2014 TopSpeed Year in Review
2015 is almost upon us, car lovers, and TopSpeed has one last post to close out the year that was 2014! As this little blue green ball we all inhabit completes yet another revolution around that warm spot of fusing hydrogen hanging in the sky, we tend to revert back to the time-honored tradition of summarizing a few of the big events that transpired over the course of the year. It’s a crossroads, a time to bask in the glory of past wins, as well as learn from prior mistakes in a bid to avoid such blunders in the future.
In many ways, 2014 was a time of great change and rebirth, with both exciting successes and catastrophic failures laced throughout. We’ve seen the glorious return of heroes like the Dodge Challenger, plus the emergence of exciting new technology like in the Toyota Mirai. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen a glut of niche vehicles stretched thin between a variety of purposes, like the Mercedes GLE Coupe, as well as fatal corporate mistakes in a record-breaking year for automotive recalls.
Usually, we’re a glass-half-full kind of crowd, so we’re tempted to say, overall, this most recent spin around the sun yielded a net gain for the automotive world. Perhaps, but we suppose that’s still open for debate. Regardless, it’s been a mixed bag, no doubt about that. But don’t fret: we’re here to tie it up into one neat package for you.
Click past the jump to read our list of highs and lows from 2014.
Dino-fuel might be on the endangered species list, but that hasn’t put a stop to the swarm of new American performance vehicles we’re seeing out of just about every star-spangled manufacturer in existence. We’ll name just a few: from Dodge, we get the 10-second Challenger SRT Hellcat, which comes with the carmaker’s most powerful engine ever made: a supercharged, 6.2-liter V-8 Hemi making over 700 horsepower straight from Hades, complete with two plumes of fire and brimstone emanating from the rear wheels. There’s also the sixth-generation Ford Mustang, TopSpeed’s New Car of the Year, which ditched the live axle, added independent rear suspension, and threw in another engine option to compliment the compulsory 5.0-liter Coyote V-8. Additionally, we got TopSpeed’s Performance Car of the Year, the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, a max bang-for-the-buck masterpiece of go-faster, no-replacement displacement.
Each of these cars is part of a truly unexpected renaissance in USA-style speed. While the rest of the world wrings their hands over mileage and efficiency, there appears to be a domestic resurgence in that old-school formula for fun: big motor up front, big power in the back. Sure, the writing is on the wall that cars like these won’t exactly stick around forever. But that’s exactly why we need to celebrate them now. The new breed of muscle cars remind us that freedom can be found in dropping a fat burnout before blasting down the 1,320. They remind us that a snarly, popping exhaust can be a strong, spine-tickling psychoactive. They remind us that practicality is for minivans and insurance companies. They remind us to love the internal combustion engine while we still can.
One of the most difficult transitions facing real innovation lies between the land of theory, where most great ideas stay, and some kind of physical manifestation in tangible reality. That’s pretty much where we find additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing. In theory, 3D printing cuts a path straight to the consumer, reducing cost by eliminating waste. It puts the tools of creation directly into the hands of the end user. It takes the enormously complex manufacturing process and miniaturizes it into a bite-size chunk. The ability to create an object from a digital design, any digital design, using inexpensive materials and a single, relatively simple machine has the potential to alter the car industry in a big way. Imagine printing out your own replacement parts when something breaks, or customizing your ride with a one-off body kit. Or how about printing wider seats for a long-distance journey, or bolstered seats for a trip to the track? The possibilities, it would seem, arc beyond the horizon.
Of course, these are all just ideas. It’s going to take more than one interested automotive journalist tapping away at his keyboard to turn them into anything useful. Thankfully, 2014 moved us decisively closer to turning these possibilities into actualities.
Local Motors, a vehicle manufacturing company based out of Arizona, is a major driving force in this area. Included in its catalog are motorcycles, a variety of toys, the Rally Fighter, and now, the EV pictured above, officially labeled the Strati.
This past September, Local Motors built the Strati with an industrial-sized 3D printer set out on the floor of the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. Using only 50 individual parts, a small team of engineers was able to construct the car in an all-out, 44-hour, on-site blitz. With the exception of the suspension pieces, the Renault Twizy powertrain, and the wiring, every single component on the Strati was printed and assembled at the show. The design is the product of a crowd-sourced contest called the 3D Printed Car Design Challenge, which saw over 200 entries competing for a $5,000 prize, with Italy’s Michele Anoé taking the top spot.
