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Modes Save Motorists From Minutia of Modulation

Motorists demand a range of vehicle behavior. So auto makers are delivering the ability to tame or unleash engines with push-button convenience.

Sometimes when I’m driving, I listen to NPR. Other times, I gotta have the Allman Brothers.

It just depends how I feel.

Thanks to satellite radio and iPods, I can have whatever I choose, whenever I want. Effortlessly.

Similarly, motorists demand a range of vehicle behavior. So auto makers are delivering the ability to tame or unleash engines with push-button convenience.

Consider Nissan’s “I-CON” system, short for integration control.

Experienced in the all-new ’11 Nissan Juke during testing for the 2011 Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition, I-CON adjusts the throttle response of the cross/utility vehicle’s 1.6L direct-injection turbocharged I-4. It also alters shift points with the continuously variable transmission.

While the engine fails to make the final 10 Best cut, the available driving modes – “normal,” “sport” and “eco” – fascinate.

Admittedly, engine attributes are and always have been a function of the right foot. Tip in hard and the fun factor goes up, at the expense of fuel economy.

Want to save cash? Hold back. Though you lose travel time. (That’s when you need NPR.)

Purists could contend I-CON and competitive systems such as the one that manages the Honda CR-Z’s 1.5L hybrid I-4, another Best Engines nominee, are making us slaves to software.

But viewed from an alternate angle, they unshackle motorists from the minutia of modulation and, arguably, enable greater driving precision.

What motivated Nissan to couple I-CON with the Juke’s I-4? Video games, says Mike Drongowski, senior manager-product planning, Nissan North America.

The Juke’s target customer – young, urban males – grew up on the virtual streets of Grand Theft Auto.

“They’re in control of their technology,” Drongowski tells Ward’s. “They’re very comfortable with it. So what we were trying to do, initially, was allow them that sort of command and control of their experience in driving the car.”

The set-it-and-forget-it nature of I-CON is the antidote to driver-feedback systems whose flashing LED readouts remind you of the global energy crisis with every twitch of your big toe.

“We didn’t think this customer wanted to be told how to drive,” Drongowski says. “There isn’t a light on the dash saying, ‘You’re being a bad boy, now.’”

Special Report

Ward’s 10 Best Engines

To be completely fair, the Juke’s interface features a pseudo-star-rating system when eco mode is selected.

Notably, the CUV’s display screen is worthy of respect from even the most experienced video-gamer because it shares duty with the Juke’s climate-control system. Separate buttons toggle the functions back and forth.

Choose sport mode and a gauge appears on the screen to track turbo boost. In normal, the driver gets an animated representation of torque output.

Each selection is followed by a screen wipe that itemizes the settings for engine, transmission, steering and climate control. The latter is dialed back when the engine is in eco mode, while the Juke’s steering is tightened in sport mode.

(Watch this space in the spring when deliberations conclude for the Ward’s Interior of the Year competition.)

And then there is the sense of moral superiority that comes with pressing the Juke’s eco button. This is unintended, Drongowski says with a laugh.

The feeling is surpassed only by the satisfaction from pressing the CR-Z’s “econ” button, which is adorned with a cheery tree graphic.

Honestly, you need some cheering up when either vehicle is in thrift mode. Fuel-delivery is so restricted, they feel like they’re towing house trailers.

Not even the Allman Brothers help.

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Ward's 10 Best Engines is a copyright of Penton Media Inc. Commercial references to the program and/or awards are prohibited without prior permission of Ward's Automotive Group.

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