If you’re thinking of buying a new car in 2014, the trends are mostly positive. The auto market has gotten incredibly competitive as automakers head into the finale of a 15-million-vehicle sales year. That means they’re fighting for market share, and using just about any advantage to get your attention — and your dollars.
If you think you'll be kicking the tires at the local dealership in the coming year, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Cars will drive themselves (sort of). No, you can’t sit in the back and play with your iPhone. But the tech is moving quickly, and we could see autonomous vehicles dominate by 2040. What we’re going to see is a gradual increase in the sophistication of in-car safety equipment. Soon you’ll take it for granted that your car prods you to stay in your lane, warns you when you’re going to hit somebody or go off the road, parks itself, and even takes over for short stretches in traffic jams. Volvo’s new adaptive cruise control, for instance, will look for animals and humans in the road and automatically brake when it encounters them, provide steering assistance, detect objects ahead and feature advanced autonomous parking.
2. Budget cars won’t have to be Spartan. Automakers, particularly American ones, have discovered the low end of the market, once ceded to Japan, Korea and Europe. That means great deals on entry-level cars such as the 2014 Chevrolet Spark or Ford Fiesta (above). The Ford can deliver 45 miles per gallon on the highway, and the Chevy offers 39. And because there’s fierce competition for the youth market, both have access to the latest high-tech gadgets, through MyFord Touch or Chevy’s MyLink. Order a Spark with 1LT trim and you get Bluetooth phone connectivity, streaming audio, a seven-inch touchscreen, satellite radio, and access to phone-based services like Pandora or Amazon Cloud Player. The Spark starts at $12,999, and the Fiesta S at $14,926.
3. Diesel choices will get better. Americans still don’t like diesels much, but they’re warming to them. It’s hard to find a similar combination of high fuel economy (20 to 40 percent better than comparable gas cars) and enormous range — often more than 700 miles (as in the Audi A6 I recently tested). I’d still like to see more lower-end diesels — your best bet on a budget right now are Volkswagens (Beetle, Golf, Jetta, Passat), the Mazda6 and the Chevrolet Cruze. The latter, $25,695, is the most serious Big Three diesel in years, with turbo power offering 46 mpg on the highway. But BMW, Mercedes (such as the 2014 E250 BlueTEC below), Porsche, Dodge and Jeep also offer credible diesels now.
4. Cars will get lighter, but safer. Maybe you won’t notice this much, but it’s going to matter. In a quest for fuel economy numbers, automakers are using more and more lightweighting tricks. That means extensive use of carbon fiber, aluminum (including, as I reported recently, to build the Ford F-150, America's most popular vehicle), and high-strength steel. The new BMW i3 electric car, for example, has a carbon fiber passenger compartment that’s super-strong and light, but virtually invisible to the owner.
5. Hybrids will be ubiquitous. You don’t already own one? Why not? Hybrids are now available in virtually every market segment, and if you can’t afford a new one there are plenty of affordable used choices. Some hybrids, such as the Prius, now come in four models — a budget C, a wagon-type V, the “classic” model and the plug-in hybrid. How about 50 mpg without sacrificing a thing in terms of usability, comfort and range? Right now hybrids are 3 percent of the market, but expect that to climb.
For fun, here's a summary video of what the self-driving car rollout is likely to look like, from 2014 on:
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