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What’s New This Year In Vehicles? Better Safety, Mostly

By ALAN OLSON

Staff Writer

Yearly improvements on modern vehicles tend to focus on two areas — superior safety for drivers and passengers, and an eye toward the future of electric vehicles.

Joey Thurby is chairman of the board of Neighborhood Ford Store, which consists of the 80 dealers in northern and central West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and the panhandle of Maryland, has been selling vehicles for 40 years and now operates Thurby’s Riverside Ford, in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Especially over the last year, due to COVID-19 Thurby said, the clear distinction between model years has become blurred, as new models enter the lot at a staggered rate, meaning new improvements are nearly always just around the corner.

“New cars come out every month. There’s no longer an introduction day; all these vehicles come out at different times,” Thurby said. “We’re just getting the bulk of our ’21 (Ford) F-150, which is COVID related, and we still don’t have the ’21 Big Bronco. … Everything was late, because of COVID.”

Ted Showalter, owner of Whitesides GM in St. Clairsville, said the customer’s need for a new vehicle determines the best time to buy — there’s no better time than when you need one.

“I don’t know if there’s ever a better time to purchase than when you need to purchase,” he said. “To say that technology may be better in three or six months, I just don’t think we can say one way or the other.”

Thurby said that as a salesman, he compares auto sales to computer sales — a customer who waits to see what “the new stuff” is going to be will find themself on the cusp of another technological leap.

“If you need a computer and you say you want to wait until the new stuff comes out, by the time it’s out, the new stuff is already being made that will be out before you know it. It’s the same in the car business — everything they do in the auto business is technology.”

The new feature Thurby was enthusiastic to talk about was the embedded modem in Ford vehicles, which connects to the FordPass app, as the vast majority of consumers have mobile phones. Through the app, he said the vehicle’s onboard system is able to communicate diagnostic concerns such as maintenance due, give the owner access to remote start or door locking, and find the location where it was parked. In addition, service appointments and car payments can also be made through the app. This app is regularly updated, which future-proofs it to some extent.

Thurby said it’s a common occurrence for customers with vehicles a few years old to come looking for a new model and to be enamored with the new technology, which makes it hard to go back. A particular favorite is the Blind Spot Information System.

“Once you have it, you’ll never (want to) not have it,” he said. “You’re driving down the road and someone pulls into your blind spot, … this little light comes on and beeps, letting you know. Once people get that, you can never sell them a car that doesn’t have it. They get so used to BLIS, and it saves a lot of accidents.”

Thurby said these improvements come out nearly constantly, aimed at improving the safety features available to the consumer.

“The Automatic Electric Braking, that comes on all of our products,” he added, noting the system uses cameras to automatically stop the car when an unseen obstacle, such as a bicyclist or deer, comes running. “… I have people say all the time, ‘A deer ran out, and before I could even hit the brakes, the vehicle stopped.’ That’s what it’s supposed to do.”

Showalter echoed the sentiment, saying that safety features are improving each year.

“(The safety features in) most GM vehicles today are so much better than they were five or 10 years ago,” he said. “Back in the day, the technology was airbags, then passenger airbags, and then you’ve got side airbags, and now you’re surrounded by airbags. Nowadays, they’re trying to prevent the crash with alerts and extra vision in your blind zones. The alerts are there to prevent the crash from even happening.”

Both dealers said consumers are increasingly conscious of gas milage, and to that end, hybrid and electric models are becoming increasingly popular. Hybrids have been increasingly common for years, but plug-in hybrid vehicles are on the rise in popularity, Thurby said, which allow drivers to top off their car’s battery when not in use, in addition to the passive charging normally done while driving.

“If you’re not leaving town, you’re not going over 40 mph, you’re going to run on that battery,” he said. “I have people who do that, they use maybe a tank of gas a month.”

Showalter said that among GM vehicles, electric vehicles are quickly gaining in popularity, particularly among Cadillac models, and even an electric model of Hummer.

“General Motors is putting a lot of emphasis on electric vehicles, Cadillac in particular, and we’ll be seeing their new products hopefully by this time next year. If they want one, they may want to wait another nine or ten months.”

Alongside the PHEV vehicles are the incoming battery electric vehicles, such as the Ford Mach-E, which are fully electric. With a range of 300 to 400 miles on a full charge, Thurby said drivers of those vehicles are remapping their travel plans to great effect.

“These charging stations, people have to change their way of life, so when they say, ‘I’m going to the beach, I’m going to stop in Hagerstown, stop an hour for lunch, then head down, stop at Roanoke, charge up there.’

“But they don’t buy fuel, it’s all electric, and it’s all new technology. It’s about 5 percent of the total industry, with all the automakers, but every year it gets better, the distance gets better. The batteries are more high tech.”

Showalter said the steps needed for a dealer to properly service electric vehicles come at significant cost locally, and he thinks the investment will pay off.

“We’re making those steps toward selling and servicing electric vehicles; it’s quite an investment from every dealership that wants to participate,” he said. “It’s going to be upwards of a $300,000 investment for us to be able to sell and service these products.

“We are excited about the electrification of vehicles, and I hope that our area is as enthusiastic as we are. It’s kind of an unknown at this point, but GM put a lot of money into research and development. Once they have that ready to go, and the infrastructure in place, I think the electric movement will probably start taking off. We’re looking at a year to two, even more, before it really takes off.”

On the heavier-duty side, Thurby touted the Bronco Sport as an impressive piece of hardware, which uses the “Go On Any Terrain” system to enable off-roading in myriad environments, such as a rock-crawling mode. The demand for the new model was so high, he said, that the ’21 model is already sold out, and some orders were pushed back until next year.

“The Bronco is nostalgic. It’s a nameplate from years ago. Now that they see this vehicle with all this new technology that comes standard, … they’re picking up all this technology for on- and off-road, sand mode, snow mode, mud and rut mode.”

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