Original source : http://www.extremetech.com
Posted : January 2012
Author : Bill Howard
What follows 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).
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.
Some enthusiast and consumer magazines say you should only buy the Focus without MyFord Touch because it’s too hard to use. A better description of Sync is that, like driving a manual transmission or tracking a winding mountain road, it takes time to learn and do it right. Translation: Stop whining, read the manual. MyFord Touch is a bit hard to use, and there’s a partial fix coming (our words, not Ford’s), just as Adobe and Microsoft do all the time with PC software. As with PC software, you can get a MyFord Touch patch downloaded to your PC and then transfer it to your Focus via a USB key. Tech-averse users can have the dealer do it.
Other cars have more tech at higher prices, notably the Audi A7 and BMW 5 Series. But you can buy three Ford Focuses for the price of a single, heavily optioned Audi or BMW. In a still-soft economy, Ford gets extra credit for bringing affordable technology to everyone, and that makes the Ford Focus our car of the year. The Focus is also proxy for Ford as the company that’s democratizing technology: not just making tech available, but understanding that some form of Moore’s law needs to apply to cars as to microprocessors where power doubles every 18 months or the same power halves in price.
Buying tip: Buy the shorter hatchback Ford Focus for looks, the longer Focus sedan for room. Or wait for the 2012 Ford C-Max crossover (essentially a Focus crossover) for even more room, the 247-hp turbocharged (“EcoBoost”) Focus ST or the Focus Electric, Focus hybrid, or Volt-like Focus plug-in electric. All have the same array of tech.
Pro: The most tech for less than $20,000, led by Ford Sync and MyFord Touch. How many other cars with a base price this low can park themselves?
Con: Poor fit and finish on MyFord Touch 1.0; fixes due early 2012 make it better not perfect. Focus Eco version costs $2,000 extra (customer translation: “don’t buy me”).
Why the Focus matters: Ford solidifies its claim as the automaker that cares most about entertainment tech, driver-assist tech, and safety tech in cars priced for mainstream buyers.
Audi A7: Great tech, world’s best cockpit
Audi also has the high tech that’s common across most of the BMW, Lexus, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz higher-end models: adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, head-up display, night vision with pedestrian detection, blind spot detection, and the $6,000 premium audio upgrade (to Bang & Olufsen). Even the cheapest A7 trim line ($60,000) without the headlamp package is heavy on LEDs: daytime running lights in the Audi signature hockey stick shape and LED taillights that last the life of the car and never burn out, which means one less thing to worry about getting pulled over for. 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.
Pro: Match-and-raise you technology including an Nvidia graphics controller in the center stack, touchpad and cockpit control knob, and heavy use of LED lighting. Lower US sales than BMW, Lexus or Mercedes means your neighbor doesn’t have one.
Con: Not cheap, not practical for more than two (get the A6 sedan instead).
Why the Audi A7 matters: The world’s top automakers are neck-and-neck on technology. Audi leads in some areas (graphics, LED lighting) and blows away the competition on cockpit design.
BMW 5 Series: Minimizing driver distraction through iDrive, HUD
BMW doesn’t open the floodgates to, say, full immersion Facebook while you’re under way. But BMW will post in the LCD display or read aloud your texts and the first sentence or two of e-mail messages. Through BMW Apps, an iPhone download, you can fully control Pandora and MOG, as well as iPhone music, and as future apps come available (that BMW approves of), they’ll be compatible, too, without the need for any car software upgrades or as in the case with most cars, the need to buy a whole new car. Currently you can’t use voice recognition to dictate replies; the quality of Apple’s Siri has all automakers rethinking what’s possible.
BMW pioneered partial-color HUDs a decade ago; in the past year BMW upgraded to full-color displays with decent resolution using a projector in the instrument panel that bounces an image off a semi-reflective patch on the windshield. 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. It’s excellent but it’s also $1,300.
