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Revved Up …and Very Smart

With the remote key fob in my pants pocket, I settled into the driver’s seat of the new car and pressed a dashboard start button. A GPS navigation screen mid-dash initiated a colored map showing my location as the engine fired up. A computerized voice spoke. “There is a high-surf warning within 11 miles of your location.”

Welcome to 2010, a year of smart cars at many price points, a very good year for anyone intent on purchasing a high-end luxury car.

Technological advances abound in a highly evolved breed of vehicles. A 2010 Mercedes-Benz S600 can track traffic, accidents, even the weather, projecting what’s ahead and guiding me to the quickest detour.

That S600 is only one of many remarkable luxury cars this year. Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Audi, BMW and Porsche all have outstanding features in top-of-the-line, spare-no-luxury models.

In addition to competing for comfort and convenience features, makers of luxury cars have been ramping up horsepower in a kind of undeclared power war. That luxurious Mercedes S600 has a V-12 engine that pumps out 510 horsepower, sprinting the big, heavy car from zero to 60 in only 4.5 seconds—a time clocked only by specialty sports cars and motorcycles not long ago.

Lexus and Audi have offerings coming this year that will out-race that Mercedes, some topping out at 204 mph.

Allow me to introduce some top 2010 cars and their innovations:

The Mercedes-Benz S600, at $149,700, offers a television display in the dash. A screen covered with tiny lenses sends a map image to the driver and a television image to the front-seat passenger, who wears wireless headphones to hear a DVD. The angle of view determines who sees what, and thus the system becomes the first legal way to watch televised images from a front seat.

As is the case with many luxury cars now, voice commands allow audio, navigation and mobile phone controls to respond to a driver. And they understand. In the S600, the voice recognition is so sophisticated that it can understand a driver who is changing a database entry. These new systems do not need touchpad entry and can recognize the spoken difference between “Naples” and “Newark,” “Sarasota” and “Saratoga.” The system filters out your “ah” and “um” vocal lapses and knows that “yeah” means “yes.”

Mercedes and others have a variety of what are called “active safety systems” that can prevent collisions or prepare for an inevitable impact.

Aside from air bags, the biggest safety advance in recent years has involved improvements in headlights. The S600 has headlights that turn with the steering wheel to illuminate the inside areas of curves. The headlights turn on and off, and change from high to low beam, all automatically, based on traffic. A front-mounted camera feeds information to an onboard computer. And an infrared camera picks up humans and animals along the way. In the dashboard display, brackets highlight their location.

Mercedes this year becomes the first automaker to sell gas, diesel and hybrid vehicles. It has long sold desirable diesels, but the S400 Hybrid is new, at $87,950.

The hybrid has a V-6 gas engine, a seven-speed automatic transmission and an electric motor mounted between them. The S400 Hybrid never runs on electric power alone. Instead, the electric motor assists the gas engine to provide better fuel efficiency. It also allows the S400 to shut off at stop lights and instantly restart when the accelerator pedal is pressed.

Toyota pioneered hybrid technology, so it is fitting that its Lexus division would share. The LS600h offers gas and electric power in a luxury package costing $117,330. This car not only has a rear-view camera but is smart enough to park itself, hands off the steering wheel.

Like the Mercedes, the LS600h offers dynamic cruise control, using what is called “millimeter-wave radar” to maintain distance from a car ahead.

The ultimate sport utility goes this one better. Land Rover is introducing the Autobiography at $109,625.

This Range Rover model bristles with 12 radar beams that scan the road ahead 10 times every second. Uniquely, it projects when a vehicle to the side might move into the Rover’s path and is said to be able to identify a motorcycle behind, say, a large truck. The Autobiography also has side-mounted radar that monitors blind spots.

The sport ute has five cameras, providing a nearly 360-degree view of the vehicle. A surround view from overhead is also available.

Under its hood is a 510-horsepower V-8 that can tow up to 7,700 pounds. The Autobiography has permanent four-wheel drive coupled to its six-speed automatic transmission. There are no safety options for an Autobiography; it has them all as standard. It excels, on or off road.

