With 2014 coming to a close, CNET's automotive editors look back at the cars we have driven to determine which should earn our Tech Car of the Year award. As opposed to when we began looking at cars for their tech 10 years ago, navigation systems and digital audio have become de rigueur. The high achievers these days include data connections and apps, along with advanced driver assistance systems.
Drivetrain and handling tech figure into our selection, which not only means drivetrains with some sort of electrification, but also advanced suspension systems that offer more than a compromise between hard and soft.
After considering our year's worth of cars, we narrowed it down to five nominees, offering them here for your comments and consideration. Please peruse the list and add your vote in our poll. In two weeks, we will make our final selection for the winner of the 2014 Tech Car of the Year award, and present the Car Tech 10, a selection of notable achievements from the automotive world over the past year.
Audi spent a couple of years building up our anticipation for the new A3. And although we may have been disappointed at its change from wagon to sedan, the tech in this car had reviewer Antuan Goodwin tweeting that he "couldn't think of any way the new Audi A3 could be better."
Audi used the A3 as a vehicle for introducing a 4G data connection into a production car, running neck-and-neck with GM for that distinction. However, Audi did more with that connection than GM, powering Google Earth-derived maps in the navigation system and other connected infotainment features. In fact, the A3 boasts more robust cabin tech than its higher-priced siblings. The drivetrain lacks electrification, but Audi's turbocharged, direct injection engine proved satisfying and efficient.
BMW introduced both the all-electric i3 and the supercar-styled plug-in hybrid i8 as part of its "i" initiative, and the latter is the most eye-catching. Looking like a concept car that left the auto show floor and found its way onto the streets, this hyper-hybrid uses carbon fiber construction and shows a dual-nature that makes Dr. Jekyll look like the sanest citizen. Editor Tim Stevens noted the i8 offers "lots of great tech, both in terms of BMW Connected apps and driver assists, and it's undoubtedly one of the most interesting new cars on the road."
Beyond the high-tech carbon fiber construction, the i8 comes with a turbocharged 1.5-liter engine at the rear wheels, working through a six-speed gearbox, and an electric motor driving the front wheels. In addition, a second motor serves to smooth over turbo lag. It's an impressive bit of drivetrain engineering, aided by plug-in capability allowing limited zero-emission driving.
The Ford Fusion Energi may not be flashy, but it comes loaded with an almost embarrassing wealth of tech features. Energi means this model is the plug-in hybrid in the Fusion lineup, fitting its advanced, electrified drivetrain into an attractive midsize sedan body. Even better, it is a very affordable car, designed for the modern family. Reviewer Antuan Goodwin noted the Ford Fusion Energi, in Titanium trim, was "flexible, fuel efficient and even pretty peppy when you need it to be."
The Fusion Energy adds an electric drive motor and 7.2-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery to its two-liter engine. With a fully charged battery, that means about 20 miles of pure electric range. Depending on your driving needs, that system can greatly reduce your gasoline bill. In addition, Ford offers an excellent array of driver-assistance features in the Fusion Energi. The car's adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance are near self-driving. Automated parking technology is also quite good, effortlessly steering the Fusion into parallel spaces.
Infiniti has gone through some big changes in an effort to revitalize the brand, and if the Q50S Hybrid is any indication, it has a bright future. This car takes over where the G37 left off, revising that model with new styling and an exceptional tech load-out. Given the name, a hybrid drivetrain is obvious, but this car brings in new innovations for steering control, and even makes use of the navigation system to help the automatic transmission. Reviewer Wayne Cunningham wrote that "the car shows forward thinking on the part of Infiniti throughout, and makes important strides that should ripple through the lineup."
Drive-by-wire steering is the most radical feature in the Q50S Hybrid, but it leads to excellent handling and also enables a lane-keeping system that comes remarkably close to autonomous driving. The hybrid drivetrain creates a satisfying amount of power for the driving enthusiast, yet maintains good fuel economy even when driven hard. Infiniti introduces a new screen-based infotainment interface that proved very usable, along with app integration based on the driver's smartphone.
Little had changed with the Tesla Model S between our initial review in 2012 and our revisiting it in July of this year, but this car remains one of the most advanced production vehicles on the planet. This P85 Plus model gave a bigger thrill with its acceleration, and we were able to try out a Tesla Supercharger station, making the 265-mile electric drivetrain suitable for longer trips. Reviewer Brian Cooley says that the Model S P85 Plus "has tremendous power no matter what part of the speed range you're trying to accelerate from."
Along with its pure electric drivetrain, which gives it thrilling speed and amazing efficiency, the Model S earns its place among our nominees for its innovative cabin. The LCD instrument cluster looks good and offers easily understood driving and power information. The massive touchscreen embedded in the center stack gets help from the car's 3G data connection for navigation and music playback. As a bonus, in August Tesla unveiled advanced driver-assistance features such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance, filling a much-needed feature hole in the Model S.