10 Wi-Fi Vehicles That Are Connecting With U.S Car Buyers

NEW YORK (MainStreet) - If you're treating your car more like a smartphone these days, it's likely because you're using them in the same fashion.

When we took a look at the spike in automotive leases a week ago, the role of technology in that sudden surge caught us off guard. Advances in GPS navigation, touchscreen consoles, mobile app integration and emergency communication and information systems have helped bring leases to pre-recession levels and change the way U.S. car buyers approach new vehicles.

"People want to purchase things knowing they'll get a new one, like your iPhone or your cellphone," says Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst for automotive review and pricing site Edmunds. "With cars, in-car technology is becoming more and more important, and that's changing more rapidly than in the past, so people may want to have the latest and greatest every few years."

That mentality has even trickled down to the secondary lease market, with those seeking less-expensive, shorter-term lease transfers also looking for tech upgrades. The folks behind lease transfer site Swapalease say, however, that one big advancement in in-car technology is likely going to have a bigger impact than the rest.

"I think what the best example is at this point, and we're right on the cusp of where it's going to become a big deal, is [that on] 2015 models many automakers — General Motors in particular — are going to be adding Wi-Fi capability to those cars," says Scot Hall, executive vice president of Operations at Swapalease. "I don't want to call it brand-new, but to do it on a mass level like General Motors is doing it is probably going to be some of the biggest option news we see this year."

General Motors added 4G LTE Wi-Fi capability to its OnStar service this year. It gives a broad selection of Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles the ability to function like Wi-Fi hotspots, with plans ranging from $5 to $30 a month for OnStar subscribers (depending on the amount of data used) to $10 to $50 a month for non-subscribers. Vehicle owners can also buy a day's worth of service for $5 or a year's worth for $150 to $200, with AT&T wireless customers able to add vehicles to their data plans for $10 a month.

Chrysler and Fiat got there first, however. The company's UConnect telematics and apps system brought Wi-Fi capability to older models, but only in 3G and only to UConnect subscribers. That's $15 a month or $150 a year just for the apps and information and another $10 a day, $20 a week or $35 a month for Wi-Fi.

Audi, meanwhile, gives its luxury drivers a bit of a break by giving its 2015 vehicles access to the Audi Connect apps and communication system that also doubles as a Wi-Fi hotspot. A3 owners are fortunate enough to get AT&T service at $99 for six months and 5 GB of data or $499 for 30 months and a 30 GB limit. All other Audi owners get a more costly T-Mobile plan that ranges from $30 a month to $450 for 30 months — albeit with no limit on data.

So what are the Wi-Fi-enabled vehicles to look out for in 2015? Well, there isn't one that fits perfectly everybody, and there isn't one of these technologies that's going to meet everyone's needs.

"Don't just test drive the car. Take the technology for a spin too," says Ron Montoya, Edmunds' consumer advice editor. "Ask the salesperson for a technology walk-through and see how easy the system is to use."

In case you need a little help, here are just 10 examples to get you started:

2015 Chevrolet Malibu
Starting price: $22,465

It just made sense to connect a car that was already pretty well hooked up. General Motors made a big point of overhauling the Malibu in 2013 by packing tits base model with an AM-FM stereo with iPod/USB and auxiliary input jacks, Bluetooth with hands-free streaming of audio from compatible devices, OnStar and Sirius XM Satellite Radio. Everything above that base model also got a large touchscreen display using Chevrolet's MyLink information and entertainment system, Pandora Internet Radio playback and Sirius XM Travel Link navigation. At a combined 30 miles per gallon, though, it's not all that painful to take your rolling mobile device out for a spin.

The combined 30 miles per gallon is better than the highway mileage of some midsize competitors and an improvement from 27.5 in 2012, but the facelift it got for 2014 makes the Malibu's exterior just as stylish as its two-tone interior.

2015 Buick LaCrosse
Starting price: $31,065

Need something slightly more cushy than the standard midsize? The silent, spacious Buick LaCrosse has been the poster child of the Buick renaissance. It's packed with such features as heated leather seats, touchscreen and voice-controlled navigation, audio and bluetooth, heads-up instrument displays on the windshield, stability control, rearview camera, parking assist and rear seat DVD players. What about the drive, you ask? Well you can either get a ridiculous-for-a-luxurious-car 36 miles per gallon on the highway with a 2.4-liter hybrid engine or get 304 horsepower out of the 3.6-liter V6.

2015 GMC Sierra/Chevrolet Silverado
Starting price: $26,605/$25,575

These two combined to be the second best-selling vehicle in the country last year, but it paid to wait for the 2014s. With the 2014 Silverado and Sierra getting their first updates in eight years in 2014, it might have been tempting to grab this pickup while it was hot. By holding out for the Wi-Fi-capable model, though, your weekend tailgates and camping trips just got a whole lot more tech friendly.

