ hours per unit of autoclave action to just a few minutes of spot heating, hot press holds, and related heat concentrated quick curing operations. If you look at composite vehicles from a safety perspective, they are some of the safest, but often impossible to repair of the core structure is badly damaged. The same can be true for a steel vehicle if the damage is extensive enough. The reality is that repair costs are going to be a lot higher for multi-material vehicles that make use of aluminum, magnesium, titanium & carbon fiber composite reinforced plastics/ epoxy.
This may seem off topic given the nature of the post, but motorcycles often make use of some of the most exotic materials & designs for maximum performance, especially if the super sport variety. In the past I owed a 1999 Honda F4 sport bike (600cc) and a 2004 Suzuki GSX-R600 sport bike. In both cases these "crotch rockets" produced about 100hp while weighing in at around 400 lbs. Plastic body panels with alloy wheels, alloy engines & steel space frames, I never got into anything more exotic than a 600 super sport, viewing these as extreme enough. These days we ride a 2013 Honda PCX150 scooter, with its 153cc liquid cooled fuel injected 13.2hp 11ft-lb single propelling it to a max of 68mph while returning 85-102 mpg from its tiny 1.6 gallon fuel tank. Without wet riding gear, this machine sits idle waiting from dryer weather days!
Meg & I were watching a documentary film on youtube about the Isle of Mann TT motorcycle race & it became clear in the follow up video that autoplayed, that motorcycles are dangerous because you can be thrown off of them easily, even when you are careful. Wet steel man-covers, sewer lids, light gravel or sand on the road, wet leaves left over from a preceding damp evening the night before. Ice, snow or anything really cold & wet are treacherous, easily compromising tire grip. If the front tire lets go, you low side & slide, often the safest form of crashing a motorcycle. If the rear tire lets go, you can easily high side when the rear tire achieves grip again, translating the motorcycles forward motion into a swing tilt action that ejects rides at high speeds up to 35 ft off the ground: they subsequently experience the impact damage of falling off a small building at high speed: spine, neck and extremity injuries often the result. A head on collision with another vehicle of any kind is almost always deadly or worse. Safe, sane, hyper aware, careful & conscientiousness are the only paths to long term survival using power-sport vehicles.
The tire surface to street contact area on a curved motorcycle tire x 2 is tiny by comparison to the contact patch area of a car tire x 4. Adding to the complication of grip, the low weight of motorcycles, even with heavier rides, does not produce the kind of mass downforce as a 1800lb steel car frame. Motorcycle designers cope with this grip disadvantage by using softer tires & the curved surface means more PSI on the part of the tire that is touching the road, meaning that even though the total gross vehicle weight of the motorcycle & rider is less than the mass of a car & its driver.
I find the 2017 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid the most interesting as a potential future addition to our collection. No plans to buy one but I am prone to suggesting it to anyone looking for a compact SUV. I also like the Toyota Prius line, long a fan of the original 2nd gen model. The Prius Prime looks cool with its solar roof^^ something many homes could derive a benefit from employing. Solar roof energy systems are more affordable than ever before!
The Lexus CT200h was on my short list with the CR-z, back in 2014 : also a Toyota!
I think the Toyota C-HR looks really interesting!
I am a fan of the newest 2017 Honda Civiv Type R, though the styling seems a little too boy racer, I think it will sing in terms of performance.
Big fan of the Tesla Model S
BMW i8 seems like the coolest car I would actually be interested in driving. I would only buy a heavily discounted older model, if ever, given the unusually steep price, and only if my income was enough to support the higher repair costs, maintenance costs and insurance costs. ~$160k is a lot of coin for a car, though I image the i8's of last year and the year before will depreciate rapidly once a new model is launched in ~2020.
I am interested to see all the next gen 200mi electric vehicles like the Chevy Bolt, though I am reluctant to buy anything made by an American automaker due to the long history of unreliability that phases like Found On Road Dead or Fix Or Repair Daily are emblematic of. The Japanese concept of quality (reliability) appeals to me in many ways that are worthy of a editorial review as a topic.
