Many of you will no doubt see the irony in our selection of the 2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i's iDrive controller to represent "easy to use," but this cabin tech interface went from frustrating to surprisingly intuitive in its second generation. And when you're talking about an interface that's meant to be used at 70 mph, even small changes can add up to huge usability and safety gains.
A good cabin tech interface should be quick and responsive and intuitively organized for easy access. The less time you spend staring at the screen and poking through menus, the more time you can spend watching the road ahead.
Now if only BMW could make its naming convention easier to understand...
Of course, the easiest way to keep your eyes on the road is not to fumble with buttons or GUIs at all. This is where a good voice command system--such as Chrysler's uConnect, seen here on the Dodge Challenger SRT-8--comes in handy. Look for systems that give you full control over the vehicle's infotainment functions for inputting destinations, adjusting climate controls, and making calls. The more you can talk to the car, the better.
Also, make sure the voice command button is located in an easily accessible place, like the steering wheel. Having to take your eyes off of the road to initiate voice command sort of defeats the purpose.
For an audiophile, a premium audio system (such as the Bang & Olufsen system in the 2009 Audi S8) is a MUST HAVE. However, even if you're not, you could probably benefit from an upgraded sound system.
Better speakers mean that not only is your music more audible, but so are turn-by-turn directions and hands-free calls. Additionally, premium audio usually means that the sound is better balanced and staged, so you won't have to crank the volume to enjoy your tunes. Now you'll be able to hear that approaching emergency vehicle when you need to.
Let's face it, the cat's out of the bag on cell phones. People are simply not going to ignore an incoming call just because they happen to be piloting a ton of metal at freeway speeds. So if you can't keep people from talking, the least you could do is enable them to do it more safely.
The best hands-free systems feature voice command elements, allowing drivers to answer and initiate calls without removing their hands from the wheel. Look for a system that automatically imports your phone's contacts and assigns automatic voice tags for the ultimate in ease of use.
Along a similar line, people aren't going to start driving in silence anytime soon, so making music on portable audio players easily accessible will make driving both safer and more enjoyable.
A simple aux-in used to be fine, but today's drivers expect to be able to control their digital audio sources from the dashboard. This allows drivers to keep eyes on the road and stay within the protection of hands-free driving laws.
For users of Android and BlackBerry phones, USB connectivity is often not an option. Fortunately, a well-integrated Bluetooth audio-streaming function can allow for playback of locally stored and Internet-streamed audio without fumbling with a handset.
Taking this a step further, systems like Ford's Sync AppLink give users voice command over apps, such as Pandora Radio, for the ultimate in safe listening and control.
We'd all like to think of ourselves as careful, safe, and attentive drivers, but the reality is that we're also all humans capable of making mistakes that can harm ourselves as well as other drivers.
Some driver safety features--such as blind-spot monitoring, lane guidance, front collision detection, and airbags--are the kind that you hope that you'll never have to use, but will be glad are there when you need them. Other driver aid features will come in handy on a daily basis, such as the around-view camera in the Infiniti FX, proximity sensors, and adaptive cruise control.
For more information, check out our list of top driver safety features.
The Toyota Prius (and its Hybrid Synergy Drive) is usually the first thing that comes to mind for when you think "fuel efficient." However, it's not the end-all green drivetrain technologies.
Diesels and turbodiesels get great highway fuel economy. Direct injection and turbocharging technologies help gasoline engines to be both more powerful and more efficient. Start-stop technologies, regenerative braking, and good old-fashioned lightweight construction help all sorts of vehicle types to be as efficient as they can be.
We don't expect a luxury sedan to handle off-road expeditions or a sports car to ride like a cloud. The handling tech should match the vehicle's intention. That means sports cars should be sharp, luxury sedans should be comfortable, and SUVs like the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee should be able to rough it. Most importantly, no vehicle should isolate a driver from the road.
Bonus points for adaptive suspension and drive technologies that give the driver a degree of control over the vehicle's manners.
Everyone's not going to agree with this one, but amid all of this car tech, there's nothing like rowing your own gears. Though we love a good automatic, CVT, or DSG, nothing makes our day like a snappy six-speed manual gearbox with a short-throw shifter, like the one in the 2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring.
Regardless of how the gears get swapped, the transmission should make the most of the engine's power with smooth, firm shifts. Steer clear of indecisive, gear-hunting automatic trannies or jerky DSGs.