Ward's editors collectively test drive about 100 new vehicles each year, giving them a perspective on latest-and-greatest whizz-bang features. Here's what they say about some automotive innovations.
Technology: Electric Power Steering
What's to Love: If any technology promises to put auto makers on the straight path to regulatory compliance without compromising customer satisfaction, it's electric power steering.
Consider the European-market Fiat 500. It features a button that can transform steering-wheel feel from relaxed (for rush-hour Rome) to tight and sporty (for traversing Southern California's Topanga Canyon Loop).
Outlook: Ford has said all of its models will feature EPS by 2013. Other OEMs won't exactly be standing still.
Technology: Smartphone “apps”
What's to Love: With each passing day, another app arrives to link man and machine. OnStar promises charge-status updates for the Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicle. And (maybe) text messages that warn of low tire pressure.
Now, Faurecia trumpets the prospect of an app that automatically adjusts a vehicle's seats to conform to the most ergonomic position for each occupant.
Outlook: The sky is the limit.
Technology: Eco pedal
What's to Love: Optional in the new Infiniti M37 and M56 sedans, Eco pedal goes a step further than the now-ubiquitous gauge-cluster eco light to induce fuel-efficient driving by governing how much pressure can be applied to the accelerator. Get too aggressive and the pedal resists/pushes back. “No rubber-burning for you!” we imagine the Soup Nazi scolding lead foots who just can't help themselves.
Outlook: Despite the whines of some Ward's editors, my jaunt in a V-8 M56 with Eco pedal this year yielded an unbelievable 28.2 mpg (8.3 L/100 km) at mid-range speeds. Expect this technology to spread to other auto makers and lower-priced models, especially as new CAFE rules loom.
Technology: Optima's heated steering wheel
What's to Love: Warm hands for the masses. Not new but still rare compared with the proliferation of “bun warmers,” Kia Motors America is breaking the mold by bringing the heated steering wheel into the non-luxury realm.
Kia's new '11 Optima offers the technology as an option on the EX Turbo grade's premium package.
Outlook: The competition won't tolerate this one-upping for long.
Technology: HMI touchpad on '11 Audi A8.
What's to Love: User-friendly in any language. The idea of creating a centralized controller for hundreds of vehicle functions with a simple device has kept designers and electronics engineers up late for more than a decade.
Now this task is complicated further by growing luxury markets in China, Russia and other countries that do not use the Western alphabet.
Audi's new MMI (man-machine interface) touchpad demonstrates a truly global approach to connecting drivers with electronic functions. It recognizes handwritten letters and numbers for navigation destinations in many languages, including Cyrillic, Chinese, Cantonese, Korean and Japanese characters.
Outlook: Available now only on the pricey A8, marketplace acceptance will determine whether it follows the glide path of the iPod or the Betamax.
Technology: Automatic-parking systems
What's to Love: Takes the pain out of parking. Ford, as well as Toyota's Lexus brand, offer a form of this technology, which guides motorists through the parallel-parking process. Though not difficult for some drivers, many consider parallel parking akin to docking the space shuttle at the International Space Station.
Outlook: These systems, more than just a nifty trick to show off to friends, actually serve a practical purpose.
Technology: Mode selectors
What's to Love: Auto makers increasingly are offering mode selectors that allow drivers to alter vehicle systems by selecting from options such as “econ” or “sport” modes. In theory, it's a good idea, but often one mode is pretty much indistinguishable from another.
Outlook: Some auto makers have developed systems that allow you to effect notable changes in the car's setup. But the most have not, making this a technology most motorists can do without. At least for now.
Technology: Lane Departure Warning
What's to Love: Fast becoming standard equipment on many luxury vehicles, LDW is intended to alert wayward drivers. But in reality it's unnecessary and annoying, a security blanket for drivers who consider it safe to multitask to an even greater extent. Yes, the technology works, but it can't correct for stupidity.
Outlook: It'll go away as soon as an auto maker is sued by someone who caused a fatal accident while texting, arguing that LDW didn't do its job.
Technology: Forced Induction
What's to Love: Whether it's turbocharging or supercharging, an internal-combustion engine is just plain better with added boost, making any vehicle more fun to drive. Latest-generation turbochargers and superchargers are more efficient than in the past, enabling engine downsizing while improving mileage.
Outlook: Of last year's Ward's 10 Best Engines' winners, five were turbocharged, one was supercharged. The moral of the story: Forced induction is here to stay.
Technology: Cruze's Smart Grille
What's to Love: On Chevy Cruze Eco models, the lower front grille closes at higher speeds, allowing the air to flow around the body more efficiently, contributing to the car's 10% fuel-economy gain over the standard sedan. It's a clever trick made possible by the growing sophistication of electronic controls.
Outlook: Other models, including the ‘12 Ford Focus, will offer similar systems. Look for the feature to proliferate in the quest to optimize aerodynamics in the run up to 60-mpg (3.9-L/100 km) fuel-economy standards.
Technology: Corvette's Carbon-Fiber Sunblock
What's to Love: A carbon-fiber body panel with the high-tech look of - ta-da - carbon fiber. That's made possible on the ZR1 Corvette by a new ultraviolet-resistant clear-coat material General Motors engineers developed to protect carbon fiber from the sun.
Previously, designers were forced to go with painted carbon-fiber body parts or use other more durable materials to achieve a faux carbon-fiber look. The ZR1 features the exposed-weave carbon fiber material for its roof panel, roof bow, rocker moldings, front fascia splitter and the underside of the hood.
Outlook: Limited. May find a home with more sports cars.
Technology: Buick Regal GS's interactive driver control
What's to Love: Three distinct settings, ranging from Sunday afternoon “Touring” to “GS,” where sophisticated electronics dial up a drum-tight suspension, wickedly-fast steering response and a lively throttle.
While not new to the industry, it's a first for GM. As standard equipment on the '12 Regal GS coming late this year, the technology should perfectly complement the car's 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. engine.
Outlook: The Regal GS gets a 6-speed manual because its champion, former GM product-boss Bob Lutz, says a high-performance sports sedan cannot be taken seriously without one. The same goes for selectable driver settings, standard equipment on the best products out of Germany. It will give Buick the technical credibility it needs.