Payne: These are the Top 10 new car features of 2021

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 29, 2021

Combine SUV demand, electric motors and an electronics revolution, and you had a recipe for innovation in 2021. Auto workshop elves were busy hammering together new treats for us.

Showrooms offered pickup trucks from $20,000 entry-level models to $140,000 electric monsters. Electric sports sedans boasted acceleration numbers quicker than super sports cars. Jeep inspired a new generation of overland SUVs. Look inside, and they were full of goodies. So capable is the modern vehicle that it was hard to find enough chips to operate them — condolences if you’re having to wait for these toys to appear in your driveway.

Here are the Top 10 new features of 2021.

Detroit auto critic Henry Payne's son, Henry, relaxes in a 2022 Kia Carnival reclining, second-row seat.

Backseat living rooms. Americans live in their cars and they are looking more and more like our domiciles. The Jeep Grand Cherokee and Nissan Pathfinder got third-row seating so roomy that 6’5” basketball players like me could comfortably lounge back there. The second-row seat in the Kia Carnival is literally a lounge with a par of reclining Barcaloungers. And Jeep’s Grand Cherokee and Grand Wagoneer allow you to hook up your phone to backseat screens and binge-watch your favorite Netflix series. Ah, home away from home.

The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Xtreme Recon 392 package features 35-inch tires from the factory.

Thirty-fives. 33s once were a reference to vinyl records. In the auto world, 33s designate the biggest diameter off-road tires offered on the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon — at least until this year, when the Ford Bronco Sasquatch package offered 35s. Those were immediately matched by Wrangler’s Xtreme Recon Package. Not only do they look awesome, they are invincible over rough terrain.

Using Near Field Communication, the 2022 Hyundai Tucson can be opened with a phone app.

Phone apps. This was the year phone apps became a common commodity. Pioneered by (who else?) Tesla as a way to, say, preheat your car or check its charging state, the feature can now be found on many vehicles from Hyundais to BMWs. Naturally, Tesla is taking the app a step further with Summon, so your car will come to your phone like a sort of mechanical dog.

The 2022 Lucid Air sports twin screens - the upper, instrument screen reminding of the Porsche Taycan.

Curved screens. Go ahead, ooh and aah at the curved screens behind the steering wheel of the Porsche Taycan, Lucid Air EVs (extending 34 inches) and Cadillac Escalade (38 inches). They aren’t easy to make, but expect more of them from luxury makers.

The driver's eye view of the 2022 Hyundai Tucson includes digital screens and lots of steering wheel controls for volume and cruise control.

Hoodless displays. Speaking of screens, Hyundai Tucson, Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Ford Mustang Mach-E introduced bright, hoodless instrument screens — continuing the trend of autos becoming rolling smartphones. The Hyundai screens also allow for a more symmetrical interior with clean horizontal lines  around the cabin.

The unique, cabinet doors on the 2022 Mazda MX-30.

Cabinet doors. Mazda’s first EV, the MX-30, disappointed with its 100-mile range. But the stylish ute wowed with cabinet doors — the sort of thing we’re used to seeing on show cars. The 2019 Lincoln Continental Coach Door Edition, for example, wowed at the Detroit Auto Show with a limited, 80th Lincoln anniversary, 80-car run. Not only do the MX-30 doors differentiate the EV from its gas cousin CX-30 — they also enable easy entry and egress.

Owners of the 2022 Ford Maverick can scan a QR code in the bed to find how-to videos online.

Unibody pickups. Based on SUV platforms, the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Fe broke the pickup mold, offering smooth-riding affordable pickups for less than $30k. With their smaller size came cool new bed features like a sliding tonneau cover on the back of the Santa Cruz. The Maverick appealed to pickup owners’ Do-It-Yourself ethic with multiple options. There’s a QR code in its bed, for example. Scan the code with your phone and Ford takes you to a website with helpful tips on how to, for example, hack 12-volt bed wiring to configure your favorite accessories. A pair of 110-volt outlets are also back there to power tailgate parties.

The Ford Bronco lets the driver select from several drive modes with the turn of a knob.

GOAT mode. At the center of the popular Ford Bronco is an electronic GOAT (Goes On Any Terrain) dial that drivers can simply spin to access the off-road bruiser’s variety of drive modes. Combined with electronic buttons atop the dash for complementary functions like swaybar disconnect or Trail Turn Assist, the Bronco’s electronics advance the cause of trailblazing.

CrabWalk mode helps the 2022 GMC Hummer EV get through tight situations off-road. General Motors Milford Proving Ground in Milford, Michigan.

Crab walk. Teased for an early 2023 launch, the Hummer EV is the industry’s most outrageous vehicle with 9,000-pound curb weight, 3.0-second zero-60 mph capability, and crab walk. Hummers were spotted testing on public roads moving in a coordinated shuffle dance. Thanks to all-wheel-steer, the dance has practical applications off-road when the Hummer gets into a tight spot and can move sideways to get out of trouble.

2022 Ford F-150 Lightning frunk can fit two golf bags (or a full-size suitcase and two carry-ons).

Mega-frunk. Mid-engine sports cars pioneered the “frunk” (front trunk). EVs made it popular. Electric pickup trucks have supersized it. I’m cheating a bit here since the Ford F-150 Lightning won’t be out until next spring, but I got an eyeful this year. Freed of a front engine, the pickup  Ford revealed in May boasts the world’s biggest frunk, with 14 cubic feet of cargo room that can fit two golf bags and 400 pounds of payload. Expect more mega-frunks as EV pickups battle it out.

More: Tiny shifters, lane nannies top list of most annoying car technology

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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