Packed with radars, sensors, cameras, and more, the techiest cars of 2014 aren't quite ready to drive themselves, but they are ready to compensate for their drivers' all-too-human failings, whether it's straying from the lane or sucking at parallel parking. They also boast the latest in human-to-car interfaces, including multiple screens, touchpads, joysticks, and even writing input.
Connectivity is the third big trend in high-tech cars: Who offers it, for how much, and with which apps. And yes, there is a car that smells great--take a whiff of the Mercedes-Benz S550, below. (What you won't see are the latest all-electric and hybrid cars, which merit a list all their own.)
As car tech hurtles toward a self-driving future, the line between the human's duties and the car's is increasingly foggy. If 2014's techiest cars say anything, it's that your vehicle's skills may soon matter more than your own.
1. Infiniti Q50
The Infiniti Q50 tops our list with an industry first: Direct Adaptive Steering (or DAS), also known as drive-by-wire, because it controls steering using an all-electronic method (although there is a backup mechanical system). DAS in turn enables two safety features--active lane control and predictive forward collision warning--that make it one of the closest things you'll find to an autonomous vehicle.
Active lane control monitors lane markings with a forward-facing camera and adjusts the steering angle accordingly. Predictive forward collision warning alerts you if the car ahead of you is slowing down or stopping--and it can also watch the car ahead of that one.
Infiniti's InTouch infotainment system in the Q50 comprises two center-console touchscreens and serves up vehicle apps such as email, driving performance, and a stylized compass, as well as InTouch navigation and a digital concierge service.
2. Lexus IS 350 F Sport
The IS 350 F Sport is the techiest of all IS models. Let's start with the fun parts. The Drive Mode Select dial on the center console lets you toggle effortlessly between a sensible Eco driving mode, and a performance-oriented Sport mode. For a bit more race-car flavor, the IS 350 F Sport also has a moveable instrument-cluster dial that's inspired by the Lexus LFA supercar.
You control the main display not with your finger or buttons, but with Remote Touch, a joystick that looks like a soft, leather pad and is impressively responsive. Two minor issues: You'll have to take your eyes off the road to ensure that you're landing on the right place on screen, and pressing the joystick to select something can feel awkward.
Lexus throws in real-time weather and traffic data (delivered via HD radio) for free, but its subscription-based Lexus Enform infotainment suite is a worthy addition, with a handful of apps, live navigation assistance, and a 24-hour concierge service. It's free for the first year and $264.90 per year thereafter.
3. Acura RLX
The Acura RLX has little luxuries, like illuminated door handles and self-retracting side mirrors. It has sophisticated safety features, like the Lane Keeping Assist System we tested, which works at highways speeds to keep the car centered. And finally it has AcuraLink, a subscription-based telematics system with a remote-control app for the car.
From your compatible smartphone (Android or iOS), AcuraLink lets you monitor your car's tire pressure, oil and gas levels, and other basics, plus you can lock or unlock the doors, flash the lights, or even blow the horn from afar. Unfortunately, you have to upgrade to a higher-end AcuraLink package to get the mobile app.
In the center console, the top, 8-inch screen displays most of the car's infotainment features. The bottom, 7-inch touchscreen rotates buttons for audio, climate, and general input. Physical buttons may also be used. A feature that's literally cool is the GPS-linked climate control, which monitors the sun's intensity and position relative to the car to maintain a comfortable interior temperature.
4. Cadillac XTS
The Cadillac XTS features Cadillac's signature CUE infotainment system, which includes an 8-inch touchscreen and an all-touch center stack. That's right: Everything from the volume slider to the climate control buttons is touch-sensitive, with haptic feedback. A nice bonus is the storage space behind the center stack: Just tap a touch-sensitive button to stash your smartphone or other small device. The XTS also offers a colorful head-up display for the driver and twin rear-seat DVD screens for the passengers.
In addition to lane-departure and forward-collision warnings, the XTS can locate a parking spot and steer the car into it, while you control the gas and brake pedals (similar to what we've seen on cars such as the Ford Escape Titanium). The Intellibeam headlights switch themselves from regular to high-beam mode unless it senses oncoming traffic.
5. Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
Chevy's flagship Corvette Stingray muscle car isn't just about horsepower. But it does have a driver-mode selector with five presets, which adjust 12 vehicle attributes to fit the driver's mood and environment.
Inside, it has multiple screens: an 8-inch HD instrument-cluster screen that can display a tachometer, car statistics, and real-time performance data (typically used on the racetrack), and an 8-inch center console touchscreen for Chevy's MyLink infotainment system. The Stingray also features a color head-up display that shows speed, RPM, drive mode, G-force meter, and navigation.
