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New cars loaded with cool features

If you're in the market for a new car this year, you'll find the vehicles on the showroom floor are not your father's Oldsmobile.

From navigation systems to satellite radio, there are a lot of new features to learn about. We asked experts at local car dealers to give us a primer of the new gadgets and trends in today's vehicles.

They're called 'crossovers'

Dave Doll, sales manager at Domino Ford in Wadena, said crossovers are the new minivan.

"The new crossovers -- they're kind of a car-, SUV-, van-type vehicle," he said. "They have power, good fuel economy, and have the room in them -- and they're stylish."

Doll said panoramic sunroofs, traction control and spaciousness make the new vehicle class attractive.

"It's kind of the new minivan," he said. "Minivans now are like the old station wagons of the old days. The crossovers are taking over."

Tony Glenz, a salesman at Wadena GM, said customers like the crossovers.

"The [Pontiac] Torrent and [GM] Acadia -- we sell them about as fast as we can get them in," he said.

DVD players, satellite radio

Have a couple of screaming kids in the back seat? Relief is spelled D-V-D.

"Kids can watch DVDs and play games in the back, so parents can drive," Doll said.

Another new electronic feature gaining popularity is satellite radio. Right now, there are two companies: Sirius and XM, but that may change. The two companies have announced plans to merge.

Vehicles that come equipped with satellite radio usually include service ... for a little while.

"Most of the time you'll get 6 months' to a year's subscription free. After that, it's $9 to $15 per month, depending on which service you get," Doll explained.

Navigation systems, On Star

On General Motors vehicles, On Star is gaining popularity quickly. At the touch of a button, a driver can ask for directions, or report an emergency -- all while speaking to a live person who has access to maps, the driver's location, and a long list of services.

But driving directions are only part of what On Star can deliver. It can also send help when there's an accident.

"The common misconception about On Star is the vehicle has to have a head-on collision," said Wadena GM sales manager Mac Nelson. "If the vehicle makes any maneuver that's not seen as normal driving, On Star will contact you."

If there's no response, Nelson said, help will automatically be sent.

On Star also acts as a cell phone, but the service is up to six times as strong, Nelson said. That comes in handy at a deer camp or on a lonely country road.

For a more computerized companion, many vehicles today are coming with on-board navigation systems, which direct the driver based on pre-programmed maps and address points.

"Good lord, you can punch it to where you want to go and it will tell you if you're turning wrong or turning right," Doll marveled.

If that's not enough, when you get to your destination, some of the higher-end cars will even parallel park themselves for you automatically.

Taking over in an emergency

Law enforcement officers often preach that it's driver overreaction that causes crashes. You see a deer on the road or your passenger's side tires drop onto the shoulder, then you overcorrect, and the crash occurs.

Until now, that is. Safety systems like GM's Stabilitrack take over control of the vehicle to stop you from overcorrecting.

"It does everything it can to keep you on the road," Nelson said.

If the vehicle senses you've turned too sharply for the speed you're traveling, or it senses it has leaned too much to one side or the other, it takes over.

"It keeps you from rolling," Glenz explained. "It applies the brakes to keep you on the ground."

Safety features like side-curtain air bags now come standard in many models. Also, passenger-side air bags are turned on and off automatically by weight sensors in the passenger seat. If it's under a certain amount of weight, the vehicle surmises a young child or infant in a car seat is on board, and leaves the air bag turned off. At adult weights, the vehicle turns the air bag on.

Tinkering under the hood

If it sounds like the car of today is eerily like the car of tomorrow, it is. And while that's a good thing for reducing emissions, getting better gas mileage, and getting to your destination, it does come with one drawback. Take a look under the hood, and you're likely to find a bunch of computers and electronics where there used to be a carburetor and distributor cap.

"It's harder and harder for the average Joe to fix his own car," Doll said.

Sticker shock

While the cost of a new car may not have changed much, there is still potential for sticker shock when the 2008s hit the lot.

The culprit? Gas mileage efficiency figures that will likely drop.

Are the cars less efficient than last year? No. But the standard for figuring out gas mileage has changed.

"It's a truer standard," Doll explained. "People are going to say, 'How come it's less than last year?' It's not."

The old standard, he said, made some assumptions about your driving habits: that you never speed, that you slowly accelerate to get up to speed, that you live in some sort of perfect vacuum. The old standard set some pretty unrealistic conditions for testing, Doll said, which is why your real gas mileage was, say, 25 mpg while the sticker said you should be getting 31.

"That's when you're driving on a flat road with no wind at 55 miles per hour. Who drives that?" Doll asked. "I appreciate they're making it a truer standard."

Hybrids, flex fuel

While hybrids are gaining in popularity, flex fuel vehicles have fallen a little flat lately, Doll said.

"Last year, it was real big, and it's faded off," he explained.

Part of the reason is the smaller spread between e85 fuel and regular unleaded gasoline. While that had been as high as a 70 cent per gallon spread, it's now closer to 30 cents. And since e85 gets fewer miles to the gallon than gas, it ends up costing the customer more in the long run. However, Doll said he's glad there is an alternative like flex fuel. He added hybrids, which are part gas engine and part electronics, are also getting more common.

Four cylinders or eight?

Nelson said one of the greatest innovations is the Active Fuel Management System.

On some of GM's 5.3 liter, V8 engines, the vehicle will only use half the engine to save fuel when conditions warrant.

"If you are on the highway at cruising speed, it will shut down four of the eight cylinders," Nelson said. "As soon as you hit the gas, it's immediately back to eight cylinders."

That little change can allow a full-size truck or SUV to get 20 miles per gallon.

Getting the car ready

Some vehicles are coming equipped with auto starters. But what if you forget to leave the heater on?

Glenz said the vehicles will now sense the outdoor temperature, and either engage the air conditioner if it's warm, or the heater and heated seats if it's cold.

"It knows the climate and gets your vehicle ready," he said.