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. All this costs money. The entry level 528i now uses a four-cylinder turbocharged engine to get 34 mpg highway, but a nicely equipped 528i with all the tech goodies mentioned tops $65,000. Too expensive? BMW moves virtually all the tech to the next-generation 3 Series in the spring.
Pro: The most technology offerings of any automaker inside a hugely enjoyable driving machine. Leading edge head-up display. Progressive view on how to deal with distractions. 34 mpg highway (528i).
Con: BMW represents the anti-Christ to those who believe abstinence is the true path to highway safety. Options add $25K to the base price. Somber cockpit compared to Audi.
Why the 5 Series matters: BMW devotes incredible amounts of R&D to performance tech, safety tech, infotainment tech. If you don’t like an option, you can always turn it off.
GMC Terrain: $295 webcam crash alert trumps $2,000 radar
The same camera system monitors pavement markers and warns, shrilly, if you’re departing your lane. GMC chose an annoying triple beep that announces the driver’s folly to all occupants instead of a subtler steering wheel vibration. That’s wrong. Much smarter is the inclusion of a 7-inch color LCD display (Color Touch Radio) in all GMC Terrains, not just the ones equipped with navigation. Equally smart is the price of navigation, $795, and standard Bluetooth, USB, rear camera, and OnStar. The four-cylinder Terrain uses active noise cancellation to reduce cabin noise but you’ve got to weigh 32 mpg and the 600-mile cruising range against the danger of losing drag races to school buses. The V6 only costs 3 mpg highway. If you tarted up the front of the GMC Terrain with the logo of a German automaker, you’d pay $50,000 rather than $35,000 for a well-equipped Terrain.
Pro: Lifesaving forward collision warning and lane departure warning, cheap. Good mpg for an SUV (GM says crossover, but you know an SUV when you see one). Standard Bluetooth, rear camera, 7-inch center stack LCD.
Con: Ill-advised LDW warning beep. Meek-shall-inherit-the-earth four-cylinder engine. (Get the V6, rated 29 mpg highway). “Tailored toughness” exterior suggests more way-off-road ruggedness than exists.
Why the GMC Terrain matters: General Motors delivers good technology, affordably, in a vehicle that’s well-built and looks good inside and (except maybe the fenders) out.
Honda Odyssey: The best SUV may be a minivan
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. The cheapest Honda runs $28,000, but you won’t see rear seat entertainment or a 115-volt AC outlet until you hit $37,000. The best tech is on the $44,000 Honda Touring Elite: xenon headlamps, blind spot detection, the monster-wide DVD system, and the ultra-premium audio system.
Pro: The roomiest way to haul around a half-dozen or more people.
Con: No USB or Bluetooth on the entry model that sells well, take-it-or-leave-it tech packages (xenon headlamps and blind spot detection paired with ultra wide rear entertainment).
Why the Honda Odyssey matters: Minivans beat SUVs for practicality and mpg. The best minivan, the Odyssey, has all the tech you need.
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.
Pro: Standard USB, available navigation, good looks, reliability, available navigation, good crash ratings.
Con: Bluetooth is optional; you may get close to 40 mpg without hitting the EPA highway rating.
Why the Hyundai Elantra matters: By being a little better than the competition in a lot of ways, it’s one of the best compacts. Hyundai, along with Samsung and LG, are putting the heat on Japanese technology companies.
Nissan Leaf: The electric car future is now
On the road, the Leaf feels and drives like a compact car, only quieter; perhaps more like a hybrid running on battery mode. As with most EVs, Nissan talked about 100 miles driving range and it’s more on the order of 75-80 miles. The upright shape makes it more space efficient and roomier for four than the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. The dashboard layout is different from most cars, to underscore its difference, and the seat fabric you’re sitting is made from recycled soda bottles (no, it’s not sticky).
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.)
Pro: Practical city transportation that takes you to the suburbs. Fine for 90% of daily drives.
Con: Even with a tax credit, the Leaf is $10,000 short of making financial sense.
Why the Nissan Leaf matters: The world needs an electric car to rally around as it did with the Prius. The Leaf is it.
