Derek Lipscombe can start his car without taking the key out of his pocket. When he shifts into reverse, he can see if anything is behind him without glancing in the rearview mirror or turning around to take a look. And he can keep pace with the car ahead--no matter what the speed--without tapping the accelerator, hitting the brakes or fiddling with the cruise control.
A prototype of some supercar of the future? Nope, it's just Nissan's Infiniti FX35, a cross between a sports car and an SUV. Lipscombe, 36, an attorney in Santa Barbara, Calif., opted for a series of add-ons that have turned the latest Infiniti into a state-of-the-art technological marvel. Hundreds of thousands of other Americans are doing likewise, shelling out for cool gadgets that can help with the drive, entertain backseat passengers and--though there's some disagreement here--make the trip safer. These add-ons are pumping some fuel into the auto industry's depleted tank. New-car sales have sagged in recent months, but many buyers are willing to shell out extra for everything from satellite radios (about $200) to sensors that warn you if the car gets too close to something ($700 and up) to portable hard drives that can hold 5,000 of your favorite MP3s for that big summer road trip ($800). "People want luxury. They want entertainment. They want convenience," says George Barris. He should know: the legendary car customizer designed the original Batmobile and once decked out a Cadillac limo for Elvis Presley with a TV, a record player and even a gold-plated, electric shoe buffer (in the 1960s, that passed for cutting-edge automotive style).
Today automakers are grateful for the add-ons. Intense global competition and falling prices have made overall profit margins on new-car sales razor thin. Options, on the other hand, provide carmakers with profit margins up to 50%. Sell enough $2,000 navigation systems, and you're talking serious money.
The buyers are clearly there. Factory-to-dealer sales of mobile video and navigation devices amounted to more than $450 million in 2002, a 54% jump from 2001, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Americans bought 800,000 rear-seat entertainment systems and 300,000 navigation units. XM Satellite Radio, which went nationwide just 18 months ago, has some 500,000 subscribers, and the company expects to reach 1.2 million by year's end. And it's not just luxury-car owners who are shelling out for the high-tech extras. New-car buyers can find options like these on everyday models, such as a $25,000 Honda Accord and a $22,000 Pontiac Vibe.
But is all this gadgetry useful? TIME journalists test-drove the new devices to find out. We liked the adaptive cruise control and rearview cameras on the Infiniti and Lexus. One of our testers thought the parking sensors on the Jaguar XJ Series were great; another found them annoying, but everyone loved the cars' backseat entertainment.