At $18,000 to $30,000 a pop, we wouldn’t recommend that you pre-order one. Rather, the Strati is on this list as an example of the possibilities that the technology represents. If a car can be built in this fashion, we can envisage an age of extremely cheap, extremely custom vehicles for anyone and everyone. Got a quibble with the pedals? Print up a new set. Did the neighbor just get something faster? Print out thinner body panels and a larger engine bay. The rapidity with which this technology will be adopted remains a clear unknown, but if the Strati proved anything, it’s that the potential is there.
If I was a betting man, I’d put my TopSpeed dollars on hydrogen as the next big fuel source for cars. It all boils down to sustainability: instead of burning hydrocarbons to produce energy, a fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen in an electrochemical reaction to create current. This electricity is then used to charge a battery, which is in turn used to power an electric motor. The result is propulsion and clean water vapor.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, so unlike petroleum, we won’t have to wait around for organic material to transform into a fresh batch. However, there are still a few problems to overcome. First, while it may be plentiful, extracting hydrogen in its pure, elemental form is a costly endeavor. There are even some reports that state it is both an economic hindrance and environmentally damaging to do so.
Secondly, there’s storage. Hydrogen has a low volumetric energy density, which means it takes a lot to make stuff go. Basically, you need a really big tank of hydrogen to get anywhere. You can fix this with compression, but running around town with a huge amount of hydrogen is still potentially dangerous. Alternatively, you can store hydrogen as a liquid or "slush", like on the Space Shuttle, which significantly increases the energy density compared to gaseous hydrogen. But with a boiling point of -252.8 degrees C, you’d need a massive cryogenic system to prevent it from simply leaking out into the atmosphere. A third solution is hydrogen that is chemically altered to be stored as a solid, which shows great promise, but requires a good deal of research to become viable
Then there’s the issue of infrastructure. While a fill up takes less time than a recharge on an EV, finding a decent hydrogen supplier is not exactly as easy as logging onto GasBuddy.
Toyota is working to fix all of that. It was recently announced that an increase in demand has prompted the Japanese automaker to ramp up production on its hydrogen fuel-cell-powered, four-door passenger car, the Mirai, reinforcing the investment it made to building supportive infrastructure in southern California and on the east coast. As a bonus, Toyota will throw in three years of free hydrogen fill-ups.
For about $60K, Mirai customers get a sedan with an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty, packing 153 horsepower and performance figures similar to the Prius. Total range is around 300 miles, while topping off the tank takes only a few minutes. Yes, we know- that is a lot of money, the interior is a bit cheap, it doesn’t look all that fantastic, and it isn’t fast. However, it should be pretty reliable, it creates zero emissions, and Toyota pays for your fuel.
The Mirai represents the adoption of automotive fuel cells in one of the most basic and easily recognizable forms possible: the four-door passenger car. There’s no doubt that the technology still has a long way to go as a partial solution to the world’s carbon problems, but we’d say this car is a clear indication that we’re on the right track.
Tire Smoke and Crazy Horsepower
Sure, there were plenty of advances when it comes to saving the planet, but some people just want to watch the wheels burn, and 2014 has been quite active on that front as well. One prime rib roast of an example is the above-pictured Hoonicorn. This thing is awesome. Not awesome like “that breakfast burrito was awesome," but truly awe-inspiring. It’s a 1965 Mustang-styled composite shell over an all-wheel-drive, 845-horsepower V-8 drivetrain, with vision-destroying ITBs sticking out of the hood. This car is the stuff of dreams, or nightmares, depending on your perspective.
Or take the latest salvo in the mega-power wars, the Koenigsegg One:1, which is set to compete against the LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918. Somehow, these ultra-rare hyper cars manage to find more and more performance in some sort of perpetual leapfrog race into infinity. We hope it never stops.
Pragmatism and level-headedness can be useful. But sometimes, when the feeling is right, you gotta stoke the flames with a little high test. It’s good to see that’s still very much the case.
Worst Year in History for Auto Recalls
Alongside rising sales figures, 2014 also saw the highest number of automobile recalls ever recorded for the U.S. One recent Bloomberg report put the total at more than 60 million vehicles, with countless consumers left guessing whether their car is at risk. You could attribute this to stricter regulations, but don’t be so quick to think these are just better standards. The bare bones truth of the matter is that the decision to issue a recall, no matter which manufacturer you’re talking about, is based on calculated threats to the bottom line, not life and limb. Apparently, the carmakers are spooked. Hopefully, this appalling new record will cast harsh light on the need for hawk-eyed consumers that demand rigorous testing and the highest degree of safety. Do your research.
