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Auto Trends 2015 & Beyond

Focus on Turbos, 10-Speed Transmissions & Collision Avoidance

Strategies for achieving better fuel efficiency and the wider spread of safety features are among the automotive trends for the 2015 model year. SUVs for the first time have edged ahead of sedans in sales, and you’ll find a handful of new SUVs in all sizes. Although electric vehicles remain a tiny fraction of the overall market, seven new models are on the way.

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If the thought of a new vehicle gets your motor running, then the future of the vehicles that are headed to U.S. showrooms in 2015 and beyond should rev you up. It’s increasingly likely that a turbocharged vehicle will be in your future.

Fuel efficiency is a continuing trend as automakers strive to meet federal mandates for efficiency. It isn’t just turbocharged engines that they’re counting on to deliver those numbers: Vehicles in 2015 and beyond increasingly will have a transmission that has up to ten gears to deliver better fuel economy. Naturally, a few more vehicles that are powered by electricity are expected. However, your choice of a more fuel-efficient vehicle might look slightly different than in prior years: As of press time, SUVs had nudged aside sedans in sales, and experts say they expect even more SUV sales in 2015.

Sales of new automobiles in the United States were expected to top 16.4 million in 2014, which would be a 5.8 percent increase from 2013 and the best annual performance since 2006, according to National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA). Further, Steven Szakaly, who is NADA’s chief economist, predicted in August 2014 that new-vehicle sales would rise to almost 16.8 million in 2015. Bank of America Merrill Lynch automotive analyst John Murphy says in his automotive product analysis “Car Wars 2015–2018” that a record number of automobile launches are expected during the next 4 years. In 2015, 48 new models are expected, which is up from the 36 that were launched in 2014, he says. Murphy expects that 192 new models will be launched over the 4-year span, and the majority won’t be cars. Murphy says 46 of those will be crossover SUVs. Another 54 will be minivans, pickups and other SUVs, he says, although he wasn’t able to tell us how many of each type.

Unfortunately, higher average prices are expected, too. John Krafcik, who is the president of TrueCar, which links buyers to automobile dealerships, expects that as of press time new-vehicle prices would rise by 2 percent in 2014, and he forecasts another 2 percent rise in 2015, to an average price of $32,589. He says the rise is partly because of the shift to SUVs and crossover SUVs, which typically are more expensive than cars are. Automakers also are “being bolder” in marking up new-vehicle prices because of added technology, particularly smart-entertainment systems, he says.

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However, NADA and other organizations predict that used-vehicle prices will fall by 4 percent in 2015 and by another 4 percent in 2016. Consequently, analysts say, you can expect automakers to boost incentives on new vehicles in 2015. Krafcik says the average new-vehicle incentive in 2013 was $2,570. That’s expected to rise to $2,672 in 2014 and to $2,852 in 2015. He expects the biggest discounts to be on vehicles that are scheduled to be refreshed or replaced, notably the Acura TLX, the Chrysler 200, the Lincoln MKC and the Toyota Tacoma, all of which are scheduled for updates.

GAS GIANTS. The average fuel economy of new vehicles that are sold in the United States rose to an all-time high of 25.8 mpg in combined city/highway driving in August 2014, according to researchers at University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. That’s up from 25.6 mpg in combined city/highway driving in July 2014. Since October 2007, when the organization began to track the data, average combined city/highway fuel economy has risen 5.7 mpg.

Most of the vehicles that help to post those numbers are gasoline-powered, and automakers are paying attention to both the engine and the transmission to achieve those results. Environmental Protection Agency expects that by 2025, about 90 percent of all vehicles that are sold that year will have a turbocharged engine, which is up from the current 17 percent. In 2015, more turbocharged models across every vehicle segment will arrive in showrooms.

Turbocharged engines deliver better fuel economy and performance compared with similar-size conventional engines, says Terrence Hahn, who is the president and CEO of Honeywell Transportation Systems. (See "V8 Engines: Disappearing Act.") Honeywell, which supplies turbochargers to automakers, says the number of turbocharged engines that are sold in North America will increase to 6.5 million in 2018 from 3.9 million in 2013. Honeywell says that, for 2015, it will supply turbocharged engines on 75 diesel- and gasoline-powered vehicles, representing 17 different vehicle makes. That’s about twice as many as in 2012, the company says. Department of Energy says turbocharged engines provide an average 7.5 percent increase in fuel economy compared with engines that aren’t turbocharged.

SUPPORT SYSTEM. By Sept. 1, 2015, all vehicles are required to have roofs that can withstand double the force that they previously could. Automakers are doing this by strengthening the so-called A and B pillars, which are shown in red above.

SUPPORT SYSTEM. By Sept. 1, 2015, all vehicles are required to have roofs that can withstand double the force that they previously could. Automakers are doing this by strengthening the so-called A and B pillars, which are shown in red above.

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Despite the increasing number of vehicles that have a turbocharged engine, a turbocharged engine still will cost you a premium, either as an option or as part of a vehicle’s more expensive trim level. For example, Ford typically charges at least $1,000 more for its EcoBoost engines, which are turbocharged.

Along with more turbocharged engines, more automatic transmissions that have eight, nine or even 10 speeds are coming, although they aren’t coming as quickly as turbocharged engines are, according to EPA. The 2014 Jeep Cherokee was the first vehicle to have a standard nine-speed automatic transmission, and the 2015 Chrysler 200 and the 2015 Acura TLX version that has a 3.5-liter V6 engine will have a nine-speed transmission.

More speeds mean that the engine operates more efficiently, and more-efficient shifting means better fuel economy. Further, the nine-speed transmission that’s in the Chrysler and Jeep models is 30 pounds lighter than is the six-speed gearbox that it replaces. In Chrysler’s 200, that translates into a fuel-economy bump of 7 percent, Chrysler says.