MyLink (whose features vary somewhat based on the car model) lets you connect your smartphone to access music, apps, and phone capabilities. Behind MyLink's touchscreen is a small storage space--a nice feature, because Corvettes aren't exactly known for their spacious interiors.
6. Ford Fusion
Considering its affordable price, the Ford Fusion boasts a ton of cutting-edge car tech.
The Lane Keeping System (LKS) uses a forward-facing camera to alert you via sound and steering wheel vibration. As a last resort, it applies pressure to the steering to return the car to the center of its lane.
Adaptive cruise control's "brake support" can slow the car down if it thinks you're going to crash. Active parking assist resembles what's in the Cadillac XTS (or the Fusion's cousin, the Ford Escape Titanium): The Fusion maneuvers itself into a spot with your help on the accelerator and brake pedals.
The Fusion also features Ford Sync with AppLink, which lets you connect your smartphone to your car and operate apps via voice recognition, and MyFord Touch, which handles infotainment through an 8-inch, center-console touchscreen. Higher-level trim packages on the Fusion also offer two customizable instrument-cluster screens for MyFord Touch.
7. Audi A6 TDI
The Audi A6 TDI sports a 7-inch retractable screen and Audi's MMI touch input system with handwriting recognition. MMI lets you twirl, press, and swipe to control the screen. Search terms and addresses can be entered multiple ways, including by "writing" on a touch-sensitive pad in the center console. This last method is a bit slow, but it's pretty easy to do (for righties, anyway). Audi's excellent voice-recognition system can also control all of the car's infotainment features.
The A6 TDI comes with six months of free Audi Connect, which is Audi's in-car Internet service. Audi Connect enhances navigation with Google Earth, lets you search locally via Google Voice, and turns your car into a Wi-Fi hotspot with connectivity for up to eight devices.
The A6 TDI's safety features include blind-spot monitoring, rear-collision sensing, adaptive cruise control, and an infrared camera with thermal-imaging that helps you see pedestrians in low-light situations (up to 300 feet away). The car also has power folding mirrors and top- and corner-view cameras to help with parking.
8. Mercedes-Benz S550
The Mercedes-Benz S550 has the most decadent and luxurious tech: a customizable scent control system and optional massage chairs for the driver and passenger seats. The back seats can be equipped with optional independent screens. The car can even scan the road for rough patches and adjust the car's suspension to maintain a smooth ride.
Like Infiniti, Acura, and Ford, Mercedes-Benz is offering an active lane-keeping system that nudges you back into place when necessary. Unlike Acura, however, the S550's system works at speeds from 0 to 124 mph.
The real tech selling point, however, is the S550's dual-screen setup. Two 12.3-inch HD screens sit side by side, almost blending together. One screen replaces the instrument cluster, similar in intent (if not size) to the huge display in the Tesla Model S. The other floats above the center console and has touch controls for various luxury features in the car. The mbrace2 subscription-based connectivity plan isn't cheap, but it includes a 24-hour concierge service that can help with pretty much anything except your kids' homework.
9. BMW 3 Series Sedan
The BMW 3 Series may be the ultimate driving machine, but it was also the first to have on-board Internet access (by subscription) via its ConnectedDrive service. The BMW Connected App (for iPhone or iPod) offers social-media conveniences such as reading status messages aloud, plus Wikipedia-based travel information. BMW's Mobile Office connects to your compatible phone via Bluetooth to view appointments and listens to unread emails and text messages.
Safety tech includes a parking assistant (you control gas/brake) and active cruise control that keeps you a specified distance from the car in front of you. The car has both rear-view camera and surround-view cameras, lane departure warning, and collision warning.
10. Jeep Grand Cherokee
The Jeep Grand Cherokee has a large, 7-inch screen in the instrument cluster and an 8.4-inch touchscreen for Chrysler's subscription-based Uconnect infotainment system. You can customize the instrument-cluster screen, while the Uconnect screen displays multimedia, navigation info (via Garmin), audio and climate controls, and hands-free phone capabilities (including texting). Uconnect's radio apps remain sparse, but Chrysler says Pandora and Aha Radio are coming.
For driving tech, the Grand Cherokee offers Selec-Speed, which helps you ascend and descend steep hills by monitoring throttle, speed, and braking, and a special terrain traction control system (called "Selec-Terrain") that lets you choose from five traction modes.
The Grand Cherokee's safety tech includes adaptive cruise control, rain-sensitive wipers, and rain brake support.