Start Your Engines
Buying a new car ranks right up there with visits to the dentist and tax audits as most people’s least favorite experiences. And it’s gotten even more frustrating and complicated thanks to all the new technology coming to modern vehicles.
It doesn’t help that the latest connected cars can vary widely in user-friendliness and available features. So it’s essential that you know what to look before starting to shop for a new vehicle. And given that a new car is such a large purchase—and you’ll likely be holding on to a vehicle for at least a few years—you have to live with that choice much longer compared with, say, deciding which new smartphone or tablet to buy.
Here are some of the main technologies you want to keep in mind when shopping for a new car:
This list consists exclusively of electric and hybrid vehicles. These cars eschew standard gasoline engines for much more technologically advanced and fuel-efficient means of propulsion. You still need to top them off in some form or another, though.
Hybrid vehicles use both a gasoline engine and an electric motor instead of relying on gas alone. The electric motor works in tandem with the engine, assisting with most maneuvers to use much less gas. Conversely, the gas engine helps keep the battery charged through regenerative breaking, putting power back into the battery that drives the electric motor every time you coast to a stop.
Electric vehicles drop the gasoline engine entirely and rely only on electricity to run. The trade-off is that fueling takes much longer and can be more difficult to find, and the range for these vehicles is limited. You need to plug electric vehicles in to charge them, and if you set up a quick charger at your home you can easily top off in about half an hour. If a dedicated charger isn’t handy, though, charging through a power cable plugged into a more conventional 110/120-volt outlet can take four to eight hours.
Plug-in hybrids are, well, hybrid hybrids. They’re hybrid vehicles that charge like electric cars and can run entirely off of the electric motor and battery for a distance. If you need to drive farther than the battery allows, a gasoline engine lets you keep going without plugging it in. They offer the environmental friendliness of an electric vehicle while providing options for when you can’t find a charging station and don’t want to wait hours to drive.
Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are still in their fledgling stages, even compared with hybrids and electric vehicles. They use hydrogen instead of gasoline to drive their motors, which makes them emission-free and environmentally friendly. They also have a much farther range than electric vehicles. The problem is that they’re currently California-only vehicles, because that’s the only state where you’ll find hydrogen fuel stations with any remote regularity.
These vehicles are all much more green and economical in the long term than cars that rely only on gasoline engines. However, they’re consistently more expensive than conventional vehicles (at least initially; the savings in fuel can help make up for that with a few years of driving), and they generally offer less cargo space. The trunks of most hybrid and electric vehicles are at least partially occupied by the bulky battery needed to drive the electric motor, so there simply isn’t as much room in the back for your groceries or suitcases.
Connectivity and Apps
Connectivity is what lets you access navigation, real-time traffic updates, local search, and more while on the road. That’s why automakers are aggressively adding connectivity and in-dash apps to vehicles in three varieties: embedded, tethered, and a hybrid approach.
Embedded connectivity means there’s a modem in the vehicle (and a subscription is usually required) to connect to the cloud. Tethered systems leverage the connectivity—and data plan—of your portable device by syncing to the car’s infotainment system. The hybrid approach uses a combination of the two: embedded connectivity for critical functions such as automatic crash notification, and tethered connectivity for, say, infotainment apps.
We prefer the tethered approach (and not paying a monthly subscription) that’s best exemplified by systems that feature Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Apple and Google’s tethering ecosystems offer broad support across multiple infotainment platforms.
Blueooth was originally just for hands-free phone usage, but has evolved into providing streaming music from a portable device. It also serves as the link between a car’s infotainment system and designated apps on your smartphone. Compatibility issues that have plagued the connection between phones and cars can still be a problem, however. That’s why it’s important to make sure your devices and new car can communicate with one another.
In fact, when you’re test-driving new vehicles, make sure to spend time trying out the tech features. Get to know the operation of the infotainment system, understand how the car connects to the cloud and which apps are available, listen to the audio system and check out its music sources, enter a destination into the navigation system, and pair your device with the car via Bluetooth and make a few phone calls. This way you lessen your chance of buying a car with poor technology that you’ll be stuck with for years to come.
