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2014 Tech Car of the Year: A carbon fiber hyper hybrid

CNET's judges weighed in on the best cars we drove this year, picking the most advanced from an impressive field. In addition, check out the Car Tech 10, our awards for a variety of achievements in the automotive industry.

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We narrowed the field down to five nominees for the 2014 Tech Car of the Year award at the beginning of December, and now CNET's judges have weighed in on our final choices. There were some strong contenders, making a unanimous choice difficult, but there can only be one...

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Winner: BMW i8

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This car represents a marvel of innovative engineering. Carbon fiber in its construction not only keeps the weight down, but cheaper production of this material could make it a standard for cars of the future. BMW took a risk with the design, putting something on the road that looks like it should still bear a concept label. LED headlights make for another important touch, along with a head-up display and driver assistance features. Judge Tim Stevens noted that "it's undoubtedly one of the most interesting new cars on the road."

With an electric motor driving the front wheels and a compact gasoline engine at the rear, the i8 combines all-wheel drive with plug-in hybrid fuel efficiency. However, in the same car you can experience a thrilling driving experience, eating up corners with this nimble ultimate driving machine. Judge Wayne Cunningham notes that the i8 "is an extraordinary technical achievement."

Finally, BMW's iDrive cabin electronics system sneaks in an impressive roster of connected features. The car comes with its own data connection powering online destination search and built-in apps. iDrive gets expanded features through the ConnectedDrive app on a driver's smartphone, bringing in everything from social media to online music.

The Audi A3 came in as our favorite runner-up, embodying near-perfect connected cabin tech, but its drivetrain didn't represent a significant advance. Also up for serious consideration was the Infiniti Q50S Hybrid , an amazing technical achievement with its drive-by-wire steering and efficient gasoline-electric drivetrain. Fan favorite the Tesla Model S made the nominees list for its impressive drivetrain, but when we reviewed the 2014 P85 Plus model earlier this year we didn't find much advancement in its cabin electronics, and it still lacked any driver assistance features. Tesla's recent update of the Model S addresses some of those issues, so we will likely be reconsidering it for next year. The Ford Fusion Energi made our nominee list for its excellent driver assistance features and economical plug-in hybrid drivetrain, but its cabin tech couldn't carry it over the top.


The Car Tech 10

There was a lot more going on in the past year besides five really, really good tech cars. That's why we also have The Car Tech 10, a mish-mash of cars that left lasting impressions and various achievements in automotive technology.

Thrill ride: 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

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Here's a monster of a car that could have easily been a one-trick pony; a big, dumb brute that's defined merely by its terrifying 707-horsepower, supercharged V-8. But the Hellcat arrived with some of the best tech that FCA has to offer, including the latest generation of Chrysler's app-connected Uconnect infotainment, an adaptive suspension and a driver-tweakable SRT powertrain. Oh and did we mention that it's packing 707 horsepower? It bears repeating.

An honorable mention goes to our Tech Car of the Year, the BMW i8, which is a thrill ride in its own right. In the words of CNET's Brian Cooley, "The way its electric front drive marries with the ICE rear drive is almost like magic."


Biggest launch: 2015 Ford F-150

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The best-selling vehicle in the United States for the past 32 years and the best-selling pickup for 43 years running enters its 13th generation, which is kind of a big deal. Known for its big engines and heavy construction, the 2015 Ford F-150 moves in a different direction. The pickup shaves off up to 750 pounds with its new aluminum body and bumps up its efficiency with a new, smaller 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6 engine.


Resurgent tech: Hydrogen fuel cell tech

A strong tip of the hat goes to the Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle's big launch, which is generating a lot of buzz and helping to usher in a resurgence of fuel cell vehicles. With battery tech advancement beginning to slow, the fuel cell technologies being pioneered by Toyota, Honda and Audi could be just the thing that helps pure EVs make it big.


