Geneva motor show - Carmakers are tapping smartphone technology to sex up low-cost city cars and try to get an edge in a market that has grown to account for almost 10 percent of new car sales in austerity-scarred Europe.
The Opel Adam Rocks, the new Peugeot 108, the Citroen C1 and the Toyota Aygo are among the compact city cars on display at the Geneva motor show - each available with a large multimedia screens that can display music libraries or navigation maps stored on a smartphone.
Such features have already proven a big draw for customers in more upmarket models, and are now being added to a new breed of urban runabouts pitched at younger, tech-savvy drivers.
Dinesh Paliwal, chief executive of Harman International - a maker of so-called “infotainment” systems for the auto industry - said: “What used to be a feature seen in premium cars is now coming in to the low and medium end of the market.
“It's driven by a change in lifestyle where people no longer want to stop being connected just because they are in a car.”
The new A-segment citycars are smaller than a Mini - which makes them lighter, more fuel efficient, and thus cheaper to own and run.
With sticker prices starting from €9500 - €11 500 (R140 000 - R170 000) they’re proving popular among first-time buyers as Europe emerges from a prolonged period of economic weakness.
But to succeed, carmakers will have to meet the growing expectation of young drivers to be able to access information and entertainment from their phones.
Andrew Poliak, head of automotive development for QNX Software, part of the BlackBerry group, said: “Many first-time buyers are young, and they’re more tech-savvy than more traditional clients.”
Not all attempts to make cars more sophisticated have been a success, however. Ford slipped in the quality rankings in the United States after its “Sync” infotainment system proved vulnerable to glitches.
Carmakers are not alone in driving the convergence between their industry and the technology sector.
Apple is showing a new hands-free technology for car drivers at Geneva that will debut in Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo cars and its CarPlay technology will make it simpler for drivers to make calls, read maps and to listen to their music library using swipe gestures or voice activation, much in the way they are used to doing with an iPhone.
Mercedes-Benz R&D head Thomas Weber said of the deal with Apple: “We are constantly developing the connected car with the latest technologies available, so that every Mercedes-Benz driver can use their smartphone in full comfort and safety.”
The makers of cheaper, smaller cars are striving to keep up.
Opel is premiering the Adam Rocks in Geneva, a city car with an infotainment system costing just €300 (R4500) that can connect to smartphones using either Apple's iOS or Google's Android operating system to answer phonecalls and dictate text messages using a hands-free speaker.
Opel says said 70 percent of ‘Adam’ buyers in Europe were already ordering the “Intellilink” system.
BMW, which is about to launch the fourth-generation Mini, says it expects more than a quarter of its cars to be equipped with the Mini Connected infotainment system, which is also compatible with both Android and iOS software.