The top Audi has many of the luxury features already mentioned and comes with all-wheel drive and a 350-horsepower V-8 that scoots it from zero to 60 in 5.9 seconds for $74,550. Also worth considering from Audi is the A6 model, which has a diesel engine like the one that has repeatedly proven itself in the world’s top racing sports car. The A6 diesel model is $56,400 and rewards owners with superior fuel efficiency. A less expensive A3 model grabbed the North American Auto Writers’ title of 2010’s top green car.

The all-wheel BMW 750i X-Drive has a plethora of desirable features that take its $85,000 base price to $104,075 with options such as Night Vision, an infrared system that displays pedestrians up to 900 feet in front of the car. It not only shows where a person or animal is located in the dark, but the direction in which it is moving. The display can be projected onto the windshield in front of the driver through a “heads-up display,” like those used by jet pilots. In addition, regular cameras provide rear visibility, and two side-view cameras detect traffic approaching intersections.

The Porsche Panamera is the only Porsche with four doors and four seats. Under its hood is a twin-turbocharged V-8 with 500 horsepower that powers it to 188 mph. As with the BMW, options can quickly add up. The base Panamera went from $133,575 to $174,875 with options such as leather seats and upgraded wheels. An auto-deploying, two-piece rear spoiler will turn heads. It pops up when the speed exceeds 56 mph. Then it splits in the middle, while extensions deploy left and right. All of this is designed to keep this powerful, all-wheel- drive car in contact with the road as speed increases. In fact, it adjusts its angle more steeply as the car passes 127 mph.

The headline this year is the return of a new Rolls-Royce Ghost. Many enthusiasts consider Rolls’ cars to be simply the best made. The Ghost takes its place again among the best-looking. It sells for $245,000 and comes with a 6.6-liter turbocharged V-12 that makes 563 horsepower, coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Zero to 60 is reported to take only 4.8 seconds, with top speed governed at 155 mph.

Yachtsmen might prefer the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé with an optional teak deck inspired by classic racing yachts. This car goes 150 mph with its V-12 engine making 453 horsepower. Its base price is $443,000, with options that can send the final price into the stratosphere. A gold-plated RR Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament is $5,180, for instance. And the teak deck is more than $17,000.

The big news from Bentley is retirement of the Arnage and its replacement by the Mulsanne. According to Bentley, the Mulsanne is the first new Bentley “designed, engineered and built from the ground up by Bentley engineers since the 1930 Bentley 8-liter.”

It is sleek, beautiful and fast. The Mulsanne’s V-8 engine produces 505 horsepower, and the car sells for approximately $300,000. Unique among luxury cars, the Mulsanne’s V-8 can run on only four cylinders to conserve fuel while cruising.

Bentley has numerous other models worth considering, including the Bentley Continental Supersports. It has a 621-horsepower, twin-turbo V-12 engine, rips zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds and tops out at 204 mph. Fast. It will go on sale this summer for $350,000.

James Bond types, take note. The Aston Martin Rapide can be yours for $199,950. The Rapide is a four-door sedan with a V-12 engine rated at 470 horsepower. Like others in this sports/luxury class, the Rapide can be manually shifted from paddles located along the steering wheel.

Jaguars can run in this class at less expensive initial costs. The top Jaguar XFR sedan lists at $80,000, but its 510-horsepower, supercharged V-8 engine can leap the Jag from zero to 60 in 4.7 seconds.

American automakers have chosen not to compete at lofty luxury levels, but General Motors does offer the 556-horsepower Cadillac CTS-V for a base price of $62,020.

A final word of warning about these super cars: It can be disconcerting when your seat unexpectedly begins massaging your back as you cruise on I-75. Or when a bug hits the windshield, and your automatic wipers make three streaky swipes to remove the “rain drop.”

You’ll adjust. Your mechanical savant will educate you, one smart move at a time.

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