That juggernaut called technology ensures that we always have a lot to choose from when it comes to gadgets and gizmos for our new vehicles. The choices can be overwhelming. Which features are worth checking off on your potential new ride's options list? We've weighed the alternatives, separated the wheat from the chaff, and come up with our picks for the 10 car gadgets you won't want to live without.
Bluetooth is simply a wireless signal that allows phones to connect to Bluetooth-enabled cars without the need for a hard connection. An excellent example is Chrysler's UConnect system, which allows users to make and receive calls without ever physically holding a phone. A phone book feature that allows names and numbers to be added verbally also makes it possible to make multiple calls without the driver ever taking his or her eyes off the road. Other brands that have this technology include BMW, Nissan and Toyota.
2. In-Car Media Storage Device
The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and Mercedes-Benz S-Class have the option of an in-car hard drive that can be used to store music and pictures. Connecting to these devices via USB is also an emerging car technology trend that will make transferring music and other files to your car much easier.
3. Real-Time Traffic Information
Acura cars equipped with AcuraLink have the ability to display real-time traffic information directly on the nav screen (in select cities), thereby allowing the driver to pick a different route or at least know what to expect on the ride home. Many BMWs for the 2007 model year will have a similar feature thanks to Clear Channel Communications' "Total Traffic Network"; Europeans have had this feature for a few years. The next step? A nav system that calculates alternative routes and picks the best way home, taking into account accidents, road/lane closures and traffic volume.
4. Lane Departure Warning System
This device uses a small camera and speed sensors to determine when the car deviates from its lane and alerts the driver using a buzzer, seat vibrator or a visual cue. Using the turn signals prevents the system from kicking in. French automaker Citroën has had it for a few years and the technology is also available in some Infiniti cars and trucks.
5. Premium-Branded Stereo
When you can get an Infinity sound system in a Kia minivan, you know it's a widespread trend. Brands such as Bang & Olufsen, Bose, Harman Kardon, JBL, Mark Levinson and Panasonic all have reputations for producing great-sounding home stereo components — now they make in-car systems as well, and some of them sound stunning. And they're not just for luxury brands either. Toyota and Mazda are just two affordable makes that have the option of high-end, name-brand audio systems.
6. iPod Connection
A generic mini-jack for connecting all kinds of handheld MP3 players is becoming a given in many sedans and SUVs, but the added control of an iPod-specific connection is a huge leap forward for the technology. With an iPod-specific connection you can navigate through tracks using the car's audio system controls. In many cases this means using steering-wheel-mounted buttons and never having to take your eyes off the road. Ford, GM and Mazda have recently announced that they will have iPod connectors in their upcoming cars, joining the ranks of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Scion.
7. Rear Parking Camera
Rear parking sensors that simply beep when you approach an object have already become fairly common; the next evolution of this safety technology is a rear-mounted parking camera. The Chevrolet Tahoe, Honda Odyssey, Lexus ES 350, Toyota Sienna and others have an optional rear-mounted camera that displays a live video picture on the dash-mounted navigation screen. When the vehicle is shifted into Reverse, the driver can see exactly what's behind him, significantly lessening the chance of running over something or someone.
8. Self-Parking Capability
The Lexus LS 460 and European versions of the Toyota Prius have a self-parking feature that essentially allows the car to park itself. The driver simply enters a few parameters through a touchscreen and the car maneuvers itself into a parallel spot or back into a traditional parking space.
9. Heated and/or Cooled Cupholders
The Cadillac Escalade ESV Platinum edition offers heated and cooled cupholders so your morning latte remains nice and toasty during the winter and your iced mocha can stay chilly. Similar technology can be found in the much less expensive Dodge Caliber. The Caliber's "Chill Zone" keeps drinks stored in the glovebox cool when the air-conditioner is running. Other vehicles like the Range Rover Sport offer a small cooler that keeps drinks or food cold independent of the A/C system.
10. Remote Start
This is probably one of the most overlooked technologies in new cars today, and it can be had even on budget-priced cars like the Chevy Malibu. Simply press a button on the key fob and the car starts itself, allowing you to warm up or cool down the interior from outside the car as it idles. The system automatically locks the doors, steering wheel and transmission so theft isn't likely.