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Looking for cool tech when buying a car

For someone who hasn’t had a new car in more than a decade, opening a door without a key is a big deal.  So you can imagine my gushing at some of the interior amenities available on new cars when I went shopping last week.
Image: Honda CR-V
When the author went looking for new wheels loaded with tech, she narrowed her search to three contenders: the Honda CR-V (pictured), the Nissan Rogue and the Toyota

For someone who hasn’t had a new car in more than a decade, opening a door without a key is a big deal.

So you can imagine my gushing at some of the interior amenities available on new cars, which I went shopping for in this last week before 2008 to take advantage of some tax benefits — and because it’s time I rolled in some new wheels.

My Honda Accord is a little over a decade old and back in its day, it had all the latest features — a really kick-ass V6 engine, sunroof, cruise control, power steering/windows/locks/driver’s seat adjustments — but it still had only a tape deck standard. This was, after all, back when Bill Clinton was still president and “Beavis and Butthead” had made the jump from MTV to the big screen.

I suppressed oohs and aahs as my eyes ate up some features that are standard — or hard-to-resist options — nowadays: MP3 ports (some hidden inside center consoles big enough to hold LP’s), bluetooth-enabled technology and audio controls on steering wheels, voice-activated song and artist selections, in-dash GPS systems and satellite radio. The chrome and plastic accents and trims that seem to be the standard in most mid-priced and economy lines give off a future fantastic feel to interiors that appeal to drivers looking for clean lines and design aesthetics that compliment the technology.

My needs started out simply. I wanted an all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive small/compact SUV (why does that still sound like an oxymoron?) I could plug my iPod into and automatic transmission. Then the other things I’d gotten used to figured into my decision: a sunroof, power windows and locks, a nice stereo system.

Of course, when you test drive or when you look into the showroom model, it’s the one with all the bells and whistles, including a very popular feature — leather, heated seats and dual climate controls (available on all three models that were serious contenders for my money: the Nissan Rogue, the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CR-V). The “butt-warmers” are completely indulgent; it’s not as though your ass hasn’t been as cold as the rest of you during winter, but it is a nice way to get toasty fast.

One feature that seems to be pretty common-place: 6-CD stereo systems. Do people still listen to CDs in cars? I guess so. I was thoroughly corrected by a friend who still appreciates liner notes, lyrics and having that solid disc in her hands, so this kind of perk is still going to get the thumbs up from drivers.

For me, the steering wheel will become the focal point of many technological advantages. I see one clear benefit: it’ll keep me from having to look over to the center dash to change stations/adjust volume levels, keeping my hands and eyes where they should be. The wheel also has the Bluetooth built-in and for the Rogue, it can be programmed to up to five phones.

For those inclined to wait until the last minute before oil changes (count me in) the CR-V has a digital readout that keeps track of the car’s oil, down to the percentage point. It will alert you when you’re close. Like other vehicles, it also calculates instant fuel economy to gauge the mileage on different routes.

A fuel economy gauge is clearly an extra, at least for me, as is the remote start. But for those who regularly shovel out their cars, the idea of stepping into a warm and defrosted car in the morning on the way to work is like a little bit of spring shining into the dark.

When I become a mom, I’m thinking I’ll be looking for the perks that now come with current vehicles: in-headrest screens or the screen that folds into the ceiling and wireless headsets (the better for parents not to be driven insane on car trips by repeated airings of “Blues Clues” or similar kid favorite), rear camera (the very family friendly Honda Odyssey has one) and pre-crash systems (maximizing safety and least damage to you and the car in the event danger is imminent, including automatically closing windows).

Then there are features out there that fall in 007 territory, but they’re also for those in that much higher pay grade, which would fit those elite spies that do a lot of product placement. The Mercedes-Benz S-class allows its drivers to access a hard drive via a memory slot, to store music and other information. It also has a COMMAND control center that acts similarly to a mouse in the center console to control the LCD screen in the central dash. Very, very comfy and something to aspire to, living this kind of plush convenience. Hopefully by the time I get my next car after this one, wrapping driving life around a central screen will be a standard.

While the Lexus LS 460 boasts a self-parking feature (if you believe the parallel parking commercial), the device is not exclusive to the higher end, being also available on eco-favorite hybrid Toyota Prius.

Night vision is another one of those spy-like features that allow drivers to get better sightlines beyond their headlights. Caddies started it and 007-favorite BMWs (as well as Lexus and Mercedes) project what’s out there onto interior screens.

When it came down to it, I realized that I would be susceptible to a souped up interior that had everything at my fingertips — at a price I could afford. Spy cars, unfortunately, are not within that range, however much they incite me to drool. Knowing this, Nissan offers a premium package that bundles these things: Bose stereo system, 3-month XM satellite radio trial, speed sensitive audio volume, Bluetooth hands-free phone system and paddle shifters on the steering wheel that simulate manual transmission, allowing the car to go into six gears without ever using a clutch.

One of my friends said the interior I chose — black and red cloth — reminds her of a “Star Trek” look, and while this car will be leaps and bounds above the technology of my current car, it’s not at that almost sci-fi level yet. But it’s a really, really good start.

So in the new year, I’m going to be getting much more than a car that I can open without a key and I’m going to love it. It’s going to be nice living in 2008 and spending my time in a vehicle that not only looks it, but acts like it too, outside and in.