Here are the 10 cars that made the best and most innovative use of technology in 2011 and moving into 2012 (almost all are technically 2012 models).
Ford Focus: Back in Sync with a world-class car
The Focus is awash in cool technology. There’s a WiFi hub that distributes internet access throughout the car (your smartphone provides the connection). LED lighting provides ambient cockpit illumination (and you choose the color). With most automakers offering USB jacks, the Focus offers two. As most automakers cautiously drop navigation prices from $2,000 to $1,500, Ford offers SD card navigation for $795, which is dirt cheap for built-in. Auto park assist finds a parallel-parking space and then backs you in automatically; all you have to do is put the car in reverse to start the process and tap the breaks to complete the job. There’s rear parking sonar. Automatic parking seems silly on a car just 172 inches long (the hatchback version) but cars this small are popular in big cities with lots of marginally suitable parking spaces. Emergency crash calling comes free via Ford Sync and your Bluetooth-connected cellphone. The 2012 model adds a form of torque vectoring using braking and electronics (rather than a complicated mechanical differential) to help the car through slippery corners.
Audi A7: Great tech, world’s best cockpit
udi’s trump card is the handsome cockpit design of all its cars and the stunning lines of the Audi A7. Almost every upscale car offers xenon headlamps as an option; on Audi they’re standard and the upgrade option is full-LED headlaps that consume just 40 watts. Everyone offers navigation; Audi teams with Nvidia to embed a Tegra graphics controller to render 3D animations of terrain and buildings for more lifelike navigation. In addition to the MMI (Multi Media Interface) control wheel, Audi uses a touchpad for driver input that most drivers find is faster and more natural than spelling a name letter-by-letter by turning the MMI wheel. Audi also has the high tech that’s common across most of the higher-end models: adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, head-up display, night vision with pedestrian detection, blind spot detection, and the audio upgrade (to Bang & Olufsen). Every A7 has all-wheel drive and a supercharged V6; just add snow tires for severe winter weather. The Audi A7 is beautiful in side view and impractical at the same time (cramped back seat). The A6 is very much the same car in sedan format with the same tech advantages.
BMW 5 Series: Minimizing driver distraction through iDrive, HUD
With the 5 Series and most other Bimmers, if you have an iPhone (Android soon), you can have the car receive, notify you of, and speak or show in the huge center stack LCD your traffic alerts, caller ID, email headers, texts, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, Google Search, news-sports-weather. All of it can be managed by iDrive, the round control knob on the console, and much of it by voice input. BMW pioneered partial-color HUDs a decade ago. To the driver, it appears as if your car’s speed, cruise control speed, navigation and lane information are all floating just above the hood of the car. If you’ve got a technology itch, BMW can scratch it with adaptive cruise control, night vision, front-rear-side cameras, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, and every form of entertainment imaginable (radio, HD radio, satellite radio, CD, USB key, MP3 player). Because there’s so much info available, BMW’s display is 10 inches wide (1280×640 pixels) and the screen can be split 60-40.
Would you like to be warned of a likely rear-end collision and get lane departure warning thrown in as part of the package? You can with the GMC Terrain, a midsize crossover and cousin to the Chevrolet Equinox. GMC opted for a low-cost camera, essentially an auto-grade webcam, mounted at the top of the windshield, coupled with computer vision – algorithms that decide which objects are cars or trucks ahead of you and whether the closing distance has become dangerously close. Progressive warnings kick in as a car ahead comes in range, the distance makes the car uncomfortable, and the distance calls for flashing lights and seven beeps.
Honda Odyssey: The best SUV may be a minivan
The soccer mom phrase still rankles women a decade after it was coined, so they switched to SUVs. The is the vehicle to bring them back to the temple of car pooling. That and as much tech as any SUV has, along with more room and better fuel economy (28 mpg highway, 19 mpg car-pooling). Second row legroom is great for adults, the third row is pretty good, and not only does Honda offer rear seat entertainment, you can choose 8- or 16-inch screens. USB and Bluetooth are standard on all but the cheapest model (LX). To boost fuel economy, the V6 shuts down half its cylinders when cruising. The side air curtains stretch all the way back to the third row. The one knock on an Odyssey remains that the best tech doesn’t come cheap.
Hyundai Elantra – swoopy, cheap, roomy, and 40 mpg
For a lot of buyers, this is a car with just the right amount of technology and more space than they expected. Hyundai calls it a compact; the EPA classifies it as a midsize, and that’s especially noticeable in the back seat and trunk. The only downsides are fuel economy. You may find it harder to hit Hyundai’s 40 mpg rating than other 40 mpg cars, but it’s still pretty close. Also, the driving experience is skewed more toward comfort than performance.
Nissan Leaf: The electric car future is now
The Leaf is an urban car. It’s not at home going to the country house on weekends, so you rent a combustion-engine car for those trips. Most automakers selling EVs are setting up rental programs for long trips; some let you sublet your EV for the weekend if you trust the other guy. In the US there are a handful of cities where EVs are practical and far more in China, Japan, and Europe. Nissan is thinking far outside the box with a bidirectional transformer in Japan: If power goes out, the Leaf in your garage will run a typical Japanese house for a couple days. (Half that in bigger, higher-consumption homes.)
Volvo S60: Patron saint of careless pedestrians
Having long ago established a reputation for safe cars (three-point shoulder harnesses were standard on Volvos since Ike was president), Volvo has turned to safety at low speed in urban settings. Most recently, the Volvo S60 sedan pioneered pedestrian detection with auto braking. It monitors traffic in front of the car and brakes in advance of a low-speed collision. The pedestrian safety system enhances a solid, if typical load of tech offerings for a car priced in the thirties: USB adapter on upgrade audio packages, available Bluetooth and navigation, and telematics.
Toyota Prius: Once and future king of hybrids
Virtually every automaker has hybrids these days. Yet most hybrid sales still accrue to Toyota, primarily the Prius line that’s fast becoming a sub-brand. The Prius is in its third generation and if there were quirks to early hybrids, Toyota has them ironed out. The current Prius gets 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway, 50 mpg combined. The new Prius V Wagon hauls a lot of cargo and still gets 44 mpg city, 40 mpg highway, 42 mpg combined. All-electric and plug-in hybrid Priuses are coming.
VW Passat – Coast-to-coast on 4 tanks of fuel
Think of the Volkswagen Passat as the hybrid-alternative for long-distance drivers. Even the cheapest Passat comes with Bluetooth standard. Cars like the Passat go a long way toward helping people appreciate diesel as a legitimate way to use less fuel.