LOS ANGELES -- Dynamic bending headlights were a rare luxury when they first appeared on the BMW 3 series, Lexus RX and Porsche Cayenne in 2003. Yet these headlights, which pivot into turns to help drivers see better at night, are now mainstream enough to be sold on the redesigned version of the $18,000-and-up Hyundai Elantra.
Likewise, adaptive cruise control, first offered globally in 1999 on Mercedes-Benz's flagship S class, will be available next year on a Nissan Sentra or Honda Civic costing roughly $20,000.
Examples of that shift were visible everywhere at last week's Los Angeles Auto Show, illustrating how quickly high-end technology is making its way into compact cars that were long conceived as cheap, basic transportation.
"These are things that customers have come to demand now," Mike O'Brien, vice president of corporate and product planning at Hyundai Motor America, said in an interview. "If you talk to a customer who has never experienced a backup camera and gets one for the first time, they tell you they'll never go back. Our job is to bring this technology down to an affordable level."
That task is especially critical for challengers such as Hyundai and Nissan, which, by virtue of their brands, have roughly a $1,000 to $2,000 disadvantage in pricing power against Honda and Toyota.
They seek to gain ground not by driving down the sticker price of their compact cars to reflect this deficit but by equipping their cars with an extra $1,000 to $2,000 in value. Safety and technology features have become a key mechanism for that.