he car wars never end. In the 1950s, enormous tail fins and chrome reflected the day's jet fighters and spaceships. In the 1960s, mammoth engines echoed an era of American dominance, soon to be replaced by economy cars that competed on the basis of gasoline mileage after the 1973 oil crunch. The disco-mad '70s sparked the ongoing craze for sub-woofers and other denture-rattling noisemakers.

Our computer-saturated era has brought us full circle to the 1950s. But this time, rather than mimicking the spaceship look with chrome and sheet metal, it's the dashboard that's taking on the high-flying look.

Car phones. Electronic fuel injection. Computers to run the engine. Been there, done that. This new stage of electronic gadgets on the dash goes way beyond those helpful devices.

Want to talk to your radio? No problem. Want the car to direct you through a city you've never visited—an electronic version of the back seat driver? Again, choose your weapon. Want your car to read your e-mail from Aunt Vida or the boss aloud? Just say "Read"!

Obsessed with the need to use your car to hunt deer at night? Your new Caddie Deville would be more than happy to oblige. For an extra $2,000, you can use a night-vision system that would turn Saddam Hussein green.

Whether you actually need any of these gadgets, or the countless others that Detroit and its foreign competitors are concocting, is another matter. But for buyers of high-rent machines like BMW, Cadillac, Mercedes, Volvo, and Acura, the choice of electronic doo-dads is just a test-drive away.

Because it don't cost nuttin to window shop, let's take a look at some of the options on the new electronic dash.

     navigation help

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Need directions?
Like most males, I'm missing the "ask-for-directions" gene. Lost in a strange city, it's just me and my maps against the spaghetti intersections and one-way streets. But like any other tool-using animal, I'd happily take directions from a machine. Fortunately for traveling salesmen and other "no-directions-wanted" drivers who visit new locations for a living, a glut of products is available to help. Some are original equipment, others retrofits.
We tried a BMW navigation system, but the dealer did not have the right map CD, and so we stood around plunking CDs into the trunk-mounted CD drive in a scene that was wholly reminiscent of endless struggles with balky personal computers.
We finally got a system working in a Mercedes 430, the luxury firm's version of a sport utility vehicle (SUV). You start by entering the intersection, address, or landmark of your destination. The global positioning system—GPS—figures your present location, and the computer calculates a "best" or "fastest" route, depending on your whim at the moment.

The controls on the "navi" are NOT something you want to mess with while under way. And following a map that rotates as you turn can be disorienting at first. Much more useful are the voice prompts, which tell you, for example, to "turn left at the next intersection."

In some high-rent rides, the navi systems are standard. Otherwise, they're a costly option, ranging from $1,280 on an Audi to $1,995 on a Mercedes. And don't forget that seven map CDs cover the United States. As some ne'er-do-wells used to say, the first one's free. The rest will run you north of $100 apiece.

Who's buying navigation systems? Hertz, the car-rental firm, has found that customers will pay an extra $9 a day for the privilege, and is ordering another 50,000 units for its fleet.

But regular consumers seem much less enamored of the direction-finders. Several auto salespeople told us that many buyers don't expect to be lost—and won't pay so much to stay found. An exception seems to be people who regularly travel to big cities, where, incidentally, digital map coverage is much more advanced. When system prices drop to the $500-$600 range, salespeople expect much higher sales.

If you can't afford the in-car systems, you can try some driving-direction services on the Web—if you dare.

There's one final caution about electronic navigation. Dutch researchers found that systems with excessively detailed displays or maps with poor contrast were dangerous because they required too much driver attention. Some auto reviewers have mentioned that they preferred systems that talk to the driver instead of relying on maps. Audi has taken the cue and ditched the digital display entirely. Drivers take instructions from an arrow on the dash and a display showing the distance to the next turn, supplemented with voice prompts.

