With a product like the automobile, which has been around for more than a century, there aren't a lot of dramatic changes most years. Ford did it in the 1990s with the SUV; Chrysler with the minivan. But, mostly, changes in non-commercial vehicles designed to transport a person or family and personal stuff are incremental.
This year, the changes are about electronics. There have been electronics in cars since the end of the crank start. The electric starter motor eliminated the need to crank the car by hand, and eliminated the broken wrists that occurred when the car backfired and the crank shot back around at the startled driver. (This new technology -- full disclosure -- hurt the finances of my grandfather, a city doctor who used to set the wrists of early motorists).
After the starter motor, then came windshield wipers and the Blaupunkt radio in the Studebaker -- talk about your driver distraction for those laughing at "Fibber McGee and Molly."
Electronics in cars these days make the old radios, with the dials that had push buttons that would move the tuner and whistling noises between stations, seem as quaint as the old Dodge Dart with its boxy hood and fins.
This year, Chrysler is resurrecting the Dodge Dart, or at least the name. While Darts of old had long hoods and round headlights, and were mostly available with a three-speed transmission on a V8, the new version with a six-speed manual doesn't even look like a distant cousin.
Sure, both have four wheels and are made by Chrysler, but there is nothing retro about the new Dart.
It looks like most contemporary small sedans, having more in common with a Toyota Camry than a classic Chrysler. It also has bells and whistles on its bells and whistles, including a SiriusXM Travel Link that provides information on weather when rolling down the window isn't enough. The system can provide fuel prices and locations, allowing you to drive farther out of the way to pay less for gasoline. It has scores and schedules available for baseball, hockey, NASCAR, golf, and professional and college football and basketball. The Sirius system has a database of movie listings for 4,500 theaters, which can be located, with directions, by the car's Garmin navigation system.
Navigation systems are really in. Most new cars now come with a navigation system option of one sort or another. In the past, when my uncle asked my aunt about how much farther they had to go, she would look at the map and say, "About an inch." Not anymore.
Navigation systems may have turn-by-turn directions, but they lack that sense of humor.
Hyundai's Elantra, which was named the car of the year last month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, has jacks for iPods and USB ports and XM Satellite Radio. Upgrades include a navigation system with a 7-inch color display and a camera to show what you are about to hit when you are backing up.
Ford will be bringing out its 2013 Escape, Fusion, Mustang and Taurus models. Like other manufacturers, Ford cars are loading up with various technologies. The Ford "Sync" system is a marriage of Ford and Microsoft, which is not a name normally associated with cars. The Sync system allows drivers to talk to the car to make calls, pick out music and even get directions, eliminating the need to ask a gas station attendant. It does beg the question of whether every now and then, when you are driving down the road, the car will automatically shut down and restart to install updates.
Ford also has options using radar built into the car that can let drivers make decisions in advance, such as the adaptive cruise control in which the driver pre-sets how much cushion he wants to give the car in front of him. When the car pulls up on another, it leaves 29 yards, 44 yards or 66 yards and slows to the speed of the car ahead until there is clear road. Radar also can be used in a Ford to warn a driver backing out of a parking space about the approach of another car, which is handy when your car is between two SUVs. It has another sensor to tell a driver when another vehicle is in the driver's blind spot.
look for updates today on my twitter, including best of show