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John Kuczala for USA WEEKEND

What’s the future hold?

The features highlighted above may be a surprise to those who haven’t shopped for a new car recently, but what’s coming in the years ahead? Mercedes-Benz previewed a glimpse of future technology at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show last month, showing off a space-age-looking SUV. Some of the technology sounds as if it belongs on NASA’s Mars rover rather than anything found on Earth today.

Mercedes’ Ener-G-Force SUV concept gets a “Terra-Scan” topography scanner to scrutinize the environment that surrounds the SUV in real time. Based on what it finds, the SUV can adjust the suspension’s springs, shock absorbers and other components to maximize traction for on- and off-road surfaces. Mercedes’ concept is just an idea for now, though self-leveling, adjusting suspensions already exist in modern luxury and performance cars. — Joe Bruzek, Cars.com

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It’s a new year, and with that comes fresh hope, great expectations and the curiosity to see which futuristic Jetsons-like features will become reality this year. Although this won’t be the year that flying cars go mainstream, here are trends you won’t be able to avoid.

40+ MPG gas cars.

If you think you need a hybrid for really great fuel economy, think again. Plenty of small cars out there get 40 miles, or more, per gallon on the highway, including the Nissan Versa and the Honda Civic HF. Others require an optional package or engine to reach that elusive 40mpg mark. Some of those are the Ford Fiesta and Focus with the SFE Package, the Chevy Sonic and Cruze Eco with a turbo engine and a manual transmission, and the Mazda3 with SkyActiv four-cylinder engine.

Crash avoidance systems

Car manufacturers are realizing that the safest way to survive a crash is to avoid it altogether.

Rear: Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge offer Rear Cross Path Detection on many of their 2013 vehicles. This system uses radar to “watch” behind and to the sides of the car’s rear. If the system senses a vehicle approaching, it alerts the driver with a tone and an illuminated icon in the side mirror. The 2013 Infiniti JX35 has a similar system, but it goes further by engaging the brakes to help the driver avoid a rear collision.

Front: Forward collision warning systems are available on a slew of new cars, including the popular Honda Accord. This system uses radar to watch the road ahead. If the vehicle senses you’re not braking fast enough it will alert you with both audible and visual warnings. The Subaru Legacy, Dodge Durango and Ford Edge all offer similar systems. Cadillac takes this further in the 2013 ATS by vibrating the driver’s seat, alerting the driver that the brakes are needed — now! The Volvo S60 and XC60 can detect pedestrians as well as vehicles in front of the car. Both cars will come to a stop automatically if the driver isn’t responding quickly enough to prevent a crash.

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Hands-free liftgate.

Carrying 18 bags of groceries or your kid’s science project? Hands-free liftgates are available on several 2013 vehicles, and they show great promise. As a busy mom, I often find myself with an armful of groceries and kids and no hands available to pop open my car’s trunk. The 2013 Ford Escape’s liftgate opens with a mere swipe of your foot under the bumper. Swipe again and the liftgate closes. That’s pretty Jetsons-like. if you ask me. A similar feature is also found in the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class.

Easy-Fill Tire Alert.

How many of you are a little intimidated by the process of topping off your tires with air? Go ahead, raise your hands; we won’t judge. Nissan makes this process foolproof with its Easy-Fill Tire Alert system on the 2013 Altima, Sentra and Quest. Start filling the tire with air and the car will give you three short honks when you’ve reached the proper tire pressure. It is seriously easy.

Backup cameras.

According to KidsandCars.org, a nonprofit child-safety organization, more than 50 children are backed over by cars every week in the U.S. One way to help prevent that and other tragedies is with backup cameras. The federal government is studying whether to require them for all vehicles by 2014. In the meantime, many cars and SUVs already offer them as standard equipment. For a little more money, Nissan and Infiniti offer the Around View camera system on many of their vehicles; the system uses cameras mounted around the vehicle to give a 360-degree bird’s-eye view of it.

Apps in the car.

By now, we’re all completely efficient with, if not dependent upon, the applications on our smartphones. Many vehicles are integrating our favorite apps through systems that connect to our cellphones or through systems like Chrysler’s Uconnect that accesses cloud-based apps through a cell connection in the vehicle’s radio. Uconnect gives users access to Bing-connected search, a voice-to-text app, Wi-Fi on demand and more.

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Toyota’s 2013 vehicles are equipped with Entune, which allows access to popular apps such as Bing, iHeart Radio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable and Pandora through the vehicle’s interface.

HondaLink offers Aha by Harman, an app that allows you to customize your in-car experience by adding your favorite radio and satellite music, newsfeeds, and audible online content. It also can read you e-books to you that you just can’t stand to part with while driving. Of course, driving should always be your first concern. Just saying.

Capacitive-touch controls.

Speaking of focusing on driving: Some new cars are replacing traditional buttons with touch-sensitive ones, called capacitive-touch controls. Capacitive-touch conttrols, which replace traditional buttons with touch-sensitive ones, are appearing in some new cars. The Chevrolet Volt’s center stack is essentially a large capacitive-touch control panel. The MyLincoln Touch system in the 2013 MKX has a touch-sensitive slide bar for controlling both the stereo system’s volume and fan speed. While the idea of integrating touch-screens in cars sounds cool, the reality is if you can’t feel the button, you often have take your eyes away from the road to actually see where you’re placing to place your finger. That’s no good.

Bluetooth audio.

Bluetooth phone connectivity isn’t new, but standard Bluetooth streaming audio in inexpensive cars is. Even the 2013 Toyota Yaris base model, priced at $15,165, including a $795 destination charge, has standard Bluetooth audio. Be warned: Youngsters in the backseat with the ability to control the car’s stereo through an iPhone may never finish any one song before impatiently switching to the next. I speak from experience.

Unique surfaces.

Just as the materials we choose to wear have evolved — who can forget the funky polyester suits of the ’70s? — so have the materials in our cars. Ford is an industry leader, using soy-based foam in the seats of the 2013 Ford Escape, as well as denim and recycled plastic bottles in the SUV’s carpets. Chrysler is using recycled polyurethane foam that was destined for landfills in seats and recycled tire rubber for dashboard seals. The 2013 Honda Fit EV and Honda Accord are equipped with a soft, durable and environmentally friendly Bio-Fabric made from sugar-cane byproduct. What a newfangled web they weave.

Kristin Varela is the Chief Mom at Cars.com and mother of three girls. She has spent the past nine years as an automotive journalist, test-driving cars in her day-to-day life.

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