In the past decade, new cars have become rolling wonders of technology -- to the extent that some new cars have actually taken a hit for being too complicated. This year, with federal gas mileage standards ratcheting ever tougher, much of the hot new tech is aimed at boosting MPG. But other advances help drivers stay more connected to the Web and social media, and new safety systems can help you avoid accidents.
On the mileage front, as usual, hybrid and electric vehicles top the charts. Ford and Mitsubishi are introducing 2012 electric vehicles to compete with the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. And several new or improved hybrid models are joining the race.
Straining to meet the new federal standard -- an average of 35.5 MPG by 2016 -- automakers are prospecting for any feasible mileage-boosting advantage. One example: Cars as varied as the large 2013 Ford Taurus sedan (on sale in late 2012) and the 2012 Kia Rio subcompact have introduced shutters that improve aerodynamics by closing automatically when outside air is not needed to cool the engine -- usually at highway speeds, when the engine is not working as hard and needs less cooling.
The Rio -- rated at 30 mpg in city driving, 40 mpg on the highway - employs another new gas-saving technology. Anyone who has driven a hybrid like the Toyota Prius is familiar with that slightly eerie feeling when the gasoline engine shuts off completely at a stoplight or other full stop, then restarts automatically when you reach a certain speed. Now the Rio (at right) is one of the first all-gasoline cars to use a similar gas-saving system, with numerous others expected to follow.
Let's have a closer look at some of the new technology for 2012 that improves performance, mileage, entertainment and safety.
Improving the efficiency of automatic transmissions is one of the best tools that manufacturers have for boosting MPG. At Chrysler Group, reviewers say the new eight-speed transmission has also improved performance. Putting the eight-speed into the V-6 versions of the Dodge Charger (right) and the Chrysler 300 not only improves acceleration at both high and low speeds; it also increases gas mileage to ratings of 19 MPG in city driving, and 31 on the highway.
Several automakers have updated their onboard technology to let drivers connect to better (or at least more) data and media. Critics of these trends -- and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is a vocal one -- worry that these systems promote distracted driving. But automakers say drivers can use many functions without taking their eyes off the road.
Among the updates:
- Toyota's new Entune system -- available in the redesigned Camry and other 2012 models -- allows a driver to link with a smart phone and see such items as weather forecasts and stock quotes on the dashboard screen.
- The improved version of General Motors OnStar service -- long praised for its automatic reporting to system phone operators if your car is in a crash -- now lets subscribers listen to Facebook posts and make voice posts to their own Facebook account.
- And Ford's SYNC system, the earliest to operate with voice commands, will now let you hear Twitter updates.
Several luxury models already carry new technology that helps drivers avoid accidents. Now this safety technology has spread further into the market, with the 2012 Chevrolet Equinox SUV picking up a couple of improvements.
That expansion, say safety advocates, signals the beginning of more widespread use. "We expect these new systems to be [available] on many mainstream models within a few years," says Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Among the Equinox's new features:
- A lane-departure warning that alerts you if your car is drifting out of its lane -- a possible life-saver for drowsy drivers.
- A forward collision warning that senses if your vehicle is so close to the one ahead that a crash is likely. It makes a loud noise and automatically activates the brakes.
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