Road to autonomy: Active lane-keeping assist

The self-driving car is the next big thing in automotive tech, but you can get a taste of the future today. Advanced lane-keeping assist systems use forward-looking cameras to monitor the vehicle's position between the lane lines and influence an electric power steering system to keep the car from drifting out of its lane. Seen on various models from Porsche, Acura, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz and often paired with full-range adaptive cruise control, this is a feature that allows today's tech cars to practically drive themselves.

The next stop will be Tesla's Autopilot system, which will be able to steer even more aggressively, manage its own speed by reading road signs and even automatically change lanes when it debuts next year.


Unrealized potential: The connected dashboard

2014 was supposed to be the year of the connected car and it kind of was. Cars are adding wireless connectivity left and right, but for every vehicle like the 2015 Audi A3, which gets it right with deep integration of 4G LTE connectivity into its infotainment, there are three more automakers whose idea of a "Web-connected dashboard" amounts to little more than slapping a 3G Wi-Fi hotspot into their cars.

In an era where everyone in that car likely already has a 3G or 4G smartphone in their pocket, a redundant Wi-Fi connection seems like a waste of bandwidth.


Hottest concept car: Maserati Alfieri

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Maserati celebrated 100 years in the business with the unveiling of a gorgeous GT concept car. The Alfieri hints at the next century's of the Italian automaker's styling with a classic cab-rearward design that thrusts forward with a sinister fascia and a 4.7-liter, 460-horsepower V-8 engine.

An honorable mention goes to the Lamborghini Asterion LPI 910-4. This 910-horsepower plug-in hybrid hypercar concept is absolutely nuts.


Infotainment interlopers: Android Auto andApple CarPlay

iDrive, MMI, BlueLink, HondaLink, Uconnect... Automakers drop millions into designing and branding their unique infotainment systems, but with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto launching this year, your Honda's touchscreen interface may soon be identical to the one in your pal's Hyundai. We've had hands-on time with both smartphone-powered car technologies and are sure that the way you think about expensive OEM dashboard tech is about to be changed completely.

With car audio manufacturers such as Pioneer and Alpine bringing this tech to the aftermarket, drivers will even be able to add CarPlay and Android Auto to the car they already own.


An outstanding transmission: ZF 8HP eight-speed automatic

As enthusiasts, we'll always prefer a good manual gearbox, but ZF's eight-speed automatic transmission has proven to be an excellent do-it-all gearbox. One of the best torque converter automatic transmissions on the road today, the eight-speed features quick downshifts, butter smooth upshifts and more than enough ratios to provide an excellent balance of performance and efficiency. The gearbox makes appearances in vehicles ranging from the elegant Maserati Ghibli to the wicked Challenger Hellcat and from Jaguar's sporty F-Type to the refined luxury sedans by BMW and Audi and is always a pleaser.


A dashboard like no other: 2016 Audi TT's MMI instrument cluster

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The 2016 Audi TT boasts stunning curbside appeal, but we're more interested in its dashboard. This radically redesigned and gorgeous cockpit turns dashboard design on its ear, totally ditching the traditional center stack and screen. Instead, the navigation maps, audio sources and all that's great about the automaker's 4G LTE-connected MMI infotainment system is placed in front and center of the driver on an LCD instrument cluster.

With Nvidia-powered 3D graphics, the new interface is a spectacular bit of eye candy. And with enhanced steering wheel controls and excellent voice recognition, this system should help Audi drivers keep their hands on the wheel and spend more time with their eyes pointed forward.


Most anticipated aftermarket tech: Navdy head-up display

Navdy

Eyes up, driver. Head-up displays (or HUDs) are excellent tools that help motorists stay attentive by bringing information -- such as turn-by-turn directions, current speed, and more -- into the driver's line of sight. Less time glancing down at gauges and screens means more time with eyes on the road.

HUD technology is now headed to the aftermarket, allowing any driver to add this safety and convenience tech to any car, new or old. This charge is being led by Navdy, a smartphone-powered HUD that's generated a lot of buzz when preorders opened this year. With support for apps, messaging, navigation and more via voice commands and gestures, we can't wait to check this tech.