Connectivity rules at the Philadelphia Auto Show

There’s so much buzz these days about living in a “connected” world. The powers that make the products, as well as those who present the 2013 Philadelphia Auto Show, have taken that to heart.

From nifty ride-on opportunities (think amusement park attractions) to a vintage muscle car competition, this year’s cavalcade (700 vehicles!) is all about interaction and connection.

To a degree, the show has always been about that. Car lovers get to kick tires, slam doors, fiddle with switches, inspect back seat and trunk capacity and smell the rich Corinthian leather. The hands-on experience “helps a car shopper to narrow the field of choices you’re considering in a leisurely, fun, no sales-pitch environment,” noted show (and Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia) director Mike Gempp.

But the connectivity takes on a much deeper meaning when a skilled, 4×4 off-road driver-demonstrator takes you on an indoor thrill ride up a scary-steep incline — and you both survive. Or when you’re behind the wheel at a driving simulator (as Cadillac provides) tricked out with the high-tech “infotainment” and “telematics” gadgetry that connects today’s smartened-up vehicles to the outside world.

Smarts now allow a “talking car” (no joke!) to read incoming Tweets out loud or hit the brakes when some silly sot jumps out in front of the vehicle.

Subaru’s story

Even a meat-and-potatoes brand like Subaru, known best for durable, no-nonsense, all-wheel-drive vehicles, is marching to the connectivity beat, said the brand’s U.S. (and Cherry Hill, N.J.-based) product planner David Sullivan.

“Fifty percent of Subaru buyers have a smartphone and want to safely use that communications tool in their vehicle. And that percentage is only going to rise. So for the 2013 model year, we’ve put Bluetooth wireless connectivity to your phone with voice- and steering wheel-mounted controls into every car we make, even the base models,” he said.

It’s a distinction Sullivan doesn’t believe any other auto maker has matched.

For the Philly car show, Subaru is showcasing two more connectivity tools under the umbrella name StarLink:

  •  Sophisticated yet easily updated in-dash entertainment and information system Aha, sourced from Harman Industries, imports all kinds of “cloud” content through your connected iOS.
  • (iPhone) or Android phone for display/control on the car’s color touch screen and play through cabin speakers. We’re talking here about “30,000 Internet radio stations and specialty podcasts, music services like Slacker, Rhapsody and MOG, plus text-to-voice Facebook alerts and location-based services, including weather reports, traffic updates and recommendations for dining,” said the Subaru man.
  • The other tech treat up Subaru’s sleeve is EyeSight, an internally developed safety/navigation system. Built around a pair of Hitachi-sourced cameras mounted inside the windshield, EyeSight puts an extra pair of eyes on the road, with the smarts to slow or stop the car when sensing an obstacle. It also maintains your Subaru at a specified distance from the car in front when cruise control is engaged and issues an audible alert when you’re swerving out of a lane.

While introduced in premium brands such as Lexus, Audi and Mercedes-Benz, driver assist is now within reach of even the buyers of the mid-priced Subaru Legacy. A full StarLink package will be available first in the 2014 Forester SUV — on the car show floor and hitting dealers in March — then will migrate to other models in the spring and summer.

Kick these tires

Ford has lots of high-tech to share at the car show, too, including mobile-phone-sourced AppLink streaming content (, Pandora, iHeartRadio, WSJ and the like) accessible in the 2013 Fiesta and midlevel Ford Focus equipped with voice-activated Sync and a small color LCD screen.

And check out the new plug-in hybrid versions of Ford’s C-Max mini sport Ute (starting just under $30,000 after federal rebate) and Fusion, both with a dual battery-plus-gas motor system that helps the vehicles achieve an equivalent rating of more than 100 miles per gallon! The C-Max starts and runs for the first 20 miles strictly on battery power, then shifts to a combination of backup battery and gas engine, unlike the Chevy Volt and its new high-end, plug-in hybrid brother the 2014 Cadillac ELR, which go from battery to all-gas, explained Ford communications specialist Taylor Blackburn.

At last year’s car show, Toyota had an inside drive experience demonstrating how silently and cleanly its hybrid Prius models ran on battery power. This year, Toyota has enlarged and spiffed-up its indoor course and brought more models to savor, including the Camry hybrid, said Gempp.

You’ll also get a gander at the crossover Venza, an all-new RAV4 and, most surprising to behold, a totally revamped Avalon. That once matronly sedan has been sexed-up with major surgery outside and in, including a super-sounding 7.1-channel Harman infotainment system on high-end models.

Room to vroom

The bigger than ever, 630,000-square-foot 2013 Philadelphia Auto Show has also found room to accommodate the Philly debut of Camp Jeep. Product specialists will chauffeur strapped-in participants in a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, Wrangler Rubicon and Grand Cherokee up steep, 14-foot-high Jeep Mountain (hold onto your socks). You’ll also traverse a 30-degree wedge and rough terrain strewed with fallen logs to demonstrate the vehicle’s grip and agility.

Besides these indoor ride experiences, several carmakers will invite show-goers behind the wheel for a short spin around the Pennsylvania Convention Center neighborhood.

Fridays and weekends, Cadillac’s Ride and Drive features pretty much the entire line, from the relatively compact ATS Sedan to the Escalade. Same goes for sister brands Chevrolet, Buick and GMC.

The supercharged Hyundai line can be road-tested this Saturday, Sunday and Monday; sister brand Kia gets into the act the following Thursday through Jan. 27.

Perhaps to impress the homies, Subaru of America will invite folks behind the wheel every day of the show.

“If you see the test cars on the street and there isn’t a line, you can jump in one for a ride without even having to go into the show first,” clued Gempp.

Time machines

The Philly car show boasts a lower-level showcase for custom cars and accessories. It always pays allegiance to classics, too.

This year’s blasts from the past include a 1948 Hudson convertible (immortalized in the animated hit “Cars”), a 1948 Tucker (subject of a biopic) and a rare, 1963 Jaguar XKE roadster that gawkers can compare with a new Jaguar F-type two-seater debuting on the East Coast elsewhere on the show floor. Some of these vintage gems come from the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum stashed behind the Auto Mall in Southwest Philadelphia.

There’s also a new twist in old cars at this year’s show — a “Face-off” between classic Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros exhibited by the brands’ local booster clubs of private owners. They’ll pump up special enthusiasm with the most muscular, memorable editions — such as the Shelby Z28 Camaro and a love it/hate it Mustang Fastback — in opposing rooms on the bridge corridor between the main convention center and historic Grand Hall where Mercedes-Benz and Lexus exhibits are staged.

Show visitors can vote for their favorite exhibit, and the winning booster club will get a $2,500 check to donate to a favorite children’s charity, plus $1,000 for their club coffers, Gempp said.

So it really is all in your hands, car fans.