One particularly terrible example comes from General Motors, which saw a slew of recalls for faulty ignition switches this year, a defect which GM itself has linked to at least 13 deaths and 31 crashes. There are indications that GM knew about the problem years prior to issuing the recall. So far, the ignition defect alone has afflicted a total of twenty different models.
Cars Left in the Dust
Like Dylan said, the times they are a-changin’. This is definitely true in the car industry, and that means some models will inevitably sink like a stone. It doesn’t matter if they’re overdone, underdeveloped or late to the party, the result is always the same.
For example, the Cadillac ELR. Sure, it’s pretty, but do you really want to own one? Beauty, as they say, is only sheet-metal deep, so let’s look a little harder. The ELR is a series hybrid, which means it uses a 1.4-liter four-cylinder petrol motor to charge a lithium-ion battery pack to produce 207 horsepower and a total range of 300 miles. Basically, the ELR is a very nice Chevy Volt. That means it’s not very fast. The interior is okay, but is it worth the extra forty grand? The public, it would seem, thinks not, as sales for the ELR are dismal. Why not just get a Tesla?
Or there’s the ForFour. Smart improved pretty much every aspect of the new city-dweller, from the interior and ride quality, to the engine and transmission. But it’s still not enough. It’s still too small for a four-door, it’s still underpowered to be any fun, and there are numerous competitors that are head-and-shoulders above it.
Automakers are fighting tooth and nail for each model sold, so it’s no surprise that the competition would suppress the weak with this much force. It’s a trial by fire for the newcomers. One whiff of mediocrity, and they’re done.
Small Cars That Got Fat
In the great cycle of successful automobiles, there comes a time, almost inevitably, when middle age starts to creep into each successive generation and a little pudginess forms at the edges. It might start modestly enough — a bit more legroom perhaps, maybe some extra sound deadening — but before you know it, that svelte, lithe, fun little car you once knew has transformed into an overweight gas-guzzler, wheezing up hills and rolling through the corners. It won’t even fit in its parking spot anymore.
2014 was no different, as is evident with the MINI Hardtop 4-Door. The new model has an extended wheelbase and a longer body. The reason? Sensibility. And therein lies the problem; the original Mini was about fun and excitement. It was a rally car, an eager front-wheel-drive loon that somehow managed to fit an enormous amount of space into the interior despite its size. Adding inches and doors is an obvious white flag in each of these vital attributes. We could lament about how the brand lost its identity, or how MINI is now just a status symbol as meaningless as organic maltodextrin, but let’s focus on the facts: the Hardtop 4-Door isn’t all that great of a car. Yeah, it’s slightly roomier in the back, but fully-grown adults still get smashed in those rear seats. The top-range four-cylinder engine is pretty torquey, but the 6.5-second 0-to-60 time is still rather lackluster. Worst of all is the price; you’re looking at $24,600 for the S model, not to mention the inevitable options list.
Fiat was another carmaker that set out to plump its ride, this time with the 500x. Ditto the above sentiments regarding sensibility here. The Italian carmaker says it’s “fixed the crossover,” but I think the best way to do that would be to immediately halt production on at least half of them, with the 500x included.
People love contradictory things, especially when it comes to cars. They want something fast but practical, spacious but easy to park, technologically advanced but simple to maintain. Carmakers are doing their damnedest to reciprocate, and one area they’ve had the most success filling is the sporty coupe crossover niche. Combining the size of an SUV with the performance intentions and styling of a coupe, BMW was the first to venture into this realm with the X6, and several imitators soon followed. The Mercedes GLE Coupe is one such vehicle. It’s a four-wheeled monstrosity equipped with a 500 horsepower, 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8. The upcoming Audi Q8 is another example, as we expect it to come with equally absurd power levels.
So you’re probably thinking: “they call themselves TopSpeed, but they rag on a car for being powerful?” Our beef is that we don’t understand the point of spending so much money on a vehicle made to combine two diametrically opposed traits, when the same money could buy two vehicles specifically designed for their respective tasks. For $70 or $80 grand, you could get a Subaru BRZ, which would be infinitely more interesting in the canyons, plus a Chevy Tahoe for far more successful people and thing hauling.
The problem is, when it comes to buying a new car, logic is often kicked to the curb in lieu of image and perceived value. Something can’t be too good to be true if people want it bad enough, and that’s why these cars are still destined to sell.