What makes a car, anyway?
We're living in a time of aggressive convergence: phones, cameras, music players, camcorders and the Internet have rapidly combined. So what will become of the automobile? We looked at the car's most recent flirtations with the computer and its aesthetics, where devices like the iPhone have exerted some of their most potent peer pressure. With manufacturers like Ford opening up their cars to app developers, the smart gadget has never been on a higher pedestal. The challenge now is remembering what we loved about cars before everything was drive-by-wire.
2011 Honda CR-Z
The brand new CR-Z is a hybrid hatchback with room for you and one other low-emissions friend. Yep, it's pretty tight in there with only two seats, but at least you'll both be entertained: for every one passenger in this car, there is approximately eight feet of neon blue piping glowering in all the crevasses of the dashboard. (Even the cup holders are rimmed in the same neon blue). You might be distracted from the circuit-board aesthetic by the six-speed manual transmission -- the only standard gearbox on any hybrid for sale today. Highway MPG: 38 Starting price: $19,200.
2011 Toyota Scion iQ
The iQ is a not-so-subtle response to the Smart Car, designed at first for European and Asian markets and subsequently brought to the U.S. to feed what Toyota believes is a growing domestic demand for "microcars." Oddities abound on the iQ; you'd be forgiven, for example, for confusing the center console with a late 90s Sony stereo system. (You'd also be forgiven for confusing the center console for the roof). The iQ has a seating configuration that Toyota calls "3+1," which means the car contains three adult-sized seats and one half-seat. Several car blogs have soberly described this half-seat as ideal for "a bag of groceries" or "a baby". Highway MPG: Untested Starting price: Unknown
2011 Mercedes Benz S63 AMG
Behold the new S63, a clay-colored landscape wrought in leather. Old school comforts and an analog clock beg you to reminisce--wait, is that a trackball? Yes, as it turns out, that knockwurst between the seats is the control input for what Mercedes calls the COMAND system: a navigation, phone, climate and audio controller all tied to a click-wheel device. Probably not the kind of retro feel you were hoping for, but for a premium car like this, idiosyncrasies are a good investment. Highway MPG: Untested Starting price: $266,000
2011 Lexus CT200h
This is a new hybrid model for Lexus, and it has hit the market bearing an amorphous mole on its center console. Thinking, perhaps, that Mercedes Benz's click-wheel device was much too subtle, Lexus installed a much bigger track-ball-looking control device in the CT200h. The benefit: when operate your car stereo, you can now enjoy the uncanny feeling of palming someone else's knee. Your conscience can rest easy: the CT200h body is made mostly out of bioplastic, it gets excellent mileage and it looks amazing at the same time. Highway MPG: 42 Estimated starting price: $33,000
2011 Chevrolet Volt
What's important about the Volt is not that it's another step towards reducing the family car's dependence on gas. It's that every time you enter it, you will be reminded that this car is the love child of an NYPD car and a Wii. Equally cool is the $7500 tax credit. And the novelty of owning a one-speed car. Highway MPG: N/A Estimated Starting Price: $41,000
2011 Hyundai Equus
Unlike a lot of the cars on this list, the Equus has an interior that is laid out like an archetypal luxury car. It's taken cues from BMW, placing a discrete knob behind the gearshift to control the in-dash computer. But what's more distinctive about Hyundai's approach is how conservative it is compared to other cars in its class. Unlike the Lexus, the Chevy and the Honda, the Equus doesn't want to make its technology part of the show; it doesn't assume that you're using nerdy sex appeal as a metric of coolness. That said, it'd still feel like a faux-pas to get in this car carrying a four-year-old Blackberry. Highway MPG: 24 Estimated Starting Price: $58,000
2011 Ford Explorer
The Ford Explorer will always be the "Jurassic Park truck" for many of us. But in reality, the redesigned 2011 iteration is more sedan-like. The new Explorer is using the same Tron aesthetic as the Honda CR-Z -- complete with neon cup-holders -- but has added Sony's distinctive audio control system in piano black. It's a good look. Even better if you imagine mud all over it. That's how SUVs have always been meant to live, no matter how hard they try to hide it. This one has managed to learn a new trick, however: seven passengers, a 2.0L EcoBoost engine and 237HP with better gas mileage than the Hyundai. Highway MPG: 27 Starting Price: $28,200
2011 Saab 9-5
Audi and BMW use red. Honda uses blue. Volkswagen uses blue and red. So it was only a matter of time before the newly-revitalized Saab started using green lights to illuminate their interiors. The best part about the green makeover: the heads-up display that's projected on the windshield in front of the dash. As you can see, this makes the other speedometer a little redundant -- couldn't Saab have put something else there? Like maybe an iPhone dock, or a knee-shaped controller? (Just kidding, Lexus.) What you can't see well in this picture is the bramble of air vents below the brow of the dash; this is indeed still a Saab. Highway MPG: 27 Starting Price: $49,165

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