In December we invited you to vote for the 2009 Tech Car of the Year from our five nominees. And in a unanimous decision between you, the voting public, and our Car Tech judges, the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid wins the award. Although it faced some stiff competition, the combination of an excellent hybrid power train and the most advanced cabin tech in the business gave the Fusion Hybrid the edge. Ford and Toyota hybrid power trains work along similar principles, but Ford raised the bar by tuning it to work under electric power at higher speeds while delivering a very satisfying driving experience, with acceleration you can count on. With fuel economy pushing the 40 mpg mark, this midsize sedan makes trips to the pump infrequent.
On the cabin tech side, Ford complemented the hybrid power train with its Smart Gauge, LCD panels on either side of the speedometer, showing a variety of vehicle operating information. And Ford made Smart Gauge user configurable, a big leap from analog gauges of the past. Sync is standard, providing voice command and the kind of Bluetooth phone and MP3 player integration to which other companies are just starting to catch up. Sirius Travel Link feeds unparalleled and useful data sources into the navigation system, including traffic, weather, and fuel prices. And the Sony audio system is an excellent value, producing impressive sound quality.
There were other strong contenders in the nominations, and our judges considered votes for the Audi Q5. Audi's new small SUV uses a very efficient 3.2-liter V-6 and has running gear that makes it drive like a sports car. Further, Audi worked with Nvidia to put dazzling 3D graphics into its navigation system. The Lexus HS 250h was a strong hybrid competitor, with decent cabin tech and driver aid systems. The BMW X5 M is truly a technological monster, but at a huge fuel economy penalty. Another Ford company car, the Lincoln MKS, earned a nomination for its Ecoboost engine, automatic parking, and THX audio system, but those tricks didn't give it an edge over the Fusion Hybrid.
The Car Tech 10
There was a lot more going on in the past year beside five really, really good tech cars. So that's why we have The Car Tech 10, a set of inconsistent awards for various achievements in automotive technology.
Clash of the not-so-Titans
We eagerly anticipated Toyota's update to the Prius, but Honda added fuel to the hybrid fire when it announced its own Honda Insight. This rivalry intensified when it became clear that Honda would undercut the Prius in price, advertising its Insight as the hybrid for everyone. Toyota, wanting to maintain its own mantle as a people's car, cut the price of the Prius, at the same time advertising its mileage, substantially better than that of the Insight. Strangely, Toyota didn't say much about the Prius' new cabin tech, which isn't bad. It was such an impressive clash that we conducted our own prizefight between the two cars, coming out with a judges' decision in favor of the Insight be a hair. But the Prius still dominates in the area that really counts: sales.
Most stylish ride
We test the tech in a lot of cars throughout the year, from econoboxes to big SUVs, but occasionally a really special ride drops into our laps. In this case, it was the Aston Martin DB9 Volante, just one of the best-looking cars around. Brian Cooley was thrilled about the James Bond associations. The rest of us were just pleased to ride in a car with detailed coachwork and a body that turned heads up and down the sidewalk. Sure, the car might not have been the cream of the crop for cabin tech, but that didn't keep us from extensively test-driving it.
Dawn of the robot cars
We generally applaud new technologies in cars, but the 2010 Volvo XC60's City Safety feature had us wondering if it was taking tech too far. City Safety uses a forward-looking camera to detect obstacles ahead. If it thinks you are about to hit something, it jams on the brakes, hard. Volvo designed City Safety to prevent low speed collisions, so it doesn't work above 20 mph. We appreciate that it will prevent distracted drivers from rolling into a stopped car ahead, but what happens in a city parking situation when you need to get really close to other cars so you can maneuver into a parallel parking space?
Really useful paddle shifters
Runner up: 2009 Mercedes-Benz CL550
Paddle shifters are a novelty that go largely unused in many cars. When we get a car sporting paddle shifters, we tend to try them out a few times, then just let the automatic transmission do its thing. But not so with the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible, where we made continued and ample use of the things. We know what you're thinking: why equip a Corvette with an automatic transmission? That's just the way the car came to us, and as responsible journalists, we gave it a fair shake. And to get the most of that wonderful engine and handling, thumbing those paddle shifters was a necessity. Some voices on staff also mentioned the very beautiful Mercedes-Benz CL550. Because the car can only be had with an automatic transmission, taking advantage of its capabilities also had us playing with the paddles.
We last saw BMW's old iDrive interface in the X5, one last hurrah for this essentially flawed system. BMW started updating it with a much more sensible interface in late 2007, and seems to have hit all its models by now. We are not afraid of technology, and gave the system a fair chance, but after driving countless BMWs with the old iDrive interface, we came to despise it. BMW had its own problems with the system, as the quadrant-based paradigm allowed for only four types of functions. BMW at one point added secondary function choices at the corners of the screen. Now BMWs employ a simple list menu, along with real buttons for quick access to navigation, audio, and the phone system.
Car we can't have, yet
Runner up: BMW 123d
We got a preview of the 2010 Jaguar XJ during the summer, and adored its fine cabin, adorned in dark grainy wood and leather, and metal switches studding the center stack. It will be some months yet before Jaguar puts a production version in our hands, and we are counting the days. This new XJ represents the final stage in the restyling of the Jaguar line-up, and while we like classic Jags, after 50 years the look became a little stale. During 2009, we also got the chance to drive a European-spec diesel BMW 123d, and not only enjoyed its high-performance capabilities, but felt the U.S. could use a hatchback 1-series.
Biggest herd of horsepower
As we looked back at the cars we drove in 2009, the Cadillac CTS-V stood out as the one with the most horsepower, at 556, with the BMW X6 M was a close second at 555. Cadillac seemed to have this award tied up, until Bentley, in a last-minute gesture of very good will, handed us a Continental Supersports. Not only does this car have a 6-liter 12-cylinder engine, Bentley also went ahead and fitted it with twin turbos, giving it 621 horsepower, blowing away the prior leaders. This kind of power is enough to get the Continental Supersports to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, barely enough time to blink. The CTS-V and X6 M are fast all right, but the Continental Supersports is on a whole other planet.
The Scion xB has long reigned as the funkiest box on the road in the U.S., but in 2009 Nissan and Kia squared off against the champ with their own competitors, the aptly named Cube and the more ambitiously named Soul. We spent time with all these funky vehicles, enduring the sniggers and jeers of passerby to evaluate their tech credentials. And in our estimation, the Kia Soul comes out on top, earning the best rating of the three in our reviews. The Soul's iPod connectivity and Bluetooth phone system helped earn its score, along with the very cool pulsing speaker lights. The xB offered a lot of tech, but we found the interface seriously flawed. And the low-trim Cube that Nissan sent us had barely any tech at all.
Runner up: 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Most of the time, you can either have a fast car or an economical one, but not all in the same package. BMW combines the best of both worlds with its diesel 3-series. We drove the BMW 335d hard all day, exploring its performance potential over the twisty roads of Marin County, and only used up half a tank of fuel, giving us many more miles of enthusiastic driving. In typical fashion, BMW doesn't compromise performance even when fitting its cars with diesel engines. We know the Jetta TDI has many fans, but we also know which car we would rather drive.
Best of everything
After reviewing so many cars in 2009, we found that our ideal car just doesn't exist. So we looked at our favorite aspects from a number of vehicles and came up with a Frankenstein car, a pure concept that would surely win our hearts, if only it existed.