2015 Cadillac ATS
Starting price: $33,215

Even in the entry-level Caddy, it can get out of hand in a hurry. The 2.5-liter version gets little more than 200 horsepower, but a whopping 33 miles per gallon on the highway (nearly unheard of for a Cadillac). The 3.6-liter V6 doesn't break 28 miles per gallon, but there are 321 horses there as a consolation prize. As for the technology, the ATS would be considered hooked up even without the Wi-Fi. With keyless entry and remote start via smartphone, a Bose sound system and the Cadillac CUE touchscreen console with voice feedback and wireless phone charging, the ATS is loaded with tech toys.

2015 Ram 1500
Starting price: $25,410

We'll just say it: 3G isn't exactly a consolation prize.

It's not like the lack of 4G LTE service reduces you to dial-up levels. You won't have to put a disc into a drive to load up more minutes of usage. It's more than adequate for streaming, social media and just about everything else you're going to need it for. Considering the space between the Ram's cargo bed and rear-wheel hubs are fitted RamBox locking compartments with drain plugs that are advertised as mini trunks or toolboxes — but clearly meant to be coolers — we're going to take a wild guess and say tailgating is the goal here. Don't take our word for it. Dodge itself says of the RamBoxes that "both sides fit up to 240 cans of your favorite beverage in a 5'7 bed or 280 cans in a 6'4 bed configuration." Combined with 74.7 cubic feet cargo capacity and 1,300 to 1,600 pounds, your Ram just became a parking lot party deck.

2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Starting price: $29,995

We would have included the Jeep Wrangler in this equation, but that flapping soft top and somewhat cramped rear seating (we don't want to hear about that stretched-out abomination of a four-door Wrangler) didn't seem conducive to mucking around on a tablet. The Grand Cherokee, meanwhile, is the grocery getter, the vacation vehicle, the school and sports shuttle. It has a Blu-ray player for the rear passengers and a Harman Kardon audio system for everyone else. With a collision warning system, backup camera and blind-spot indicator, it's built to survive long, whiny trips over great distances. If Wi-Fi access maintains the peace for just a few more hours, so be it.

2015 Chrysler 200
Starting price: $21,800

The offspring of the Chrysler Sebring was always difficult to get excited about, but its new Italian bosses have made it just a bit sexier. The convertible top is gone, but it gets either a 2.4-liter, 184-horsepower V6 or a brawnier 3.6-liter, 295-horsepower engine that can get 35 miles per gallon on the highway. It also becomes the only midsize sedan other than the Subaru Legacy and Ford Fusion that's available in all-wheel drive. With standard pushbutton start and a new active park assist system, Chrysler and Fiat are going right at the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Honda Accord. LED lights and fog lamps have been added, a backup camera comes standard and a keyless entry system is now in the mix.

2015 Dodge Grand Caravan
Starting price: $21,395

We could make the same cracks about picking up the kids that we did with the Grand Cherokee, but that would be a complete waste of this vehicle and a 150-foot Wi-Fi perimeter. Think about it: The online version of DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, the scoring-plays-only Red Zone Channel, fantasy football leagues. This is a gameday workhorse. Yes that 83 cubic feet of cargo space with the third-row seats down can hold a lot of chafing dishes and Buffalo chicken dip, but a flip-back option for that third row that turns it into a lot-facing couch, a Blu Ray/DVD system with second- and third-row screens for pre-game entertainment, and USB and aux ports for hooking up audio and computers turns it into a portable living room. Given how much easier high-definition television has made it to stay home on gameday, we're surprising the NFL isn't subsidizing these minivans.

2015 Fiat 500L
Starting price: $19,195

We'll admit, the 75.5 cubic feet of passenger space inside the standard Fiat 500 is a bit tight. The four-door 500L has a slightly more roomy 123 cubic feet of space to go with its peppy 160-horsepower engine, seven airbags, voice command with Bluetooth, flip-and-fold rear seats and 33 miles per gallon on the highway. It's a Fiat with more room, if less mileage, which makes it a whole lot easier to swipe at your tablet without elbowing someone in the head.

2015 Audi A3
Starting price: $29,900

Yes, a whole lot of other Audis have Audi Connect capability. But none of them are available at this price, which is dirt cheap for an Audi. Forget that said price tag gets you those blinding xenon headlights with LED trim, dual-zone climate control, a panoramic sunroof, leather seats, HD Radio, Sirius XM satellite radio, Bluetooth, an SD card slot with 32 gigabytes of operating capacity and rain-sensing wipers and light-sensing headlights. Because you chose an A3 instead of any other Audi, your AT&T Audi Connect service gets you the Audi MMI connect app with access to thousands of online radio stations, picture navigation and Facebook and Twitter access. That's all exclusive to the A3 and all yours just for being a savvy shopper.

— Written by Jason Notte for MainStreet 

To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.

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