Last Updated Jan 21, 2011 6:06 PM EST
For respondents planning to buy a car in the foreseeable future, 58% said being able to get a built-in wi-fi hot spot could have a major impact on their decision. Among the 2,350 respondents to the pop-up survey, being able to connect and play their iPod in the car ranked high as well. "The car is increasingly becoming more like a consumer electronics purchase, says Brian Cooley, editor at large of CNET.com. "Buyers expect the manufacturer to have fully thought out the digital ecosystem of navigation, communication and entertainment. Coupled with that is a robust appetite for internet connectivity."
But leadership in wi-fi alone doesn't seem to be enough to craft a high-tech brand image. Ford, the first company to build wi-fi connectivity into U.S. models, ranked fourth when the question was: When you think of high-tech cars, what brands come to mind first? BMW ranked first and Mercedes-Benz second. Both will have wi-fi hot spots in several models by mid-year.
However, among that 58% of buyers who thought internet connection really mattered, Ford topped the list of brands that offer the best wi-fi solutions, with nearly twice as many mentions as the next-ranked brand, Audi.
Respondents to the survey were, not surprisingly, a high-tech crew. Some 73% said they carry a smart phone with them in their car, 31% a notebook or netbook computer and 15% an iPad or tablet (some more than one). They use those devices for a combination of navigation, music, traffic updates and looking up information and reviews about restaurants or other destinations. About 25% of respondents were between 18 and 34 and half between 35 and 54.
Here's a brand-by-brand rundown of the latest news on in-car internet connections.
BMW Befitting its image as the technology leader, BMW already offers internet connectivity in Europe, but is just now bringing it to the U.S. Starting with the X3 small SUV model shown here, BMW is offering an internet hotspot that will expand to other models this spring. The hotspot can be coupled with a back seat iPad holder. This would let kids watch videos in the back seat with the iPad positioned just behind the front seat headrest. To make the hotspot work, however, you need to buy a USB wireless card from AT&T, Verizon or other carriers, which carry monthly charges. BMW models have iPod connectivity for music as well.
Mercedes-Benz A similar wi-fi hotspot will be available in some Mercedes models by mid-year, the company says. In addition to iPod connectivity, Mercedes now offers a cable that can connect your smart phone to recent model vehicles, allowing you to stream Pandora radio through the car's sound system.
Ford Available in its redesigned SUVs (Edge and Explorer), the latest version of its SYNC voice command system, called MyFord Touch, includes a wireless hotspot similar to those in the German luxury cars. Passengers with laptops or iPads can access the internet while moving. But in a first on a U.S. model, the Internet pages will show up on the navigation screen (at right) in the new Ford Focus, due at dealerships soon. But that will only work when the vehicle is in park.
The drivers in the CNET survey do say they have some safety worries about all this connectivity. Of respondents, 39% feel less safe on the road because of distractions caused by mobile devices. But, of course, it's those other folks who are dangerous. Only 7% think they are less safe themselves because of cyberspace distractions.