By the end of the decade, a third of a car's value will lie in its electronics and advanced technologies, automakers say.
With our ten 2007 Digital Drive Award winners, at least that much satisfaction already accrues to electronic advances.
Current tech makes cars safer to drive and lets them go farther on a gallon of fuel, emit less pollution, zip around corners more quickly, and entertain you better.
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Our criteria for the second annual Digital Drive Awards?
Then we sought out the first implementations of technology that will be mainstream in two to five years.
Among the features of the year's most technologically accomplished vehicles, Bluetooth and navigation are just about a given, along with iPod connections and backup cameras.
Many cars also have head-up displays and active (or adaptive) cruise control that keeps pace with the car ahead.
Rarer goodies we found include a powerful yet low-emission diesel engine, a lane-departure warning, magnetically controlled shock absorbers, a 30GB hard drive, an eight-speed automatic transmission, and a 10-megabit bus controlling a sophisticated rear suspension.
And for better or worse, about half of these cars have cockpit controllers.
No question, this sampling skews toward the higher end of the price spectrum. But what's on just a few models today will become mainstream within one or two model cycles.
Digital Drive Car of The Year: BMW X5
Price: $46,675 to $79,320
Inline 6 EPA Rating (MPG): City 17, Highway 23
Web site: www.bmwusa.com
Recommended options: Technology package (navigation, rear camera, sonar), $2,600; Premium package, $2,650; Sport package, $3,600; iPod/USB adapter, $400; head-up display, $1,200.
Some cars drive like buses. BMW's X5 drives with a bus — a 10-megabit bus called FlexRay that controls the rear suspension of this impressive new crossover vehicle.
Order the sport package for an extra-silky ride (ironically enough), thanks to Adaptive Drive technology, which smooths over bumps with electronic damping control, and active roll stabilization, which keeps the car upright, not tipped, under hard cornering.
BMW's breathtaking array of leading-edge, useful technologies makes the X5 PC Magazine's Digital Drive Car of the Year.
Consider the tech package, for instance. The nav system employs a split-screen, transflective display that grows brighter in sunlight.
The real-time traffic reports draw information from more than 600,000 other vehicles that automatically report their position and speed (rather than relying on copters, police sightings, and embedded sensors prone to failure).
A back-up camera and front/rear sonar combine to provide a backing view, enhanced by Doppler-effect sound, that overlays warning bars (in green, yellow, and red) to indicate your proximity to hazards.
You get an LCD even if you don't opt for the nav system, just a smaller one you could use with a DVD player.
The head-up display helps parse all that info and keeps it in your line of sight. Even iDrive, the much-maligned cockpit control knob, has been improved (slightly) with buttons to store your routines, such as plotting a course for home — or calling there.
Best Handling: Acura MDX
Price: $39,995 to $48,679
EPA Rating (MPG): City 17, Highway 22
Web site: www.acura.com
Recommended options: Entertainment package, $2,200; Technology package (surround sound, navigation, rear camera, GPS cooling), $4,000; Sport package, $5,600; iPod adapter, $214.
The Acura MDX makes high-tech simple in a medium-to-large SUV: Everything you could want comes in one of three technology-laden options packages — if it isn't already included.
The Super Handling All-Wheel Drive torque-vectoring system, which provides extra control for the 300-hp V6 engine on wet, dry, or icy curves by providing more power to the outside rear wheel, comes standard, as does Bluetooth — a tech must-have.
With the Technology package, you get an ELS Surround audio system, first-rate Alpine navigation, a back-up camera, GPS-controlled cooling (the sun-facing side gets more), and even a Zagat restaurant guide, part of the DVD navigation disc data.
The Sport package builds on the tech package with electronic damping for a better ride plus self-leveling xenon lights. The Entertainment package adds backseat heating and a DVD player.
Best Navigation: Cadillac STS
Price: $43,135 to $73,195
V6 EPA Rating (MPG): City 18, Highway 27
V8 EPA Rating (MPG): City 17 Highway 27
Web site: www.cadillac.com
Recommended options: Northstar V8 engine package, $3,685; Performance package with MagneRide suspension, $3,895; navigation, Bluetooth, Bose audio, $2,145; adaptive cruise control with HUD, $2,300.
America's best answer to the high-end, luxury touring sedan (epitomized by the Mercedes-Benz E class) is the Cadillac STS, which features two options in navigation.
Every STS comes with OnStar Turn-by-Turn, which downloads route instructions from an OnStar operator and displays an arrows-only map on your radio faceplate. The optional nav package provides adequate Denso DVD navigation, Bluetooth, and a Bose surround-sound audio system.
