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Cultural Shift

What Sets Cars Apart Today Is Not the Total Package, but the Surprises Inside
The VW Jetta GTI with its accompanying First Act guitar.

The VW Jetta GTI with its accompanying First Act guitar.

From cars with guitars to luxury models that park themselves, the auto industry is introducing new amenities and gadgets that could only have been imagined a generation ago. Some experts say if it’s trendy in the home, soon it will be seen in vehicles of all sizes and price points. And this has many speculating about what’s around the bend.

Mark Thompson, a sales consultant for Balise Lexus in West Springfield, recently spoke with BusinessWest from his car, on the way to a seminar in Boston.

Thompson didn’t need his cell phone to make the call, though. He used only his voice to dial the number, spoke freely while driving, and never took his hands off the wheel. Essentially, technology had allowed him to use his vehicle as a $60,000 phone booth — just one of the conveniences afforded him and the rest of the driving public through new advances in creating ‘networked’ cars.

The new amenities are varied, but the trend is clear: cars are rolling off the assembly line already equipped with a wide range of high-tech bells and whistles aimed at convenience, personalization, and the creation of a certain wow factor.

Auto manufacturers have historically engaged in one-upsmanship to keep their cars viable in a demanding market, but until this decade many of those improvements were geared toward safety concerns — things like anti-lock breaks, airbags, and automatic seatbelts — all of which are now commonplace.

Thompson said that competition raised the bar for all manufacturers, and today, all new cars meet high safety standards.

“Cars have never been safer than they are now,” he said. “And there’s only so much you can do realistically. There is a dollar value connected to new developments, and there comes a point where it’s not worth it to try to invent some new mechanism.”

Those strides in vehicle safety are notable, but the plateau manufacturers across the globe reached also left them with a new challenge.

“The industry needed a new wow factor,” said Thompson, “and everybody likes toys.”

And for many new offerings, ‘toys’ is a good description.

Not all technologically advanced features are necessary for better driving, or even for a more comfortable ride; Volkswagen’s newest promotion, for instance, is a selection of 2007 models outfitted with a jack, into which a First Act GarageMaster electric guitar can be plugged and played through the car’s audio system. The Jetta, Jetta GLI, GTI, Rabbit, New Beetle, and New Beetle Convertible are all compatible with the guitars, which were produced exclusively for the promotion. They’re also the only axes that will play through the car, via a special pre-amp built into the instrument, which also includes the same VIN number as the car it comes with.

Damon Cartelli, general manager of Fathers and Sons, said the ploy is bringing in a good number of curious shoppers, and is indicative of Volkswagen’s unique approach to marketing.

“VW is very progressive, and always has been,” said Cartelli, “and with this promotion they’ve really wrapped their hands around their audience.”

Staging a Coupe

While the guitar promotion, which will run until the end of the year, is more a savvy advertising campaign than an application of new technology to create a better driving experience, Cartelli said it also underscores how affordable and accessible new technology is becoming.

“The guitars are available on cars priced from $14,900 or so and up,” he said. “New technology isn’t just for luxury models anymore. Cars across the board are coming equipped with things like GPS systems, adaptive cruise control — you don’t need to use the brake, sensors tell the car when to slow down — and Bluetooth capability.

“People are coming in to see the VWs with the guitars,” he said, “because that’s truly unique. But as they take a closer look they’re realizing that they can afford to have practical amenities too.”

Nick Twork, public affairs manager for Ford Motor Company’s technology division, said the preponderance of those practical features is not relegated to foreign models — Ford has unveiled a long list of new features that will come standard in several 2007 Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury models and will be added or made available in several existing models including the Ford Explorer, Lincoln Navigator, Ford Mustang, Mercury Milan, and Ford Fusion.

Those product highlights include power-fold mirrors, rear-seat entertainment systems, reverse sensors, cooled seats, navigation systems, and SIRIUS satellite radio, added to 14 different cars this year.

“Navigation systems are probably the biggest addition to our cars,” he said, “and auxiliary jacks for mp3 capability. But new technology is rolling out fast and furious, and there is much more to come in the near future. All I can say is ‘stay tuned.’”

The influx of vehicles at all price points equipped with things like GPS navigation systems and Bluetooth is still a relatively new phenomenon, despite its breadth. Cartelli said that, as recently as four years ago, only a handful of makes included GPS systems, and even then, they were more expensive and less reliable than they are now.

“New technology is so much more cost-effective that features once seen only in luxury models are being added to all types of cars,” he said, listing among them rain- sensitive windshield wipers, back-end camera systems, and built-in, voice-controlled phones and radios. “Soon, every car will be Bluetooth-ready. It’s not an expensive technology, and as manufacturers recognize the need to compete, they’re looking to make anything standard in their cars that’s going to give them the edge.”

Thompson agreed, saying it’s all about creating and preserving brand identity in this new climate.

“The reason why we’re seeing this distinct personalizing of cars is because if you look at cars on the road, you’ll see the same aerodynamics, the same fenders, the same hood … the bumper might be a little different, but everything else in the outer design is geared toward fuel efficiency. It’s harder then ever to tell one make from another — what sets cars apart from others now is the items on the inside.”

Sound Advice

And again, in the interest of personalization, some of those items are little more than fun extras, like electric guitar jacks or built-in hard disk drives that have 13.9 gigabytes of storage and can play up to 2,000 mp3 files without the use of an outside music player. But others are geared toward road warriors and other professionals, in the interest of making vehicles more conducive places in which to work.

Increasingly, cars are equipped with Internet-ready computer systems and screens for browsing or checking e-mail, and Bluetooth capability, which allows for a number of networked functions that are prompted by simple voice commands in many instances.

“Calls can be made from the car without taking your hands off the steering wheel — no phone, no ear buds, no dialing,” said Thompson, who spoke with BusinessWest using just such a system. “I can also check my E-mail and listen to anything from my music library.

“These things were unheard of 10 years ago, but we’re a commuter society,” he said, “and it’s a necessity now, not a right, to drive a car. Manufacturers are trying to make them as homelike as possible.”

In fact, auto manufacturers seem to be taking their cues from the home and garden market, where technologically advanced entertainment, convenience, and Internet-based products already abound.

“What you see in homes now is what we will see in cars in the future,” said Thompson, noting that DVD players, Internet access, and in-car coolers or mini-refrigerators are currently widespread. “I think gaming systems will be next.”

Beyond those home-like features, though, are some new convenience-based advances that are unique to the automotive market. Some are simple and useful, like push-button power folding seats or keyless entry systems that detect when a set of keys, even those buried in a purse or pocket, are approaching the vehicle. Others are more dazzling, like the new self-parking Lexus that is creating a buzz within the luxury car market. Thompson said the car is an answer to a problem for many drivers — the onus of parallel parking — and also further proof of the evolution of automotive technology.

“A lot of people have trouble parallel parking, and in this car, you really do just hit the button and sensors guide you into the spot,” he explained, noting that the feature also lessens the added difficulty in parking due to two safety items already present on the car — larger headrests, which can create new blind spots, and more streamlined aerodynamics, which make it hard to see out of the back of the car. “This system lets the driver guide the car until it gives the green light, literally, at which point they can take their hands off the steering wheel and the car does the rest.”

Business Turnaround

That notion of letting the car do much of the work is a major driver in the race to offer the most current technology. Where the line will be drawn is still unclear, but Thompson said there are a few things on his own personal wish list.

“I’m still waiting for someone to come up with a car-ready microwave and blender,” he said.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]