4 Takeaways from the San Francisco Auto Show

Agreed, the San Francisco Auto Show is not much more than a giant auto mall inside a conference center, but I always enjoy checking it out to see some of the new models. I came away with a couple of trends.

1. Almost All Cars Have Really Nice Interiors

I saw several economy cars like the Honda Fit EX-L, Volkswagen Golf and Mazda 3 that have really nice interiors, some with leather, navigation an similar luxuries that were previously unique to luxury vehicles. Even the Toyota Corolla looks pretty decent inside nowadays (although they should get rid of that 1990's digital clock).

Honda Fit Interior (Source: Honda USA)

And of course, once you go to luxury cars, it only gets better. Audi is the brand I like best. For example, the new Audi TT is awesome with its all-digital dash and the climate control buttons and displays integrated into the air vents.

2016 Audi TT Interior (source: Audi USA)

2. Base Cars Get Intelligent

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has added an ‘ultimate’ safety rating “TSP+” for cars that will automatically brake and/or stop the car in case of a possible collision. Since IIHS ratings sell cars, suddenly lots of ‘normal’ cars can be had with optional crash prevention intelligence using cameras and sensors. For example, for a little over $20,000 you can buy a Honda Civic with such a system built in. As a driver I’m not necessarily excited about “electronic nannies” that tell you how to drive, but as a pedestrian I think this is awesome. I think everyone has been distracted behind the wheel at some point in time, and that’s exactly what these systems are for.

Honda Sensing (Source: Honda USA)

My take: this is going to be the next “ABS” or “Stability Control”. In a couple of years most car buyers will insist on having these systems, maybe it will even be government mandated.

3. Sports Cars Are Way Too Plush Now

There were a lot of nice sports cars at the show, from the Jaguar F-Type, the Porsche Boxster to BMW M3 and Mercedes-AMG GT S. They’re nice, big, and luxurious. And they have lot electronics to keep you from hurting yourself.

2016 Mazda Miata (Source: Mazda USA)

But the 2 sports cars that I liked the best were the Mazda Miata and the Ford Mustang GT350. While they are absolutely modern cars with lots of electronics, they feel more pure. They have manual transmissions, relatively basic interiors (if you choose the sportier versions) and are reasonably affordable. I think I’d choose the Miata, because they GT350 has so power that it scares me a little bit.

4. While the Future is Electric, Today is Certainly Not

The car I liked best at the entire show was the 2016 Chevy Volt. It provides enough range to drive mostly electric, but the gas engine is there when you need it for a longer trip. It also looks very nice inside (they showed the premier trim), and it’s just the right size. Price-wise, the $34k base price brings it inline with most compact cars after the $10,000 tax rebate (in California). It still a little more expensive, and with the current gas prices it will probably take many years before you earn it back. But it feels good to be eco.

My favorite: the 2016 Chevy Volt

And that brings me to the headline: while most popular cars are now a lot more fuel efficient, most still have gas engines. While some brands offer several hybrid versions (e.g. Toyota), they were quite hard to find at the show. With today’s low gas prices, it makes more economical sense to buy a cheaper gas-powered car. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that electric or hybrid cars will be eventually be the norm, but that will be many years after the electronic safety technology gets standard (see takeaway #2).