Others are lining up: Volkswagen is at work on a 10-speed automatic transmission that might arrive as early as 2015 in vehicles such as the next-generation Golf and Passat. Ford Motor and General Motors jointly are developing nine- and 10-speed automatic transmissions for cars, SUVs and pickups. We don’t expect to see Ford and GM’s transmission until 2016. (GM will include an eight-speed transmission in some 2015 full-size pickups.)

SAFE TRAVELS. Not every automotive trend in 2015 is geared with an eye on the odometer and fuel gauge. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in May 2014 that the direct economic cost of automobile crashes was $277 billion in 2010, which is the latest year for which data are available. That’s 20 percent higher than NHTSA’s previous figure of $230.6 billion in 2000. At least 33,500 people were killed and at least 2.1 million were injured in 2012, which is up from 32,479 killed and at least 2 million injured in 2011, according to NHTSA. Those grim statistics underline the need for vehicle safety.

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Consequently, you can expect that some safety initiatives will be fulfilled and others will expand in 2015. By Sept. 1, 2015, all new vehicles must have a stronger roof to protect occupants during a rollover crash. (A 3-year phase-in of this requirement began in 2012.) NHTSA says rollover crashes account for about 10,000 deaths annually. The new regulations double the amount of force that a vehicle roof must withstand. To meet the requirement, automakers are strengthening vehicles’ A and B pillars, which are those at the front and middle of the passenger compartment, to prevent the roof from caving in during a rollover.

Further, automakers are making structural changes to many 2015 car and SUV models to help to protect occupants better during a frontal-overlap crash. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) introduced a crash test in 2012 to determine the damage that’s caused when the front corner of a vehicle collides with a utility pole or a tree at 40 mph. Automakers are trying to pass the test by redesigning vehicles’ crash-absorbing zones and using stronger materials and better welds. For example, the 2015 Honda Fit’s bumper beam broke free on the passenger side during IIHS’ front-overlap test. Honda engineers subsequently added stronger bumper-beam welds, and the bar remained in place when IIHS retested it. (Honda will upgrade free the 12,000 2015 Fit models that it already sold.)

Structural changes aren’t the only safety advances that you’ll find. The Obama administration finalized rules in March 2014 that require rear-visibility technology to be standard equipment in all new vehicles by May 2018. This means that new vehicles will have rear-facing cameras that are linked to a dashboard screen to detect pedestrians who are behind a vehicle. Nearly half of all 2014 model-year vehicles have such a  camera, IIHS says, and Honda Motor  announced that it’s making the cameras standard on all vehicles in the 2015 model year. Subaru will have them on all its vehicles except its BRZ model. You can expect to pay at least an extra $132 per vehicle for this safety feature, NHTSA estimates.

Just don’t expect to see a requirement for mandatory collision-avoidance technology soon, however. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) urged NHTSA in 2012 to require forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems, adaptive cruise control and automatic braking on every vehicle. The goal was to reduce fatalities that were caused by driver distractions, which account for 60 percent of fatal highway accidents, NTSB says.

Unfortunately, NHTSA has no plans to move ahead with any rules on lane-departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control. At press time, the agency was undecided on proceeding with rules on forward-collision warning systems. Automakers oppose such a mandate, saying it could cost $1,000–$3,000 per vehicle, which would be passed along to consumers. Still, Toyota Motor says it plans to add forward-collision warning systems to all vehicles by 2017.

Regardless, collision-avoidance technology is trickling down to less expensive vehicles, and consumers should expect the features to be options on an increasing number of lower priced models. For example, in 2015, Nissan Motor will add blind-spot warning, moving-object detection and lane-departure warning as standard equipment on pricier versions of its midsize Altima—those that start at $29,830—and as part of a technology package ($1,090) on less expensive versions. At least six automakers will add the technology as part of  safety-option packages in 2015.

GM announced in September 2014 that in the next 2 years, it will begin to provide new technologies to allow vehicles to communicate with one another and avoid crashes—and a new semiautomatic pilot mode. GM will start with a 2017 Cadillac that will use an advanced driver-assistance technology that will allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel while the car takes care of driving, braking and steering both at freeway speeds and in bumper-to-bumper traffic. GM also plans to include “vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology” on the 2017 Cadillac CTS. The technology will allow cars to warn one another of possible crashes or trouble spots, although, obviously, its usefulness will be limited until other vehicles have similar technology.

SHAPE SHIFT. The types of vehicles that are in U.S. showrooms are shifting. Research company IHS says sales of SUVs topped that of sedans for the first time in 2014. In the first 5 months of 2014, which are the latest figures that are available, SUVs accounted for 36.5 percent of all vehicles that were sold, compared with 35.4 percent for sedans. In 2013, sedans held a 2.7-percentage-point lead over SUVs.

The rollout will cover all size ranges of SUV. Midsize and full-size SUV choices expand in 2015 in the form of new, reintroduced or refreshed models, such as the Jeep Cherokee, the Land Rover Discovery Sport, the Mercedes GLA45 AMG and GLA250, the Nissan Murano and the Volvo XC90. Three new small SUVs and crossover SUVs—the Chevrolet Trax, the Jeep Renegade and the Lexus NX—will debut in 2015, joining the more than 40 small SUVs that are on the market. Nissan also will roll out a markedly refreshed 2015 Juke.

Although small SUVs are getting more fuel-efficient—up to at least 31 mpg on the highway—they still lag cars in fuel economy and are more expensive.

GM is investing more in research and development to improve and build small SUVs. That means that when it comes to choice, you’ll be able to think small in a big way.

David Shepardson is the Washington bureau chief for The Detroit News and has covered the automotive industry since 2006.

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