Though it uses more gas (by 1 mpg), the Northstar V8 with variable valve timing is a great engine choice over the V6, and it's the only way to get the more desirable options.
The MagneRide suspension instantly changes shock absorber settings by magnetizing oblong metal particles as they pass through the narrow shock valves. Adaptive cruise control maintains a safe following distance and displays status on an included head-up display.
Best Built-In Screen: Infiniti M35/M45
Price: $41,450 to $58,200
M35 EPA Rating (MPG): City 18, Highway 25
Web site: www.infiniti.com/m
Recommended options: Technology package (navigation, rear camera), $2,950; Advanced Technology package (lane-departure warning, intelligent cruise control, Bose 5.1 audio, satellite radio), $2,500; rear-seat entertainment, $1,500; all-wheel drive, $3,100.
Unlike most automakers, which spread center dash info across multiple locations, Infiniti's M cars put it all in a single spot: an active-matrix LCD that cleverly expands to the size needed for whatever task you happen to be performing — navigation with a map, adjusting audio, controlling the climate, or using the hands-free cell-phone system with the standard Bluetooth.
Instead of the rear-drive V8 M45, you may prefer the V6 M35, which gives you the choice between all-wheel drive and a rear-drive sport model with active rear-wheel steering to help you around corners and with lane changes.
Three packages separate the M from most sport sedans: Technology, with navigation and a rear camera; Advanced Technology, with lane-departure warning, intelligent (active) cruise control, Bose 5.1-channel audio, and your choice of Sirius or XM radio; and the Premium package, which also puts DVD screens in the back (an uncommon feature in a sedan) and lets backseat drivers view or even adjust navigation destinations (unique).
Finally, the lane-departure warning system, which sounds a chime if the car veers over a marked lane, can be a godsend on longer trips when you're less alert.
Best Parking Experience: Lexus LS460
Price: $61,715 to $81,076
EPA Rating (MPG): City 19, Highway 27
Web site: www.lexus.com
Recommended options: Navigation, Mark Levinson audio, hard drive, advanced parking system, Bluetooth, XM radio, rear camera, $11,760 total.
It's not so much a car as a technology cocoon that wafts along the highway.
Order the extended-length LS460L and once the front passenger seat glides forward, the right rear passenger gets what's essentially a business-class reclining seat with massager, footrest, drop-down DVD player, and infrared sensors that measure body temperature to adjust the climate control accordingly.
Up front in the cockpit, you have a navigation system with real-time traffic info, a 30GB hard drive for both navigation data and MP3s ripped from CDs, Mark Levinson audio with 19 speakers, XM radio, keyless go, Bluetooth with a 1,000-entry phone book, swiveling xenon headlights, and active cruise control. You also get power-door and -trunk closers.
The V8 engine delivers a hefty 460 hp yet qualifies as a ULEV II (ultra-low-emissions vehicle, according to California's Phase II vehicle standards) power plant, and it's mated to the industry's first eight-speed automatic transmission.
Lexus even offers two levels of parking assistance. In addition to parking sonar (intuitive parking assist), the advanced guidance system backs you into a parallel parking space 4 feet longer than the car. All you do is apply the brakes at the end ... and smile.
Best Audio: Lincoln MKZ
Price: $29,950 to $36,895
EPA Rating (MPG): City 18, Highway 26
Web site: www.lincoln.com/mkz
Recommended options: satellite radio, $195; xenon headlights, $495; all-wheel drive, $1,850; navigation system and THX audio, $2,495.
Looking for a comfortable touring sedan with great audio and navigation? Check out the Lincoln MKZ. For many buyers who don't need to be on the leading edge of Alpine road performance, this is the right car.
Based loosely on the Mazda 6 sedan (as are several Mazda, Ford, and Lincoln Mercury products), the MKZ sedan (not to be confused with the MKX crossover) is a three-trick pony — that is, it offers three outstanding features along with general competence in other departments.
First, the Pioneer-based navigation system is about as good, and easy to use, as you can find in a car today. (It topped the most recent J.D. Power and Associates survey.)
Second, it has a flawless THX-certified audio system that plays music loud and lacks some of the quirks that color (or shape) music in other high-end systems. Only Lincoln (most of the line) and BMW (in the Z4) are THX-certified.
In addition, the MKZ has a beautifully appointed cockpit. It's as good as anything from Japan or Europe and lacks the ponderous darkness of some German super-sedans. The options list isn't long, and many are affordable by German/Japanese standards, particularly satellite radio and xenon headlights
Best Ride: Mercedes-Benz s550
Price: $87,525 to $111,298
EPA Rating (MPG): City 16, Highway 24
Web site: www.mbusa.com
Recommended options: Active body control, $3,900; rear camera, $700; active cruise control (Distronic II), $2,850; Premium II package (sonar parking, keyless go, Sirius radio, heated/vented seats), $2,850; iPod integration, $425; all-wheel drive, $2,000.