Can't imagine being out of touch during that interminable commute to the office? The Clarion AutoPC is your bag. For about $1,300 and up, this unit will replace your radio and give you someone—er, something—to holler at when traffic gets nasty. Growl "radio," and it'll switch from the CD to the radio. Grunt "e-mail," and it'll connect via radio to the Internet and download your mail. Mutter "read," and it'll start doing just that. The unit occupies the radio slot; the computer itself rides along in the trunk.

Some reviewers have noted glitches with the device. If ambient noise is high, you may have to bellow. Although the computer won't be offended, your passengers might be startled. The buttons for programming are small and, as with the other systems, utterly unsuitable for on-the-road use. And the price jumps with the barely optional options, such as installation and monthly fees, CD changer, digitized maps, and the radio that receives your e-mail.

Seeing at night
In 2000, Cadillac introduced a night-vision system on its Deville line. Adapted from the Pentagon's infrared gadgetry, the system uses a detector in the grille to pick up infrared emissions from warm objects up ahead. A computer places the image on a "heads up display" on the windshield, just below where you normally view the road.
A photograph of a nighttime scene, from a driver's point of view, with Cadillac's Night Vision technology.
Photo courtesy of Cadillac®
Hot objects—useful things to see, like people, animals, and cars—appear white on a black background. And appear they do. A week driving General Motor's loaner showed that night vision easily detected people far beyond headlight range. While making the switch from normal vision to the infrared display takes some experience, the system is smartly laid out. You needn't refocus your eyes when making the switch, and objects stay the same size, making the infrared display easier to interpret.

The funny thing is that even though you've been driving at night for decades without infrared vision, you quickly become accustomed to the system and start to expect it at night. Still, I wonder if the system "sees" enough of the roadside width to help with deer, which always seem to jump in from nowhere.

Distressed by all those toll stops? One of the new electronic passes will allow you through the gates without having to endure that annoying howl of a police siren. While you'll have to slow to a crawl on the New York City area system, the Illinois Tollway system lets you cruise through the gate at 30 mph. Among all the electronic dash gadgetry, this may be the most impressive—especially because it's equally at home on the dash of a vintage Chevy Nova or Dodge Dart.

More doo-dads: The American genius for gadgets hardly stops here. The Caddie, for example, had a bunch of other in-dash innovations, none essential. Want to know your direction? Check the electronic compass. Need your instantaneous fuel consumption at any point on your trip? The readout knows. It also knows your estimated remaining mileage, and how much gas you've guzzled since your last tankup.

Mercedes S-class cars, for around $90,000 a copy, come standard with whole-car automation, combining navigation and controls on such important stuff as audio volume, ride characteristics, and, crucially, the delay on door-lock activation. And when the computer wants to talk to you, it'll choose among three languages.

Finally, while this gadget won't—we hope—be appearing on the dashboard, Datron Transco has introduced a satellite TV system for your van or SUV. For roughly $4,000, plus the TV and satellite receiver, plus the satellite fees, you can barrel down the road watching "America's funniest videos," wholly ignorant of the fact that someone may be taping you for next week's segment.

Sort of makes us long for an old Studebaker Hawk.

The bottom line
Do you need any of this stuff? Resoundingly, no. Cars have worked just fine before computers started taking over the dash. At present, it's a classic case of tempting gadgetry with limited justification for most driving situations. If you're truly intrigued, remember that prices are likely to plummet over the next few years, as the more reasonable lines of cars start hopping aboard the electronic bandwagon.

On-Web navigation help
Can't afford one of those in-dash navigation units? Not quite ready to replace the rusty-but-trusty Honda Civic? A bunch of free Web sites have help getting from point A to point B.

Unfortunately, effectiveness varies according to your location, and how thoroughly local maps have been "digitized."

Mapblast offers free driving directions. Our first set was accurate, the second disastrous.

Yahoo's directions-maker returned too many errors to be useful.

Microsoft's directions maker was a molasses-to-load site that started us driving down a street that allows buses, but not cars, then told us to turn southeast onto a street that runs northeast.

CyberRouter only does city-to-city directions. Perhaps for that reason, it was less confused than the competition. Even so, for some reason it shunned the most direct, obvious route.

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© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.