THE REAR VIEW CAMERA   View Specs on this Vehicle

We've started seeing these in the high end Japanese SUVs. The Lexus RX330, Infiniti FX, and Acura MDX all have these as options now. Here's what we said about the MDX:

The model we drove also included the rear-mounted back-up camera, which we found useful. Put the MDX in reverse, and the screen that's used for the navigation system instantly shows what's behind you via a little camera built into the lift gate.

Is it worth the additional $2,200 for the package that includes the navigation system and the rearview camera? That's for you to decide. Another concern: As with any new technology, we have no idea how reliable this camera system will prove to be.

But since it's a relatively cheap addition, once you've already got a color (navigation) screen mounted on the dashboard, we expect to see more of these soon.




ADJUSTABLE REAR SEATS   View Specs on this Vehicle

We've occasionally run into these on pseudo limousines, like the old BMW 7 Series, but it looks like they're starting to make their way into regular old cars. Apparently, even the upcoming Chevy Malibu Maxx will have adjustable rear seats. Here's what we said about them in our review of the Lexus RX330:

The back seats even have forward and backward adjustment, so you can recline in the rear seat if you like. It's a nice touch for the rear passengers, or your dog, if he can figure out how to operate the levers.

If there's room, why shouldn't rear seat passengers be able to make themselves a little more comfortable?




THE HONDA ELEMENT'S EASY ACCESS   View Specs on this Vehicle

We found the Element's swing-out side doors very useful, especially those of us with four legged friends:

Note to dog owners--the floor is very low and flat, and that front-opening rear door is perfect for old Rover. You open your door; then open the back door, and the pooch just steps right up through the wide opening into the back. The low floor and easy access are especially great if your dog is old or small and has trouble jumping up onto a tailgate of a traditional wagon or SUV (Note to Honda: Not that we would ever allow a dog in a test car).

Accessibility will be a growing concern of car makers as we middle aged baby boomer farts turn into old baby boomer farts.




VOLVO'S ROLLOVER PREVENTION   View Specs on this Vehicle

This differs from rollover protection, via head bags and side window bags (also good things), in that the system that Volvo devised actually helps prevent roll-overs. Here's what we said about it when we reviewed the XC-90.

Rollovers are the biggest SUV safety hazard these days-at least the biggest hazard to SUVs themselves. So Volvo's big contribution to SUV safety on the XC-90 is their new electronic Roll Stability Control system. It's basically a gyroscopic sensing unit that senses roll, applies individual brakes to control the vehicle's handling, and prevents this SUV from ever rolling over. Well, at least prevents it from rolling over as a result of your driving. If you get hit in the side by a school bus, all bets are off. But it's still an impressive leap forward in safety technology. And Volvo's owner, Ford, will almost certainly use it on other SUVs eventually.

We didn't push the XC-90 all the way to its limits (car companies get awfully annoyed when you overshoot by just a little bit on those "limit" tests), so we can't say for certain that the Roll Stability Control works as described. But we've read reports of other tests in which it was pushed to the limit. And the consensus is that it does work. So, good work, Volvo




AUTOMATIC IGNITION SHUT OFF   View Specs on this Vehicle

We made note of this when we tested the Honda Civic Hybrid early in 2003.

If there's no air conditioning running, perceptive drivers will notice that the Civic often shuts itself off when stopped at a traffic light. Push in the clutch and move the shifter towards first gear, though, and the Civic restarts instantly and unnoticably -- you can hardly feel or hear it. By the time you're ready to let the clutch out, it's already running. That's a nice feature, and one we wish more cars had. We bet it would really cut down on the amount of air pollution in congested areas. Next time you're in a traffic jam, imagine how nice it would be if all of the cars around you shut off whenever they were stopped.




THE TOYOTA PRIUS HYBRID SYNERGY DRIVE   View Specs on this Vehicle

Toyota deserves huge credit for the new 2004 Prius. The old hybrid Prius was pretty amazing in its own right. But Toyota took it back to the lab, and made the batteries smaller, more powerful, and more efficient all at the same time. The result is a car that goes faster and gets better mileage than its predecessor. By the way, Toyota also put the new drive train in a new Prius body with more interior room and a hatchback for added convenience. Toyota is years ahead of its American competitors in hybrid technology.






BIG KNOBS   View Specs on this Vehicle

Yeah, yeah, we know. They've never gone out of style. Actually, wise guy, we're talking about radio knobs. After reaching their nadir in the mid 90s (the era of 10 band graphic equalizers), easy to use radios are making a slow comeback. We're seeing more and more radios that sound great, and are easy to operate. This is an excellent trend, as we noted in our review of the Lexus RX330 this year:

Speaking of the console, the radio is simple to use. In fact, there's even a big, beautiful tuning knob that you can use without taking your eyes off the road. It's so rare these days that it seemed like a luxury in and of itself. Great work, Lexus! (Other manufacturers, are you listening?)

So don't buy a car with lots of tiny little buttons on the dashboard. They're just asking you to take your eyes off the road and crash. Do what we do. Demand huge knobs!





NISSAN/INFINITI'S MOVABLE STEERING POD   View Specs on this Vehicle

We saw this on several Nissan and Infiniti products. Here's what we said about the Infiniti G35:

One very nice and interesting touch: adjust the steering wheel and the entire instrument pod moves up and down with it, so it's always visible through the top opening of the steering wheel. We think it's a neat idea.






NAVIGATION SCREEN ON THE INSTRUMENT PANEL   View Specs on this Vehicle

We saw this on the Audi A8 and the Chrysler Pacifica this past year. Instead of putting the video screen for navigation information on the console in between the driver and passenger, these vehicles put it between the speedometer and the tachometer, right in front of the driver. Seems to us this reduces the amount of time the driver's eyes are off the road-a good thing. It was very easy to glance down quickly and check directions, compared with moving your eyes down and to the right, and waaaay off the road.

Of course, the downside is that the passenger can't program the navigation system while you're driving. Audi solved that by having a center screen, too. But we think that's a small price to pay for driver safety. If you need to re-program, is it too much to ask to pull over and do it safely?