Volkswagen Concept RClick to enlarge picture

Volkswagen's Concept R takes keyless entry to a new level: doors have no keyholes; a light touch on the door handle unlocks the door as it ejects from the smooth, sleek body.

Guess what? There are more electronics, more communications gear, more safety features and more power—as well as more efficient power—coming.

Here's a look at what's hot and trendy on showroom floors and at auto shows:

Electronics Everywhere

Cadillac's 2004 SRX crossover sport utility has drive-by-wire throttle control, which means there's no mechanical link between the accelerator pedal a driver touches and the throttle for the SRX's engine. Instead, electronics tell the throttle what the driver wants and help the engine respond.

In BMW's 2004 X3, the xDrive all-wheel-drive and traction system is controlled by electronics that monitor things a driver can't: the rotational speed of each wheel, and the vehicle's yaw and lateral acceleration. It also looks at the steering angle the driver has set and whether the brake pedal has been pushed. All are factored in by the electronics as it determines where, among the four wheels, to transmit torque while the vehicle is traveling.

Acura's 2004 TL has a navigation system capable of recognizing more than 290 verbal commands, and Volkswagen's 2004 Phaeton uses electronics to manage its air suspension and ride.

Welcome to the brave world of automotive electronics. They started slowly enough, mostly in engine compartments during the 1970s and '80s as automakers sought to meet increasingly stringent emissions and fuel economy standards.

Today, automotive electronics have moved beyond the engine to transmissions, all-wheel-drive and traction systems, brakes, navigation systems, climate control, audio, safety systems, suspensions and diagnostic equipment. Thanks to the relative low cost of electronics these days, electronics are being added to cars, trucks, sport utilities and vans in booming numbers.

Even low-priced vehicles now have electronics. The 2004 Hyundai Santa Fe, one of the lowest price midsize SUVs on the market, comes with a four-wheel-drive system that's new—and electronically controlled—this year. The Santa Fe's five-speed automatic transmission has electronics that manage the shifts between gears, and it even "learns" a driver's preferences and seeks to match them.

Look for future electronics to become more sophisticated in how they operate and what they can do.

Volkswagen's Concept R, for example, shows the evolution of keyless entry beyond today's key fob system, which still has a backup system using keyholes in the doors. The Concept R sports car has no keyholes. In fact, all that's needed to lock and unlock the doors is a light touch on the door handles as they eject from the otherwise smooth, sleek body. Imagine the ability of these systems, linked to fingerprint or other personal data, to thwart theft.

Staying in Touch

There's no denying it. We all are spending increasing amounts of time in our vehicles. Blame it on urban and suburban growth and the lack of road construction to keep up. Blame it on a record number of vehicles now in the country. Blame it on a society that loves to be mobile.

No matter. Drivers are expecting and demanding to be in touch with the outside world while they're in their cars. So, more vehicles are including systems that make communication easier.

In the 2004 model year, for example, several Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles offer optional UConnect, a hands-free, voice-activated communications system that includes Bluetooth technology. Toyota is offering Bluetooth, a short-range, wireless technology, as an option in its redesigned 2004 Prius, and Acura puts Bluetooth in as standard equipment in its 2004 TL.

Chrysler officials said UConnect is so easy that a driver only needs to bring his or her Bluetooth-enabled phone into the vehicle, and it will be recognized by UConnect, allowing preprogrammed phone numbers to be dialed via voice commands during travel, and phone conversations to be held via a microphone and speakers in the vehicle—all hands-free.

The cell phone itself can be placed anywhere in the vehicle during this time, even in the glove box or trunk, and phone conversations can continue, uninterrupted, via the driver's cell phone after a vehicle is parked and the driver departs.

Consumers can use their current cell phone carrier and telephone number, and UConnect can be programmed to recognize up to five phones. Officials at DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group added that UConnect is available on such varied vehicles as the 2004 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck and Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Don't expect these vehicles to be the last to add Bluetooth. Bluetooth officials predict the technology will be in at least 20 percent of all vehicles by 2007.

Navigation systems are another link to the outside world that has becoming increasingly sophisticated. Many companies are looking to introduce systems that overlay route directions with up-to-the-minute roadway congestion reports so drivers can be automatically directed around traffic backups while en route. One feature in Japan not only gets a driver to the destination, it shows a picture of the destination building once the driver arrives.

