Sleek. Sophisticated. Powerful. Auto manufacturers have moved beyond the practicality of the Flintstones' foot-powered vehicles and are focusing on the space-age amenities enjoyed by the Jetsons. Cars that drive themselves, report real-time traffic conditions and offer the latest high-tech gadgets are already on the market. If you're a trendsetter who likes to ride in comfort with all the latest luxury features, there's no time like the present.

Entertainment
Thanks to in-car entertainment systems that deliver what you want when you want it, drivers can turn their cars into integrated media hubs. Now music lovers can download CDs directly to their cars with a hard disc drive audio system or play their tunes from a flash drive plugged into a USB port. If you prefer to bring your MP3 player, look for a car with an auxiliary input jack. Other options that might appeal to the discriminating listener are satellite radio, which offers at least 120 commercial-free stations, or HD radio, which offers near-CD quality sound on an FM station. If your passengers would rather watch movies or play video games, they can enjoy the latest entertainment on their own flat screen televisions.

Safety
Safety has moved to the forefront of the technology revolution. With tire pressure warning gauges and "smart airbags" that detect front seat passengers, you have more safety options than ever. Radar has moved out of the cockpit and into the driver's seat. Collision mitigation, also called anticipatory braking, uses radar to help drivers brake before an accident happens. A combination of radar and cameras can help you avoid blind spots. And those long road trips just got easier with adaptive cruise control systems that maintain a safe distance from the car ahead of you using forward-looking radar.

Auto manufacturers are also taking their cues from electronics wizards and the military. Night vision technology, first introduced in 1999, hasn't caught on — yet. But some experts predict its potentially life-saving features will soon be in demand; using infrared sensors, night vision helps drivers see in fog, snowstorms, heavy rain and avoid night collisions.

Many drivers are already familiar with hands-free Bluetooth technology that allows you to dial your cell phone through voice commands spoken into a car microphone. If your car has skid control, it can electronically brake if it senses you're in danger. There are even cars with lane departure warning that can alert tired drivers from drifting out of their lane.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS)
People who hate to ask for directions have flocked to Global Positioning Systems. But now GPS can do a lot more than get you home. With help from satellite communication, on-board navigation systems can find local restaurants and businesses, report real time traffic, look up phone numbers, recognize voice commands and track a stolen car. You can save frequently used routes on most GPS navigators to get you to your favorite places with ease. GPS units are also integrating features into one package; various in-car models allow you to play MP3s and audio books through your car speakers, store JPEGs, watch DVDs, check currency rates and listen to directions in multiple languages. Integrated GPS and phone systems allow emergency services to easily contact and locate you.

Performance
The latest car trends haven't left performance in the dust. Hate to parallel park? There are cars that will do it for you. If you're more interested in speed, compact and mid-size cars have more power thanks to redesigned engines. And environmentally friendly cars that can help you save on gas are no longer "econoboxes." Already a fixture in Europe, stylish smaller cars are hitting the American market with features like personalized wheels, paint, and entertainment systems. Hybrid cars with more options are also rolling off the assembly line.

Luxury
Fortunately, luxury and comfort are also on the rise with savvy buyers seeking cars with personality. Beyond leather trim and massage seats, designers are focusing on interior lighting that provides theatrical effects. And while heated seats are still popular, the latest climate control systems can adjust temperature with help from the position of the sun and the car's GPS unit. Other luxury models measure passengers' body surface temperatures to adjust the interior climate. If you would prefer to cool off with a cold drink, look for a hot/cold cup holder or a cool box that will keep your food and beverages chilled.

So, what about the car's exterior? You can expect to find dramatic headlights, larger front grills, elaborate sunroofs, larger wheels and sharper angles. Paint jobs just got a makeover on some models with a "self-healing" clear coat of paint that makes minor scratches disappear. While silver is still the most popular paint color, consumers are increasingly interested in neutral tones with hints of color and bright colors for small, sporty vehicles. Green is expected to make a comeback with the rise of environmentally friendly green products. And although consumers appreciate light, car windows are shrinking. Designers say that the rising beltline, the line that splits the lower body of the car and its windows, provides drivers with a sense of security and the impression of height in lower model cars.

Whether your passion is music, style or power, there's a trend to satisfy your desires. With so many options for luxury, performance, safety and entertainment, you may never want to leave the road.

 

© 2009 AutoTrader.com, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Holly Day is a staff writer at AutoTrader.com. She has worked on "The Drew Carey Show," associated produced for The Discovery Channel, written promos for Nickelodeon and taught 12th grade literature and journalism. She lives in Decatur, Georgia.

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