Many area buyers choose options such as DVD players and navigation systems that turn their vehicles into rolling entertainment and information centers.

Now, the fun never stops - even when the traffic does

June 23, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

The entertainment options seem virtually endless whenever Ward Dawson slips behind the wheel of his Dodge Durango.

He can surf more than 150 channels of music, news, sports and talk on the XM Satellite Radio in his SUV. Or he can pop a DVD into his in-dash player and catch a movie or one of his favorite old TV shows. And when he's tooling down the highway, he likes to track his progress on his computerized navigation system.

"I've got too many toys," says Dawson, 35, a Leesburg, Va., resident who is a network manager at an architectural-engineering firm in Tysons Corner.

As motorists in Maryland and elsewhere spend more time on the road - an average of nearly an hour a day, according to one study - a growing number are rigging their minivans, SUVs, pickups and even cars with the latest in electronic technology to negotiate the crowded highways - or at least to entertain themselves while stuck in traffic.

"From iPods to movies and sound systems, they want all the things they have at home," says Paul Nadeau, who is in charge of "infotainment displays and controls" for General Motors Corp.

Though radios have been built into cars since the 1920s, the variety and sophistication of gadgetry have ballooned along with the drive time of commuters. Auto manufacturers routinely offer satellite radio, DVD players and navigation and video game systems as optional equipment, at least on their larger, more luxurious vehicles. Some offer Bluetooth hands-free mobile phone hookups, heated seats and rearview backup cameras.

"Where suburban sprawl meets urban growth," Dodge declares in its online brochure about the gadget-filled interior of its Durango. A rear-seat entertainment system plays DVDs and video games on the 7-inch screen that folds down from the ceiling.

"It avoids the boredom of driving. It used to be you drove to see the countryside; now you just see the traffic," says Jerry Tshontikidis, general sales manager for Laurel Dodge, who estimates that 15 percent to 20 percent of the minivan buyers at his dealership opt for entertainment systems.

Because they add $1,000 to $3,000 or more to the price of new vehicles, DVD players and navigation systems remain "niche components overall," says Mike Marshall, director of automotive emerging technologies for the marketing firm J.D. Power and Associates in Troy, Mich. He estimates that 2 percent to 3 percent of all new vehicles are sold with such devices installed.

Some navigation systems, in particular, are so complex that at least one auto dealer, Len Stoler Lexus in Owings Mills, offers evening "classes" - with wine, beer and snacks - for buyers who want to learn how to use the gadgets that came with their upscale vehicles.

The popularity of such gadgets is growing, industry experts say, in part because they are getting better and less expensive and people are becoming more comfortable with technology and spending more time on the road. The average driver spends 55 minutes a day behind the wheel, according to a 2003 national survey.

Many vehicle buyers also find they can get the same or better gadgets for less at local electronics stores, then pay to have the devices installed or do it themselves.

That's what Chuck Bowie of Germantown did, plunking down $800 for a Garmin StreetPilot navigation system that he can mount on the dash of either of his Hondas, the Accord or the CRV.

"I was tired of going out and getting lost in the suburbs," Bowie said.

Though he doesn't need it on his 45-minute commute to Arlington, Va., the 55-year-old federal worker says he likes the way the 3-by-5-inch device can show him the way home from wherever he is in the area. He can glance at its screen to tell what intersections are coming up, or it can be programmed to give him verbal guidance - even alerting him that he has missed a turn.

One of the most popular and fastest-growing automotive gadgets is satellite radio. At prices that start at $100 for a radio that plugs into a vehicle's cigarette lighter, satellite radio offers dozens of channels of commercial-free music, sports, news and talk on signals that won't fade out no matter how far you drive.

XM, the larger of the two satellite services, has signed up more than 4 million subscribers. Competitor Sirius boasts well over 1 million and sales deals with makers of more than 80 lines of cars and trucks.

In a marketing pitch sure to appeal to road warriors, both satellite radio companies boast of their coast-to-coast signals, and each has multiple channels devoted to traffic and weather conditions in selected areas, including Baltimore.

Each service costs $12.95 a month, a price many consumers are willing to pay to increase their listening enjoyment while wading through traffic.

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