Say you're commuting to work in rush-hour traffic on the Autobahn. You'll love Distronic II, the active cruise control on the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
It keeps measured pace with the car ahead at 125 mph, and brings you to a full stop, then back to speed — all without touching the gas or brakes.
If ever a car class was great for both driver and passengers, it's the ninth-generation S-Class. The features just keep on coming.
The car rides on an air-suspension system, and it has a seven-speed automatic transmission and a driver instrument panel that's a big LCD and can be converted to a night-vision device. Active body control keeps the car upright even going around sharp corners.
A cockpit controller with prefetch buttons simplifies the dash and all the car's features. The radio faceplate swings down to reveal a PC Card socket, letting you pop in your own MP3 or WMA music card, or you can link up an iPod. If you prefer CDs, the 20GB onboard hard drive rips music and stores it for future playback.
If the S-Class lacks a tech feature, you either don't need it or it hasn't been invented yet.
Best Cruiser: Mercedes-Benz e320 Bluetec
Price: $52,325 to $62,108
EPA Rating (MPG, diesel): City 26, Highway 35
Web site: www.mbusa.com
Recommended options: Premium I (phone cradle, navigation, Sirius radio, power rear shade, heated seats), $2,390; iPod adapter, $425; Bluetooth, $408; diesel engine (instead of gasoline), $1,000.
For racking up miles on the Interstate, the most efficient cars are diesels.
A slew of diesels come available in 2008, but this year the most efficient is the E320 Bluetec, whose 3.0-liter, V6 turbocharged engine delivers 35 mpg highway.
It supplies 208 hp (not a lot these days), but also the more-important 388 pound-feet of torque at just 2,000 rpm — torque being a measure of get-up-and-go power. That scoots the E320 to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds.
The Bluetech engine takes advantage of the low-sulfur diesel fuel now mandated across the United States, with treatment systems to clean the exhaust: catalytic converter, particulate filter, and a nitrogen oxide trap.
Forget all your noisy/stinky/smelly notions about diesel. Outside, today's diesels are barely distinguishable from gasoline cars; inside, you can't tell the difference.
You can add a wealth of tech options to the midsize E-Class sedan, in addition to a roster of standard safety features. There's adaptive cruise control (Distronic), Bluetooth, navigation, keyless go, and xenon headlights. The seven-speed transmission is almost overkill: This much torque would be powerful with a three-speed.
Best Mainstream Hybrid: Toyota Prius Hybrid
Price: $22,175 to $29,145
EPA Rating (MPG): City 60, Highway 51
Web site: www.toyota.com/prius
Recommended options: Touring edition, $895; options package E (navigation, rear camera, smart key, stability control, Bluetooth, xenon headlights), $5,080.
More than just a hybrid with great gas mileage and a friend-of-the-Earth karma boost, the Toyota Prius Hybrid is a genuinely good car that doesn't feel as if you're cutting corners on comfort or safety.
Just pick one of the options packages that include stability control, then decide if you want a fancier package with a Denso navigation system, rear camera, Bluetooth, upgraded audio, xenon headlights, and leather upholstery. But stick with cloth, since heated seats are not an option.
Toyota makes the Prius relatively easy to buy, too: Pick the standard or touring model, a color, and then one options package from a choice of six.
You may not get the advertised 60 mpg driving around town, but you'll certainly be up around 50, and in the 40s on the highway (which isn't where a hybrid shines). All from a small car with plenty of room for four adults.
Best Gearbox: Volkswagen GTI
Price: $22,220 to $29,645
EPA Rating (MPG): City 25, Highway 32
Web site: www.vw.com/gti
Recommended options: Bluetooth adapter, $200; four doors, $500; DSG automatic manual, $1,000; navigation system and iPod adapter, $1,800.
Go sparingly on the options and you can have a high-tech pocket rocket for under $25K. The GTI, a variant of the Rabbit, has a cat-quick 200-hp engine that you simply must mate to the six-speed dual-shift gearbox (DSG), an automated manual transmission that shifts without a clutch pedal. Shift it yourself, leave it automatic, or move the automatic lever to sport mode.
DSG is exclusive to Audi and VW for now, but others are adopting it shortly. It's a technology that marries performance, economy, and smoothness.
The upgrade radio with integrated navigation and an iPod adapter is a good deal. Boy racers will want to add the ground-effects kit, which looks cool but doesn't help until you're running at extralegal speeds. For the same money, you'll make out better taking your girlfriend or wife to dinner 16 times.
Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.