If you haven’t shopped for a new car in several years, you may not be prepared for what you’ll find on dealers’ showrooms. Here’s how vehicles have changed over the last decade.

By Jim Gorzelany CTW Features

With the average new-car ownership period currently at around six years, those headed to a dealer’s showroom after an extended absence might find it to be the proverbial brave new world. Behemoth sportutility vehicles have largely been replaced by more car-like crossover wagons, while family cars have gotten sleeker looking and better equipped, with many now offering features that were until only recently reserved for luxury cars. Pickup trucks remain purposeful workhorses, albeit with top-model sticker prices that now crack the $60,000 mark.

If it’s been a while since you last went shopping for a new car, here’s what you may have missed while racking up the last 100,000 miles or so:

Small is big

The double-whammy of high gasoline prices and changing consumer tastes has made compact and subcompact cars more plentiful and popular than ever. No longer spartanly equipped “econoboxes,” most now offer a full array of features to accommodate downsizing empty nesters and fuel economy-conscious buyers who don’t want to sacrifice creature comforts.

Less is more

Many models are packing smaller engines that deliver better fuel economy than their predecessors without sacrificing performance, thanks largely to turbocharging and direct fuel injection. Turbo-fours are fast replacing V6s in midsize cars, with larger autos (and at least one pickup truck) including turbo-sixes instead of V8s. Beginning this year turbocharged three-cylinder powerplants will be finding their way into subcompact cars as more efficient alternatives to four-cylinder engines.

Safety first

Many vehicles now come with as many as 10 airbags for greater occupant protection, and all cars and trucks include electronic stability control to help keep the car from skidding in extreme handling maneuvers. The latest models offer advanced accident avoidance systems that can help prevent a crash. Most prevalent are blind spot and lane departure warning systems that alert a driver to the presence of other vehicles to the side and rear, and when the wheels inadvertently cross the highway lane markers. Forward collision prevention systems sound an alarm if the car is coming up too quickly on another vehicle or obstruction in its path, and many can even apply the brakes if the driver isn’t reacting quickly enough.

Cool and connected

While it was once a big deal for a car to offer an iPod jack or navigation system, even the least expensive models now offer full infotainment arrays that connect wirelessly with motorists’ smartphones. Depending on the model, users can stream music from Internet radio sources, send and receive text messages, download navigation guidance and travel data and even interact with an iPhone’s “Siri” virtual assistant on a hands-free basis. A few cars can make their own Internet connections and operate as rolling Wi-Fi hot spots.

No keys, please

Now available on a majority of models, a driver can unlock the car simply by touching a door handle if he or she has the keyless keyfob in pocket or purse, and the car can be started or switched off by just pressing a button on the dashboard. A few vehicles can be equipped with tailgates or trunks that open automatically if the driver waves his or her foot under the rear bumper.

Top-shelf meets mid-class

Many mainstream small and midsize models now can be equipped with luxury features like heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats and even a heated steering wheel. Remote starters are becoming commonplace, with the best systems allowing drivers to engage their vehicles from afar using their smartphones, automatically setting the climate control according to the ambient temperature. The latest cruise control systems can maintain both a set speed and a safe distance from the traffic ahead. And a few cars even offer systems that automatically steer themselves into parallel parking spaces.

© CTW Features