Though the rise of the machines is a common theme in science fiction, you could mount an argument that the human being is already all but redundant. If you doubt this, take the brand-new, ninth-generation Audi A4 for a test drive. The company calls it the most technologically advanced car it’s produced. We say it’s the beginning of the end for fully autonomous human beings.
Here’s just a short list of what you no longer have to do as a driver:
• Pay attention in traffic jams – the A4 will do the peak-hour, start-stop shuffle for you;
• Watch the car in front – if you don’t slam on the brakes to avoid an imminent rear-ender, the A4 will;
• Worry about being rear-ended yourself – the A4 detects a fast-approaching car and frantically strobes its brake lights to alert its driver;
• Concentrate in car parks – reverse out of a perpendicular spot and the A4 will look left and right and warn you of approaching cars;
• Look out for cyclists while parked – the car flashes an internal warning if you’re about to open your door onto a bike, on either side;
• Give way – tick the Driver Assistance Package ($1900) and try to do a suicidal right-hand turn across traffic and it will stop you;
• Worry about high-beaming other drivers – the Matrix LED headlights ($1700) will dip the beam only on that portion of the headlight dazzling the oncoming motorist;
• Fret about your next meal (of fill-up or check-up) – ask the voice control system for the nearest Thai restaurant, petrol station or doctor and it will give you options, then phone them for you. Seriously.
It seems almost superfluous to discuss the things you can control, but in order up the engine food chain you have a choice of front-drive in 1.4L and 2.0L petrol engines, with quattro AWD powered by a 2.0L diesel and higher powered 2.0L petrol, ranging in price from $55,500 to $69,900 and all delivering a terrific power/economy equation. If you’ve got a spare $2K, Audi’s schmick virtual cockpit is a must-have option, a hi-def, customisable LCD console that lets you display speed, tachometer and sat-nav in various configurations, including having your route overlaid on Google Earth. Full music connectivity comes through Apple’s new Car Play or Android Auto.
Styling is a subjective thing and the new A4 has copped some flack for looking like the old A4; while not breaking new ground, that sharpened face and stronger character lines give it an angular presence with a strong family resemblance to the new TT – no bad thing, in MH’s view. It’s a handsome, highly competent addition to the crowded exec express market. And whatever the situation, it’s always got your back.
A Bright Spark
Sceptical about how fun an electric car could be? Try BMW’s battery-powered city runabout
Guilty pleasures are all very well, but guiltless ones are even better, especially when they involve neck-snapping bursts of acceleration between traffic lights, all accompanied by zero pollution, of either the noise or tailpipe kind. Such are the hijinks to be had in BMW’s new electric city car, the i3.
It’s not the first of its kind, of course, and at $63,900 plus on-roads, it’s far from cheap, but if this is a glimpse of the future of motoring, then rest assured that the fun needn’t run out when fossil fuels finally do.
The i3 is powered by 125kW/250Nm “eDrive” electric motor, which uses a single-speed auto transmission to drive the rear wheels. You can toggle between three settings – COMFORT, ECO PRO and ECO PRO+ – which give decreasing amounts of performance and creature comforts. The flipside of that is the less you use, the further you go. The simple information panel in front of the driver explains it all, via a semi-circular digital display. Put your foot down and a white lights swings right into the “ePower” section, which uses up power and decreases your range. Come off the accelerator and the indicator swings left into the “charge” portion, the engine’s electrical braking generating power and increasing range. Interestingly, this braking power is so strong that you very rarely need to touch the brake pedal.
This becomes an irresistible game where you completely change your driving style to maximise range while keeping up with traffic. MH’s standard commute from home to office is about 25km. Freshly charged overnight through a standard wall socket (a slow process that took about seven hours) the i3 started the trip showing a range of 116km. Judicious use of throttle on Sydney’s hills had that range fall only to 114km on arrival 40 minutes later.
For those suffering from serious “range anxiety”, for an extra $6K, the i3 can be had with a range extender, a 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine linked to a small petrol tank, which acts as a generator to supply additional charge, should you empty the battery. MH never ran things that low, but this device promised a further 130km of driving.
So, with trips limited to about 240km, overnight stops needed to recharge and a pretty heady asking price, practical, affordable electric motoring isn’t quite here yet. But the head-turningly-styled i3, which also happens to be a hoot to drive, is a tantalising glimpse of what’s possible. – BR
More From Less
You don’t have to be at the wheel of Audi’s miserly new A4 or an electric BMW to dramatically improve your fuel economy. Long-time motoring journalist Peter McKay has twice competed in the Darwin to Adelaide Global Green Challenge, an event where the goal is to cover the 3000-plus kilometres from Australia’s north to south using the least fuel. In 2009, McKay achieved the best result in the production-car category, using 98.46 litres at an average consumption of just 3.13L/100km in a Ford Fiesta ECOnetic turbo-diesel. Here are his tips for getting maximum distance from minimum fuel.
Your right foot dictates how much fuel you consume and big movements will result in big numbers. “Use the throttle like you’re driving on eggshells,” says McKay. “Ease away from a stop. Momentum is your friend in traffic. Ease up to red traffic lights, which will eventually turn green.”
Find the Engine’s Comfort Zone
You need to find the place where you can maintain speed at the lowest possible revs, which shouldn’t exceed 1500rpm.
Go Easy on the Air-Con
On McKay’s winning run, he and his co-driver traversed the outback in 34°C heat with the windows up and air-conditioning off. He’s not suggesting you do that. “Use the air, because air-conditioning these days doesn’t use up the fuel like it used to in older cars, but avoid going full blast. And don’t open the windows instead, because it will increase drag. Consumption-wise, there’s not a lot in it, but air-con is nicer, so go for the nice option.”
Take a Load Off
Get rid of the roof racks if you’re not using them – they add 6-8 per cent to your consumption. If you’re driving around with extra stuff in the boot, get it out. Weight is the killer. On that note, don’t drive around with your fat mate – tell him to get the bus!
Pump it Up
“You’re better off bumping your tyre pressures up a little. If the tyre placard – situated inside the driver’s door – recommends 34psi, put in 36. It improves the tyres’ rolling resistance and, as an added bonus, improves the grip in the wet,” says McKay. “If possible, opt for a narrow tyre, which again improves rolling resistance.”
“We did a story at the Sydney Morning Herald three years ago where we took out three identical Toyota Camrys filled with E10, standard and premium petrol,” says McKay. “Regular beat E10 and 98 beat regular – but not by enough to justify 98’s 10¢ price hike.”
Seems obvious, so do it. Choose the route with least traffic or fewer hills. Your smartphone can help.