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January 17, 2010

News & Features

2010 trends: high-tech toys, safety features, enhanced eco-consciousness

Special to NWautos

Trendspotting

Clockwise from top left: Flashy dashes -- Ford's Sync system; Boxy is beautiful -- Mini Clubman; Safety first -- Dodge Grand Caravan's blind-spot-warning device; Everybody's green -- Nissan Leaf

This year promises to be a fun one to watch the evolution of the automobile, with manufacturers making big strides in technology, design and "green" innovation. Here are five trends to watch for as the 2010 models start rolling into town.

Flashy dashes
The dashboard, once a place to display gauges, is now a center for interactive experiences and navigation systems.

Excitement is high for the Honda Insight's Eco Assist dashboard, according to Tracy Miller, general sales manager of Honda Auto Center of Bellevue, which leads the nation in sales of the Insight.

On it, efficient driving is rewarded with electronic leaves growing on a tree. Miller believes green-conscious, tech-savvy drivers such as those in Seattle enjoy seeing proof that they are achieving their fuel-efficiency goals.

The next generation of Ford's popular optional Sync system will have the ability to turn vehicles into Wi-Fi hot spots, says Mike Stoner, general manager of Bill Pierre Ford in Lake City. Several companies are working to implement wireless Internet technology to provide real-time traffic, fuel prices, weather reports and more.

LCD displays, which allow drivers to customize and configure the gauge cluster to their preference, are expected to become increasingly popular, says Tom Voelk, auto specialist at KING 5 News. They are dropping in weight and price, he says, and are no longer found solely in luxury autos.

Safety first
Manufacturers are working to improve safety not just by helping people survive accidents, but by avoiding them altogether.

Voelk says most autos have very good impact systems. But there are big improvements coming in "collision mitigation systems" -- technology that keeps drivers from hitting things, such as rear-view cameras and blind-spot-warning devices.

Volvo City Safety is a new system that automatically brakes at slow speeds if a collision is imminent. And Mercedes has added a drowsiness sensor that vibrates the steering wheel if drivers drift out of their lane.

Boxy is beautiful
The success of the Scion line among buyers in their 20s and 30s has proved that square-shaped autos have a strong appeal. "People seem to like the design -- it's crisp and clean," says Voelk. "It's a usable shape."

Considering the popularity of the square-back MINI Clubman and Kia Soul, it appears that boxy design is going to continue to make inroads this year.

Light displays
Adjustable interior mood lighting is showing up in cars including the Nissan Cube, Ford Flex and Buick LaCrosse. "It's a low-cost way of dressing things up," says Voelk. The small LEDs also illuminate the inside of a car without being a distraction.

Many autos also received headlight upgrades for 2010, as the cost of LEDs has dropped. The life expectancy on LED bulbs is long enough that owners will never have to change them, Voelk says. And they will be important in the new electric vehicles, in which power consumption is important.

Everybody's green
Auto manufacturers are scrambling to make improvements in energy efficiency and gas consumption, and nearly all of them had a hybrid on display at the Seattle Auto Show in November.

This also could be the breakout year for all-electric cars. Nissan is releasing the Leaf, a competitively priced family sedan, in late 2010.

"It will be a game changer," predicts Steven Lough, president of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association. "Nissan will be able to sell every Leaf they can get to the Seattle area, especially if fuel prices keep nudging up."

Susan Fahnestock, director of business development at the Green Car Company of Bellevue, says the Northwest is an ideal location for EVs since much of our power comes from clean hydroelectric sources.

"We will see a lot of early adopters of electric vehicles on the West Coast," she says.

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