Volvo S60: Patron saint of careless pedestrians
Volvo’s umbrella City Safety technology uses radar and optical (camera) sensors to detects obstacles such as cars and will brake to avoid accidents at speeds of about 20 mph or under. City Safety uses a laser sensor. The Volvo S60 sedan offers an enhancement: Collision warning with full auto brake and pedestrian detection uses radar behind the grille and a camera behind the windshield. The car-to-car part works out to about 500 feet and warns then (if you’re slow to react) auto-brakes. The car-to-pedestrian part can detect pedestrians, walking or standing, at speeds up to 20 mph, warns first with a flashing lamp at the base of the windshield and with an audible alert, pre-charges the brakes so the driver gets full braking force instantly; otherwise, it panic brakes on your behalf.
The pedestrian safety system has a significant drawback: It works in daylight hours only. And there’s a buyer challenge as well: You’re paying $2,100 for a technology whose beneficiary is somebody you don’t know. More’s the challenge in the US where one in eight traffic fatalities is a pedestrian; it’s higher in much of the rest of the world, where pedestrians are even more careless and drunks are more likely to be on foot than in cars. 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.
Pro: Volvo leads in protecting from urban fender benders and car-pedestrian.
Con: The life you save may not be anybody you know.
Why the Volvo S60 matters: One automaker, Volvo, stands apart in researching ways to reduce pedestrian accidents that are a big source of fatalities, especially outside the U.S.
Toyota Prius: Once and future king of hybrids
The Prius’ most important achievement has been to sell more than 3 million vehicles (11 years to 1 million sales worldwide, just another three years to hit 3 million in March 2011) and show that hybrids aren’t quirky driving machines. The $2,500 NiMH battery packs have virtually no failures other than the odd cell failure (which can be replaced separately); as Toyota has said privately, the batteries are good virtually forever because they stay within the 25%-to-75% charged range. It’s the full charge and discharge that do in laptop and cellphone batteries after about 500 cycles. Crash stats long ago showed the batteries are not safety hazards and Toyota knows now not to produce a first-responder guide with the car cutaway diagram tipped at a 45-degree angle, which made the main power cable appear to be routed through the driver door. Actually, it’s in a small tunnel in the center of the car. Toyota wisely made the Prius different, perhaps even quirky, looking so everyone knows you’re driving a hybrid.
Pro: Great mileage, reasonable price, expanding family line with wagon version now.
Con: Poor rear vision. Design doesn’t please everyone.
Why the Toyota Prius matters: 3 million hybrids sold worldwide proves hybrids aren’t quirky, don’t have hidden maintenance costs, and the batteries don’t wear out.
VW Passat – Coast-to-coast on 4 tanks of fuel
Give VW credit for building the Passat in a sparkling new Chattanooga, Tenn., plant, the world’s first car factory to receive LEED (Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum certification. The 2012 VW Passat is also the Motor Trend Car of the Year, which is either a good thing - or not if you recall MT past winners such as the Ford Thunderbird (the 2002 clunker, not the 1950s winner), Renault Alliance, and Chevrolet Malibu.
The biggest tech downer is USB audio, unavailable on much of the lower-end models and hard to find on VW’s website unless you know how Germans like long phrases, so search for “media device interface” not “USB” or iPod.” Also, the 43 mpg highway for the diesel is with a six-speed manual; VW’s sophisticated double-shift gearbox (DSG) that is an auto-shifting manual transmission ought to fare the same, but it gets “only” 40 mpg. With a nicely equipped Passat diesel, you’ll pay in the high twenties and a high-mileage driver should get back the diesel premium.
Pro: Hybrid-like fuel economy. 2012 model both cheaper and roomier. No diesel sound or smell inside the car. Built in an energy-efficient new plant.
Con: iPod adapter option hard to find (search “media device interface”), sold only on costlier models. Poky five-cylinder gasoline engine on entry models.
Why the Passat matters: Cars like the Passat go a long way toward helping Americans appreciate diesel as a legitimate way to use less fuel.