2015 Autos: Luxury is the New Normal

High-end features adorn the latest models, as automakers use technology to woo buyers.

November 26, 2014

If you haven’t been in the market for a new vehicle for a while, you could be in for a shock when it’s time to trade in your current model.

The U.S. market is getting more crowded and competitive than ever, and the typical vehicle is coming loaded with features that would have seemed hard to imagine a few years ago. Even base models are likely to have the sort of safety, comfort, and convenience technologies that once would have been exclusive to the luxury-car market.

A tour of the recent Los Angeles Auto Show offered more than a hint of how the market is changing. The annual event brought the debut of more than 30 all-new models and an equal number making their first appearance in North America. Two decades ago, you could count all the different products from Mercedes-Benz on one hand. Today, the maker is rolling out a new offering about every three months. And the pace is even faster for mainstream manufacturers.

Those products no longer fall into easy, familiar categories. There are still plenty of sedans, coupes, and convertibles, as well as SUVs, pickups, and minivans. But there are also four-door coupes, hardtop convertibles, and an array of hard-to-describe offerings that fall into the nebulous category of “crossovers.” How else would you describe something like the new Volvo V60 Cross Country, a coupe-like wagon that has the height and road stance of a sport-utility vehicle?

However you want to describe them, today’s vehicles deliver a lot more of, well, just about everything. Buyers “don’t want to compromise,” says Mike Accavitti, president of Honda’s upscale Acura division. Trade-offs are passé, so even if you’re looking for great fuel economy, you’re also likely to get reasonable performance. Consider the new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray: The two-seat sports car has always been known for its great performance, which has improved this year with its V-8 punching out 455 horsepower. But that same engine can deliver a surprising 30 miles per gallon on the highway thanks to new technologies such as direct injection and cylinder deactivation, the latter letting it operate in four-cylinder mode when power demands are light.

Technology is the key. The digital revolution that underlies your latest smartphone is also transforming the automobile into a high-tech wonder. Perhaps that’s most apparent when it comes to safety. Even some entry-level models, such as the Honda HR-V that premiered in L.A., now feature blind-spot detection and forward collision warning. The big Mercedes-Benz S-Class features everything from infrared night vision to a radar system that can slam on the brakes to prevent a collision with another vehicle, bicycle, or pedestrian.

Advanced technical convenience features include auto parking systems. Afraid to squeeze into a tight spot? Press a button and let the car do it for you. Over the next few years, we’ll see even more advanced self-driving features. Cadillac’s upcoming SuperDrive will take over the wheel entirely when you’re on a limited-access freeway. Nissan plans to go even further with a fully autonomous car it promises to bring to market in 2020. Tech giant Google is ready to begin field testing a fleet of vehicles that won’t even have steering wheels or gas and brake pedals.

The latest microprocessors also make it possible to build in the sort of infotainment technologies you’d find in more advanced homes and offices. The Tesla Model S features a touchscreen as large as the biggest laptop computer to virtually operate all of its functions. The latest Chevrolet models are adding 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspots. And a growing number of vehicles let you integrate smartphone apps, such as Pandora and Spotify, so you can play music from an iPhone and control everything from the car’s touchscreen or steering wheel buttons.

Of course, technology isn’t everything. Good design still matters. And the battleground of the U.S. market has led most automakers to up their styling skills, which is why you’re seeing more breakthrough designs targeting so-called “white space” niches that may never have existed before.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.