The Toyota FT-1 concept car, above, does not have a conventional radiator grille, but fans under the bumper that direct air into the engine. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Beyond all the shiny, new sheet metal at the North American International Auto Show, there are things that show-goers may not notice at first glance.
Some of them, like infotainment system in the new Honda Fit, change the way drivers connect with their cars. Some, like the engine in a Volkswagen concept car, have the potential to save at the gas pump. Others, like the rotary shifter dial on the Chrysler 200, stand out because they are so different.
Technology is at the forefront of this year’s show. And for young drivers, especially, smartphones are the most important device at the center of their lives. “They don’t want to be disconnected,” says Art St. Cyr, head of American Honda’s automotive operations.
Honda designed its latest Fit subcompact with the latest version of its Honda Link infotainment system. For $60, a buyer will be able to download a navigation app to a smartphone that will then display on the Fit’s LCD screen. Compare that to the $600-$1,500 carmakers routinely charge for built-in navigation systems.
The Fit’s system also allows a motorist to tap, swipe or pinch the screen, much like with a smartphone, to operate features.
The Cadillac ATS Coupe introduced Tuesday is the luxury-maker’s first model to offer built-in superfast 4G LTE connectivity. General Motors’ Chevrolet division plans to roll out the high-speed service on most of its models, starting in 2015, and other makers, including Ram and Audi, are building in “hot spots.”
The just-introduced Lexus RC F sport coupe will feature a touch pad like the ones used in laptop computers to operate the vehicle’s infotainment system and other features.
Today’s cars often come with more advanced technology than the most sophisticated homes. The Infiniti Q50, for example, offers an optional steer-by-wire system that substitutes the mechanical linkage between the steering wheel and the wheels with an electronic link.
Even the mundane gearshifter is feeling the impact. The newly unveiled Chrysler 200, for example, abandons the conventional gearshift lever for a rotary dial, and the Acura TLX will adopt a space-saving e-shifter that links electronically with the transmission.
While gadgets often are singled out for causing distractions, they can make for safer cars. The 2015 Ford F-150 offers a 360-degree camera system that can make it easier to spot obstacles or pedestrians — and even hitch up a trailer.
With rare exception, vehicles are not only getting more cool advances, but are getting more for less. Better yet, developments that once might have been limited to the most expensive vehicles is becoming available on mid-range and even lower-end vehicles. The 2015 remake of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class will be offered with the same suite of so-called Intelligent Drive that debuted on last year’s flagship sedan, the S-Class.
The package includes driver-assist features like automatic collision prevention, lane-keeping assistance, blind-spot detection and automatic braking.
One of the coolest features coming next year on the Corvette can be used to both improve driving skills and impress friends. The Corvette Performance Data Recorder features a camera that captures a driver’s-eye view of the road, along with a system that captures an array of vehicle data and a high-res map. You’ll now be able to see whether you over-cooked it blasting into that back corner.
Not everything new has to contain a microprocessor. The nose of the Toyota FT-1 concept car does not have a conventional radiator grille. Instead, it reduces aerodynamic drag by placing a pair of fans under the bumper to direct air more efficiently into the engine compartment.
One of the most intriguing engines at this year’s show comes from Volkswagen. The Passat BlueMotion Concept features an already petite 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that can, when cruising or coasting, shut off half its cylinders. At an effective 0.7 liters, it is then little bigger than some riding lawnmower engines, yielding hybrid-level fuel economy.
VW says if show-goers in Detroit and later in the year think this technology is cool enough, it could put it into production.