More information can always be programmed into future nav systems. The nav system in Suzuki's Landbreeze concept SUV gives information about the surrounding nature during the trip. The nature info, which has to be an environmentalist's dream, is directed to the front passenger side of the vehicle so it doesn't distract the driver.

Safety Remains a Priority

Auto company officials say the biggest strides in automotive safety have been made, with growing acceptance and use of safety belts, federal requirements for frontal airbags in all production vehicles and growing adoption of skid control systems and curtain airbags in today's production vehicles.

In fact, in the 2004 model year, Toyota officials made sure to make stability control standard on all its U.S. SUVs, from the low-priced RAV4 to the upmarket Land Cruiser.

Known as Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) at Toyota, it uses an electronic system that can, in many circumstances, sense a potential skid and work to correct the direction and speed of the vehicle to try to avoid the loss of control. The first thing VSC does is reduce engine power so the vehicle isn't speeding headlong into an unsafe situation. The second thing VSC can do is apply selective brake power to a wheel that needs it in order to help maintain the proper direction of the vehicle.

However, VSC cannot overcome the laws of physics and correct a situation if a vehicle's speed is too high at the time of impending loss of control, or if the driver is pushing the vehicle to unsafe limits.

Still, the move makes Toyota the first auto brand whose full lineup of SUVs has standard stability control. Don Esmond, Toyota division senior vice president, said the company should have an easier time explaining the benefits of VSC if it doesn't have to explain to buyers why one Toyota SUV has it and another one doesn't. Further, Esmond said Toyota is looking at whether to add VSC on all its cars as standard equipment, too.

Meantime, General Motors Corp. is researching how to make drivers safer in their steering. Researchers are looking at so-called advanced steering systems that could momentarily take over the steering of a vehicle if an electronic system detects a potential skid.

The Toyota Prius sold in Japan, but not the model sold in the United States in the 2004 model year, includes an automated steering system that helps a driver park.

Honda is implementing styling designs at the front of its vehicles to make them safer for pedestrians in the event of a collision.

More, and More Sophisticated, Power

The horsepower and torque wars aren't over. In fact, to hear some auto company executives tell it, it's just getting well-oiled.

In the 2004 model year, the focus on power is as strong as ever. In fact, Ford officials were coy to the very end, finally announcing that the towing capacity for the newly re-engineered, 2004 F-150 was best-in-class 9,900 pounds. This accomplishment stems from the fact that 80 percent of the new F-150's 365 lb-ft of torque is available at a low 1000 rpm and puts the F-150 over the new 2004 Nissan Titan, which can tow a maximum 9,400 pounds with its 379 lb-ft of torque.

Supercars also are vying for power superiority. Ford's 2005 GT promises more than 500 horsepower, Porsche's Carrera GT has 603 horses, and Ferrari's ultra-exclusive Enzo is a screamer with 650 horsepower and 485 lb-ft of torque that can get the car from standstill to 30 miles an hour in a heady 1.5 seconds.

The more affordable Acura NSX appears to be headed for more power, too. Its future concept, the HSC, has a mid-ship V6 capable of more than 300 horsepower. This compares with 290 horses in the current NSX.

Even low-priced vehicles are coming with improved performance. Toyota's 2004 Prius, for example, is a fuel-thrifty gasoline-electric hybrid car, but its performance is better than its predecessor. Credit the Prius' improved 50-kilowatt electric motor for much of the new zip of this car which, by the way, also is larger than the 2003 model.

Barring a major oil price spike, automakers don't expect the pressure for improved power and performance to dissipate in the coming years, so they're developing even more sophisticated powertrains. Look for more power and more creative ways to develop and use power in future models.

An example: GM's Displacement on Demand engine technology due to debut in 2004 on the automaker's Vortec V8s and in other engines in later years. Displacement on Demand saves fuel by using only half an engine's cylinders in normal driving and automatically reactivating the other cylinders when the driver needs brisk acceleration or towing capacity.

Ann Job is a writer for T&A Ink.

In the market for a new car? MSN Autos is pleased to provide you with information and services designed to save you time, money and hassle. Click to research prices and specifications on any new car on the market or click to get a free price quote through MSN Autos' New-Car Buying Service.