5 Luxury Auto Gadgets We All Get Now


DETROIT (MainStreet) -- Once, automobiles were only for the wealthy.

But as throughout history, as technology marches on the accoutrements of wealth become available to the masses. Once it was the automobile itself. Today, it is gadgets such as iPod-friendly stereos and keyless entry.

"The trend with technology in general and features in cars is that they start out as luxury items when they are first released," says Dave Merline, managing editor of the staff at web2Carz, a Chicago-based auto shopping site. "Then, as they catch on, they get put in more cars and they become cheaper, and as they become cheaper they get put in more cars."

Looking back, Merline says, "if you wanted a car with one of them newfangled rearview mirrors in it, you had to upgrade from your $800 Model T Ford (Stock Quote: F) to a $2,700 Marmon 32." (This was in 1911, by the way.)

Later, in 1951, "if you were tired of getting physically exhausted by the effort it took to turn the steering wheel enough to round corners, you could spend a few extra grand to get a Chrysler Imperial with its easy-as-pie power steering feature," he says.

Recently, Merline and Tim Healey, web2carz senior writer, got together to select today's top five gadgets we all get now but that were once something special for luxury car owners.

Here is the list, in alphabetical order:

Dual airbags
Dual airbags were once available only to Mercedes drivers, but other automakers eventually signed on, prompted by federal requirements: Starting in 1989, a passive restraint for the driver was required, and a 1998 enhancement required dual front airbags.

"Airbags were controversial for a while," Merline recalls. "People said they could cause more harm than good."

Now, airbag exclusivity involves how many airbags a car offers. Seven is standard equipment in the Mercedes C-Class, Toyota (Stock Quote: TM) Camry and some large GM (Stock Quote: GM) 2013 crossovers as well as the 2013 Buick Enclave.

Heated seats
Heated seats first became available when GM installed carbon cloth heating pads in the cushions and seatbacks on the 1966 Cadillac.

"Until the last decade, heated seats were only available in mid- and upper-end cars," Merline says. "Now they are becoming much more common. There are very few cars where you cannot get them." The Chevy Sonic, Volkswagen's New Beetle, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra cost less than $20,000 and still offer heated seats.

Today, to find exclusivity in the heating department, you have to look to the rear seats and steering wheel. Additionally, cooled seats, which reduce the heat of the leather in hot climates, can be found on some BMWs and Cadillacs.

iPod-friendly stereos
The first cars to offer iPod or MP3-capable sound systems were sporty Japanese cars.

"The 2001 Mazda Protege was the first car to offer an MP3-capable audio system, even though the 1991 Mitsubishi Galant and 3000GT offered an auxiliary input port, when MP3 players were still several years in the future," according to web2carz.

Here the auto industry was a bit slow to adapt: It has taken nearly a decade for standard equipment on most cars to enable iPod connectivity. "They wanted to wait and see whether iPods would stick around," Merline says.

Today, most cars have USB ports so an iPod display can be viewed on the center stack, and in most cases the iPod can be synced to the car's system. At the least, there is an auxiliary port so you can connect an iPod with a cord and control volume with the dashboard controls. "The future will be that you have all of that controlled by voice commands," Merline says. "You would name the artist or song you wanted to hear."

Keyless entry
Perhaps the best example of widespread availability of a once unique feature involves keyless entries.

"Now even the cheapest cars have a button on the key fob that allows ingress to the cabin," web2carz say. "Even the Smart ForTwo has keyless entry."

Initially keyless entry involved touchpad entry, which was common on Lincoln Town Cars in the 1990s, but key fobs proved the superior technology.

"Mercedes was the first to have smart keys," Merline says. "Now the new thing is driver sensing: Cadillac has a technology that recognizes your key fob and opens the door when you get close to your car. You can even start the car without putting the key in the ignition. The new ATS has a start button."

Navigation systems
The first car to offer a built-in navigation system was the 1981 Accord, which "featured the $3,000 pre-GPS dash-top behemoth known as the Electro Gyrocator," according to web2carz.

Later, modern satellite-based navigation systems were seen in limousines or luxury cars, or as a $1,000-plus aftermarket accessory. The rental car industry played a role in ensuring that navigation systems quickly became widely available.

Today, all of the leading in-car communications systems, such as MyFordTouch and GM's OnStar, include navigation components. "Every single car at the Detroit Auto Show had a display touchscreen in the center stack, and they all had navigation systems available as an option," Merline says.

Luxury features, whether truly "luxury" or not, are only one part of someone's buying decision when considering a new car. Check out MainStreet's roundup of the "Healthiest Cars of 2011" to see which ones will cause the least maintenance headaches!

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