Knowing how to get where you’re going is vital when driving, which is why in-dash navigation systems have made paper maps almost obsolete. And nav systems have gotten better with cloud connectivity, allowing for real-time traffic info, local search, and compatibility with portable devices.
However, these days we all have an advanced GPS system in our pocket in the form of a smartphone, and that’s where tethered connections are helpful. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto let you use your phone’s map system of choice on the dashboard screen, which is often more accurate and up to date than some navigation systems.
Last but not least is actually one of the first things you should consider when buying a new vehicle, and that’s safety. Modern driver-assist systems use various combinations of cameras and sensors to keep track of dangers you may not notice, like the car ahead of you suddenly hitting the breaks, or another car approaching in your blind spot. Dash cams are useful in case you do get in a fender bender, as they continuously record what happens and can be used to limit your liability.
Depending on the driver assists in your vehicle, you might receive an alert warning you of potential hazards, while some systems will automatically take over for you. And that’s worth a heck of a lot more than a new sound system.
Here you’ll find a list of vehicles we tested that are examples of the best car tech in the categories above. If you’re looking to upgrade your exisiting ride, check out some of our favorite ways to soup up your current ride with tech.
Pros: Long EV range. Solid on- and off-road performance. Innovative cabin tech.
Cons: No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
Bottom Line: The all-electric 2019 Jaguar I-Pace SUV offers impressive performance, style, comfort, and tech, along with 240 miles of driving range.
Pros: Exceptional fuel efficiency. Abundant standard driver assists. Amazon Alexa and Apple CarPlay included.
Cons: Sluggish acceleration. Downmarket interior.
Bottom Line: If you’re looking for an economical and fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle for safe, reliable commuting, it’s hard to beat the no-frills 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid.
Pros: Clever battery placement. High fuel efficiency. Smooth ride. Customizable infotainment screen.
Cons: Powertrain complains when rapidly accelerating. Adaptive cruise has long stop gaps. Awkward push-button gear selector.
Bottom Line: The Honda Accord Hybrid Touring balances fuel efficiency with performance, making it an ideal midsize sedan for daily commuters dealing with stop-and-go traffic.
Pros: Elegant exterior. Packed with standard features. New app integration with Alexa and Waze compatibility. Co-Pilot360 driver assist technology. 20 percent greater range.
Cons: Limited trunk space. Grabby brakes. Not a dynamic driving experience.
Bottom Line: Reliable and comfortable, the Ford Fusion Energi Titanium is a good-looking daily commuter car that will save you money on fuel.
Pros: Best fuel economy in the segment. Top-of-class safety features. Strong reliability ratings.
Cons: Distracting Infotainment interface. Sluggish acceleration and handling compared with competitors. Small cargo space.
Bottom Line: While not the most head-turning vehicle in the luxury crossover segment, the Lexus NX 300h boasts top-notch safety features and fuel economy.
Pros: Long EV range. Larger infotainment touchscreen. Over-the-air updates.
Cons: Most driver assists are only available on top trim. Least range of competitors with slightly higher price.
Bottom Line: With the 2019 Leaf Plus adding longer range, faster charging, improved performance, and more tech amenities, Nissan is well positioned to increase its EV market share.
Pros: Affordable. All-wheel drive. Excellent fuel efficiency. Reliable commuter car.
Cons: No Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. Awkwardly placed instrument panel.
Bottom Line: If you want a hybrid vehicle that can get you through winter weather, the Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e offers solid value for the price.
Pros: Straightforward infotainment system and connectivity. Base model loaded with standard features. Car-like handling.
Cons: No AWD option. Lacks cargo room compared with comparable crossovers. Sluggish acceleration.
Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a plug-in electric hybrid crossover that can run on battery power for short trips and you don’t need all-wheel drive and tons of cargo room, the 2019 Kia Niro is a good choice-even if it’s one of your only ones.
Pros: Impeccable off-road capability. Good on-road giddy up. Electric-only power for short commutes.
Cons: Kludgy infotainment system. Harsh powertrain transitions. Inconsistent electric-only range.
Bottom Line: While a rare vehicle in a rare segment, it’s hard to recommend the 2019 Range Rover PHEV based on its performance for the price.