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How Cars Evolved Over The Last Decade


If you go for a drive this morning, look around at the other cars. The average car on American streets is more than a decade old. A lot of people put off new purchases during the recession and are just now getting back to buying.


A lot has changed about cars in 10 years, as NPR's Sonari Glinton learned at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: So to help me explain how new new cars are, I'm here with Micah Muzio from Kelley Blue Book. Your job is just to, like, tell people about cars. So are you going to do that for us?

MICAH MUZIO: Yeah - I - we're going to do that right now in fact. We've got a really good example of a new car, which is a 2015 Hyundai Sonata. And just to make sure I have my information correct, I did a little bit of research into what the 2005 Sonata looked like. And, man, it has gotten so much better.

GLINTON: So the reason we chose a Hyundai Sonata - it's kind of a typical car...

MUZIO: Yeah.

GLINTON: It's like a very basic mid-size sedan. The average person is driving a car something like this. So what's the first thing that sort of stands out?

MUZIO: You know, the first thing is under the hood. Way back in 2005, the engine - four-cylinder - was putting out about 138 horsepower. And it got about 28 miles per gallon on the freeway. Modern times, the base Sonata, right about 180 horsepower and 37,38 miles per gallon on the freeway - so a huge jump in economy. And it's more powerful.

GLINTON: So now that we're on the outside of the car, are there any features on the outside of the car that jump out?

MUZIO: Yeah, actually - you know what? - maybe we should move to the front of the car because, you know, that 10 more miles per gallon on the freeway is really enabled by aerodynamics. So it may not look like it. In fact, this looks like a very blunt nose. But there's a lot of very clever aerodynamic work that's taking place. If you look around by the wheels...

GLINTON: He's crawling on the floor.

MUZIO: I'm crawling around on the floor. But if you look under these regions here, how air flow moves around the underside of the vehicle really enhances efficiency. So I'm going to peak my head down here. And yeah, actually, yeah, there's a lot of very smooth stuff. You used to have, you know, parts of the car hanging out. And that just disrupts air beneath the vehicle. And that just adds drag. So by closing up that area and improving aerodynamics where you can't see, you really improve the fuel economy.

GLINTON: I guess the real magilla is probably on the inside of the car. So let's get in and see...

MUZIO: Yeah, let's climb in.


GLINTON: All right. So one of the most important places where you will see a difference in a car is the steering will.

MUZIO: Yeah, totally 'cause there's so much more stuff happening. If you go back a decade, cruise control would be kind of about it. But now you've got audio controls. On the left-hand side there, you'll see there's that green and the red button. And that picks up the phone. So phone connectivity is a thing that didn't exist a decade ago. And this one right here is really interesting.

GLINTON: So it's a little car running over a couple bumps, I'd guess.

MUZIO: That's dynamic cruise control. And what those little bars mean is that's how you control the distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. So you don't have to keep your foot on the gas at all. It'll just kind of follow the car in front of you. You do have to steer though, so do that.

GLINTON: So the things that we can't see are all the safety features - right? - that have ended up in your car. So air bags...

MUZIO: Yeah, so if you go back a decade, typically you'd have a front air bag for the driver and the passenger. But now, you know, side air bags from the seats, that's basically standard. Most cars you buy these days are going to have side curtain air bags as well. What you don't see is what's happening underneath the skin. It's not a very sexy topic, but metallurgy has changed a lot in the last decade.

GLINTON: So this car - all these cars here - we've been saying that they're better. Is there something dumb or worse about the average car like this?

MUZIO: I think maybe what you could say is that it's more complicated. And the ability for a driver that's been driving for many decades to get into a car and immediately understand all of its controls, that may be much, much harder. But if you are willing to put in just a little bit of effort and learn how the vehicle operates, I think any modern car would be many times better than its equivalents from a decade ago. And, you know, what's exciting is that in another decade, we're going to feel the same.

GLINTON: So I'll tell you what. Ten years from now, we'll do the same story.

MUZIO: Hey, I'll be here.

GLINTON: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. That's Micah Muzio of Kelley Blue Book. From the floor of the Detroit Auto Show, Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.