You'll have a hard time finding a plain Jane car with a manual transmission and roll-up windows in 2013. Even the budget models are crammed full of technology now, and you can either embrace the progress or start shopping for a used car.
Besides, this is a watershed year for new tech features, as manufacturers are gearing up for an influx of customers who had put off buying new cars in a tough economy. We've surveyed all the new conveniences and safety aids, and picked out the most innovative and useful ones. Some, of course, are found only in luxury cars, but there's something for the guys looking at Ford Escapes and Honda Accords, too. Many of these new car features are available in only one or two models for 2013, but all are likely to show up in more vehicles in the near future. Of course, some are more groundbreaking than others, so we've ranked them here in ascending order of significance.
9. Automatic seat temperature control: This is exactly the sort of innovation you'd expect from a detail-obsessive brand like Lexus, and it debuts as an option in the refreshed 2013 Lexus LS 460 and LS 600h L. Automatic seat temperature control is a refinement on the heated and cooled seats now found in nearly every luxury sedan: The front chairs in the 2013 LS include an Auto setting. Choose Auto and the car will heat or cool your backside according to however you've set the main climate control system. And in practice, it works really well.
8. Tablet-style center stack control interface: Audio and navigation systems in cars usually lag years behind the electronics you can buy for your home or, lately, the smartphone you have in your pocket. But the future is here today in the Tesla Model S, whose entire center stack is a touchscreen. We've seen similar setups in concept cars, but the Model S is the first to bring it to series production. The center stack in this car looks like a double-size Apple iPad and it behaves likes the popular tablet, too. A flick of your finger makes it a back-up camera, a navigation screen and a 3G Web browser. This is where you go to pair your phone, tune the radio, adjust the climate control, open the sunroof and monitor battery status. The Model S officially debuted as a 2012 model, but since it was late in the model year, we saw fit to include it here. If you're not quite ready for a full-on tablet experience in the car, Cadillac's CUE interface governs most media functions but still gives you some hard buttons for the climate controls.
7. Foot-operated, touchless liftgate: Sometimes you've got a bag of groceries in one arm and your child in the other, and you don't want to set either of them down to hit the button on your keyless remote that opens the power liftgate. But you can spare a foot, can't you? For 2013, properly equipped versions of the redesigned BMW 3 Series wagon, Ford Escape and Ford C-Max Hybrid offer touchless power liftgate operation, while the Mercedes-Benz SL550 offers that same convenience for its trunklid. As long as you keep the keyless remote in your pocket or purse, briefly extending either foot under the vehicle's rear bumper is enough to trigger a sensor and open the liftgate/trunklid.
6. Safety Alert Seat: Up to this point, automakers have mostly used audible alarms and warning lights to let you know when you're departing your lane, moving into a space already occupied by another vehicle or about to crunch into someone's bumper. The trouble is that all the noises and lights can grate on the driver's nerves, especially since many systems are susceptible to false positives (guardrails that register as cars, for example) and activate too early in heavy traffic. Cadillac is trying a different tack with its Safety Alert Seat, which vibrates on the side of the driver seat that corresponds to the threat. Wander over the white line and the seat vibrates on the right side. Begin a lane change into an occupied lane to the left and it vibrates on the left. Close too quickly on the car in front and it vibrates on both sides. Better yet, we've found that the system is well calibrated so that it doesn't overreact in urban traffic. The Safety Alert Seat is part of the Driver Assist package on the 2013 Cadillac ATS, SRX and XTS.
5. Tire pressure alert system: Nissan quietly added a tire pressure alert system to the Quest minivan and Leaf in 2011 but never publicized it. Now for 2013, the automaker has added it to the redesigned 2013 Altima and Pathfinder, plus the Infiniti JX35, in hopes that someone will take notice. Known as Easy-Fill, this isn't just an ordinary tire pressure monitor; it's a timesaver when you actually need to add air to the tires. Here's how it works: You drive to a gas station, park at the air pump and leave the ignition in the "On" position. You begin adding air to a tire. Once you've reached the correct psi, the vehicle gives you a horn honk alert. Keep adding air past this point and you'll soon get a more urgent series of honks advising you to stop immediately. Used correctly, Easy-Fill saves you the trouble of double-checking pressures with a handheld tire pressure gauge.
4. EZ Flex seating system: This is a simple solution to a problem that nearly every large family confronts. You need a crossover SUV with three rows of seating. You plan to install car seats in the second row and have your grade-schoolers sit in the third row. But how will the older kids get to the way back without you having to remove the baby seats every single time? Until now, all you could do was order captain's chairs for the second row and lose that middle seat. But in the Infiniti JX35 and 2013 Nissan Pathfinder, the 60/40-split second-row seats will fold and scoot out of the way with your LATCH-capable car seats still installed.
3. Back-up collision intervention system: Rear sonar and back-up cameras have been around for years, but they're passive safety aids, relying on you to pay attention and respond appropriately. And of course, paying attention is always the driver's responsibility. But sometimes when you're backing out of a blind driveway, you just can't react quickly enough to other vehicles and pedestrians that veer into your trajectory. When equipped with the relevant option packages, the 2013 Cadillac ATS, SRX and XTS and 2013 Infiniti JX35 will apply the brakes automatically to help you avoid backing into another car or, worse, hitting a pedestrian. It's like a forward collision avoidance system — it just happens to work when you're in reverse.
2. Center side airbag for front occupants: Family crossovers already come with an arsenal of airbags, but the front center airbag that General Motors has installed in the 2013 Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia is a worthy addition. This side airbag deploys from the inboard side of the driver seat. Its chief function is to reduce injury to the driver during a side impact on the passenger side of the vehicle. Specifically, this airbag helps keep the driver upright as he rebounds from the initial crash forces. If a collision occurs while two people are riding up front, this airbag aims to prevent them from knocking into each other.
1. Passenger-side mirror-mounted blind-spot camera: Small cameras have gotten very affordable, so Honda went ahead and mounted one on the passenger-side exterior mirror of the redesigned 2013 Honda Accord. This little camera is perfectly positioned to capture video of cars and bikes in your blind spot, and it projects its images on the Accord's central display screen whenever you flip on your right turn signal. Of course, it's no substitute for properly adjusting your mirrors and generally being aware of your surroundings, but it's a great help in judging gaps in traffic and adds confidence to every lane change. Honda calls its blind-spot camera system LaneWatch, and Ray LaHood has probably already added it to his wish list of future mandated safety technologies. For now, it's available on the 2013 Accord from the EX trim level on up.