Great design is at or near the top of most motorists' shopping list. But these days, high-tech features are becoming ever more important, whether a breakthrough plug-in powertrain or the latest infotainment system.
No surprise, there are plenty of these on display at the 2014 North American International Auto Show, which is wrapping up a week of previews and getting set to open up to the public with a Friday night black-tie gala.
The auto show follows the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and there are some surprising similarities, said Art St. Cyr, the head of American Honda's automotive operations. For many buyers, he said, "the single most-important technology is their cellphone. They don't want to be disconnected."
That's an observation more automakers are taking to heart. Among the coolest new automotive technologies, many allow motorists to pair the car with their smartphones, tablets, laptop computers and other digital devices.
Take the new Cadillac ATS Coupe, the Detroit luxury brand's first model to offer built-in 4G LTE technology. Parent General Motors' Chevrolet division also plans to roll-out the high-speed technology on most of its models, starting in 2015, and other makers, including Chrysler's Ram and Audi, are also building "hot spots" into a growing number of their new vehicles.
Honda, meanwhile, wants to make its new Fit subcompact a virtual extension of your smartphone, thanks to the new HondaLink infotainment system, which allows a motorist to tap, swipe or pinch the screen, much like with a smartphone, to operate various features.
One of the real breakthroughs, though, is that the HondaLink system can display on the car's LCD screen the same, $60 navigation app an owner can download for their phone. Compare that to the $1,500 some makers routinely charge for navigation systems built into their vehicles.
Automakers have been searching for the best way to let motorists operate their infotainment systems, as well as an increasing number of basic vehicle functions – such as climate control – migrating away from knobs and buttons to onscreen controls. A key challenge is making it simple and easy while avoiding potentially dangerous distractions that can force a driver to look away from the road.
Lexus has been using a mouse-like controller in some models but is migrating over to a new touchpad on its new RC F performance coupe, more like the ones used in laptop computers, to operate the vehicle's infotainment system and other features.
While you might think of your car as a costly mechanical device, the reality is that many of today's models feature more computing power than even the most sophisticated homes. Not a single part of the driving experience is unaffected. And with the first autonomous vehicles set to debut by 2020, the pace of this high-tech revolution is only accelerating.
The Infiniti Q50, for example, offers an optional steer-by-wire system, similar to what's found in fighter jets, with no mechanical link between the wheels and the steering wheel. Even the mundane gear shifter is feeling the impact. The new Chrysler 200, for example, abandons the conventional gearshift lever for a rotary dial, and the new Acura TLX will adopt a space-saving e-shifter.
While digital technology often catches heat when it threatens to cause distracted driving, much of the coolest new tech can make for a much safer car. The aluminum-intensive 2015 Ford F-150 offers a new 360-degree camera system that can make it easier to spot obstacles or pedestrians — and even hitch up a trailer.
And with rare exception, we're not only getting more cool technology in our cars but are getting more for less, much like what's happening in the consumer electronics world. Better yet, technology that once might have been limited to the most expensive vehicles now is becoming available on midrange and even lower-end vehicles. The 2015 remake of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class will be offered with the same so-called Intelligent Drive technologies that debuted on last year's German flagship sedan, the S-Class.
One of the coolest pieces of technology coming this next year can be used to both improve your driving skills and impress your friends. The new Corvette Performance Data Recorder features both a camera that captures a driver's eye view of the road but also a system that captures an extensive array of vehicle data along with a high-resolution map. You'll now be able to see whether you over-cooked it blasting into that back corner.
Incidentally, the latest microprocessors allowed Corvette engineers to add a number of features to the 2014 Stingray to both boost power while also reducing fuel consumption, the two-seater getting as much as an EPA-rated 30 mpg.
One trick is to shut off half of its eight cylinders when cruising down the highway. Volkswagen's Passat BlueMotion Concept, debuting in Detroit, takes that a step further. It starts with an already downsized 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that can, when cruising or coasting, shut off two cylinders to deliver the sort of mileage you'd have previously gotten only from a hybrid.