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With car sales accelerating, consumers can expect a raft of new cars and trucks in 2015. But in many cases it’s what is under the skin that’s as important as eye-catching new designs.

Two elements — performance and infotainment — are on the front burners this year. Automakers are seeking to raise their profiles through exciting halo models and by making infotainment systems more capable and user-friendly.

When it comes to high performance, there are several interesting newcomers. Ford is putting fresh emphasis on go-fast models with its suitably named new global division, Ford Performance. In the pipeline is an exciting new 2016 Focus RS model that will join recently announced rockets such as the 500-hp Shelby GT350 Mustang. “These are products that people crave,” says Ford CEO Mark Fields.

Consumers with this lust for performance are good news for Ford’s bottom line, adds Raj Nair, the company’s head of global product development, because such customers are younger and command higher incomes than average buyers. Nair promises 12 new performance models over the next four years.

While Ford’s newfound enthusiasm for performance is impressive and welcome, General Motors has also thrown down the gauntlet in the luxury arena with the 2016 Cadillac CTS-V. Outside of a few outrageously expensive exotic sports cars, you have to look pretty hard to find any rivals that can match the CTS-V’s 640-hp racetrack capabilities and honest 200-mph top speed.

The CTS-V comes on top of Cadillac’s recently revealed ATS-V performance models and underscores the brand’s efforts to be considered on an equal footing with the elite German luxury trio, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi.

Despite strong new products like the ATS, Cadillac is still struggling to gain traction among premium car buyers. A halo model such as the CTS-V could help the GM division break through to the right audience, because it will appeal to younger, highly educated buyers. “These are very discerning customers, who influence others in their choices,” says Tony Roma, CTS-V chief engineer. As well as boasting 640 horsepower from a supercharged 6.2-liter V-8, the CTS-V has a new eight-speed transmission, thoroughly re-worked suspension and braking system and true supercar-level performance.

The thrill of a 200 mph luxury sedan is undeniable, but performance of a different kind is on the agenda for mainstream consumers. For many the reality of infotainment systems — the audio, navigation, voice controlled systems and ‘connected car’ apps — has fallen far short of the promises made by automakers in recent years. In most cases, the performance of these systems has been flawed at best, with confusing screen layouts and functionality, unresponsive voice command routines and many other failings.

Consumer feedback on infotainment systems has been damning and seriously undermined customer satisfaction surveys for several automakers, most notably Ford. The company introduced Sync and MyFord Touch infotainment systems on many models a few years ago and received a barrage of criticism, some justified, some not. The negative response spurred Ford into action and the company has just introduced SYNC 3, a wholly redesigned system with much a clearer user interface and graphics, quicker response times and improved voice recognition.

If SYNC 3 proves to be as dramatic an improvement as Ford claims, then it could be a game changer for the brand and prompt other mainstream automakers to step up the performance of their infotainment systems.

So whether it is performance of the horsepower variety or a much improved in-car entertainment and communications experience, the coming year should be full of promise.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com

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