I really believe than Plug-in Hybrid cars are the best net solution for the 2017-2030 MY as a jack of all trades one vehicle for many purposes purchase. Electric cars with short range like the Nissan Leaf are really better suited from in-city and between adjacent city use, even at highway speeds of up to 90mph for short bursts. Actually, the 2013 Nissan Leaf S that Meg & I leased for 2 years was a performance monster at stop lights! The off the line instant torque of electric is amazing!
The contradictory parts of my perspective come when I say that I like turbo-diesel engines! I am hard pressed to recommend any, though VW once upon a time made a "Value Edition" of the TDI Jetta that made it onto the short list with the CR-z. Ultimately I liked the CR-z more, mostly because it was made in Japan, because its a hybrid, and because it was made by Honda. Without children, I do not require or desire a large vehicle, though I increasingly like the Tesla Model X and emerging cross-over and sub-compact SUV's like the Toyota C-HR & RAV4 Hybrid.
I would give the BMW i3 and Nissan Leaf both likes, but consider both limited because of the shorter single charge range and slow recharging. I look forward to future electric vehicle offering with far more enthusiasm. I think 2018 onward will be interesting for electric cars!
The Lotus Elise might seems like a noteworthy exception from this article, especially give its low weight, use of bonded aluminum extrusions, composite body panels, sport tuned engines, nimble go-kart handling, spirited acceleration and sports car dynamics. I would have written an entire section about the Elise, giving it praises, and might have named the article Lotus Elise instead of Mazda Miata, but the the lack of safety system enhancements, clean technology, and unreasonably high price given production costs, the development timelines and lack of significant technological advances from over the models history, combine to detract from my opinion of the the Elise. I think the Miata is a better car at a better price and a greater overall value, even if not as cool or fast.
I thought a lot about what it was that I liked in cars before finally deciding on a Honda CR-z back in 2014. Compact size with good utility space for its shape, good ride quality, clean technology & energy efficiency, fun driving dynamics, affordable & reliable. The CR-z embodies many of these attribute classes as a box of compromises like all batterie chemistries or vehicle designs: always tradeoffs between engineering & accounting : feasibility reigning supreme. This is why technological advancement moves society forward, it lowers the costs and democratizes access to better solutions. In the CR-z for example, a 6th generation revision of the IMA system paired to an LEA 1.5L engine tuned for efficient energy production with a balance conservative ECU map, intake & exhaust. You can feel the VTEC activate when the tack crosses the 3K rpm threshold the power delivery ramps up and starts to pull. Driving in the VTEC RPM range shows the sporty character of the CR-z when Sport Mode is selected. Normal & Eco are better for around town, in traffic congestion where 12hp would be enough to pull the 2850lbs of me in the CR-z with my glass water bottle & food containers. I had no idea that I was about to inherit the 1993 Subaru Legacy when I was buying the CR-z. I thought my dad would live at least a few more years, possibly into the 2020 range, but I was wrong, he met death at the end of 2015, something I still find difficult to think about. I miss my dad and driving his old Subaru reminds me of him. I associate the sound of the Subaru's engines to morning where he was driving me to Jazz Band at 6am when I was a middle school student! He asked me about my ideal car on a few occasions, to which I described something affordable, compact, clean, efficient, fun, and reliable. His ideal car was something with a knarly powerful V8, like his 5000lb 2003 Cadillac STS. In 2008 he called me when I was at the UW campus and told me that he found a Mercedes AMG 55 coupe for $32K at Chaplins Subaru, and had a sadness in his voice. I wondered why he was not willing to buy it, only to much later in 2011 realize that a tremendous amount of financial ruin had been affecting him since 2006, something he kept from my mother & I, hope to make it all back, sadly it never panned out. They managed to sell their micro-mansion in middle 2015 and used the proceeds to buy a nice town-home in a gated 55 year old + community. They got situated into this home & then he died. The CR-z lives on as the vehicular equal to the concept I described to the late Ken Schwarz about my concept of an "ideal" vehicle. Compact with optimize utility space for its size, clean technology + low emissions & fuel efficient, fun with good handling and a balance between cornering performance & ride quality with less noise vibration & harshness, all in an affordable package that Honda was able to deliver. Sadly the CR-z did not sell well in the United States or worldwide & was officially discontinued at the end of 2016. I just unplugged the battery tender & closed the hood, soon I will wake up the CR-z for a storage cycle refresh to operating temperature, pending weather improvements....