The U.S. economy is still dragging. Middle Eastern regimes seem to be imploding almost weekly, spiking the cost of oil and gasoline at the pump, and shaking consumer confidence. Unemployment remains around 9% with many older baby boomers and new college grads have dropped out of the workforce for lack of jobs. And because so many people have precarious incomes, they are hanging on to their vehicles longer.

In 2005, the average age of a vehicle on the road was 8.9. Today, it is almost ten years. The good news is that carmakers were improving quality so much in the early part of the last decade that those hit by falling home values and layoffs can drive their cars well beyond 100,000 miles.

But if you are among the fortunate who are prospering or at least holding your own, and have been putting off a new vehicle purchase because you are simply a tight-wad and want to drive the car you have into the ground, think again.

Cars and trucks have changed dramatically for the better in just the last decade in the areas of safety, entertainment and fuel economy. If you're driving a decade-old vehicle, here are five good reasons to consider upgrading to a 2011 model.

Economy

Numerous governmental and industry studies demonstrate that new vehicles generally use less fuel than their older counterparts. Comparing vehicles from 1975 to 2005 shows a 50-percent increase in fuel efficiency.

The trend continues. High fuel prices and government regulations have increased the demand and the incentive to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. Technology, however, is the genuine reason behind today's higher mpg vehicles.

Car Shopping? Start Your Search At AOL Autos!

Many individual features enable real jumps in efficiency compared to older vehicles. For example, in 2001, many new cars were offered with automatic transmissions. These gearboxes used just three or four forward gears.

Today, even low-priced subcompact cars like the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Cruze feature automatic transmission with six gears. Chrysler will soon have a fuel-saving automatic with nine! Additional gears enable the engine to run at more efficient engine speeds.

Another significant change is direct fuel injection. Unlike standard fuel injection systems, direct injection (DI) squirts fuel directly into an engine's combustion chamber (instead of in the intake manifold). The DI injectors enable greater efficiency and lower fuel use.

Many vehicles are also using electric power steering pumps as opposed to belt-driven hydraulic pumps. The later pumps were working all the time, sapping up valuable engine power. Electric power steering systems require less power to do the same work. According to Nexsteer, a supplier of both kinds of steering systems, switching to an electric steering system saves the equivalent of 500-pounds of vehicle weight.

Power

While new engines and transmissions help deliver more fuel economy, newer vehicles also tend to be more powerful. It's a win-win situation.

In many cases, changes to engines that improve fuel economy also increase horsepower. During the past decade, engine engineers have:

- Reduced internal friction so that engine components can move more freely

- Increased the computing power of engine power-train control modules (the computers that control engines) to enable fuel-saving modes of operation such as cylinder de-activation. That means some vehicles that are V8 or V6 can operate 4 or three cylinders respectively at highway speeds where less acceleration power is needed.

- Used computer-aided-design to maximize the efficiency of air intake and exhaust systems

An example of increasing horsepower is the Chevrolet Camaro. In 2001, a Camaro with a 3.8-liter V-6 produced 200-horsepower. Today, a 2011 Camaro with a 3.6-liter V-6 produces 312-horsepower (more than the 5.7-liter V-8 from 2001) and gets better fuel economy. The 2011 Camaro with the 6.2-liter V-8 runs with a fire-breathing 426-hp. Those who can wait until the 2012 Camaro ZL1 arrives can enjoy a pavement shredding 550-hp.

Power trends aren't any different for family sedans or minivans.

Safety

Significant changes in technology make vehicle occupants safer than ever before. For instance, on the 2001 Toyota Camry, front airbags were standard. Side airbags for the driver and front passenger were optional. An anti-lock brake system (ABS) was standard on highly contented V-6 models, but traction control was optional across the board. Electronic stability control was still an exotic, not-available-on-affordable-car feature.

Today, the 2011 Toyota Camry offers seven standard airbags including side-curtain airbags that stretch back into the rear seats, and a driver's knee airbag. A sophisticated electronic stability control system is standard, as are ABS and all-speed traction control.

Which car would you rather drive? (And in case you haven't heard, a Federal investigation concluded that Toyota's electronic system does not cause its vehicles to accelerate by themselves, though plaintiff attorneys continue to challege the government's findings).

In addition to the basics, technologies such as lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking, and various traffic warning systems are migrating down from luxury cars to the mass market.

Tech

Not a single new 2001-model year vehicle sold in the US offered factory-installed iPod connectivity or the ability to play music off of a USB device. However, you could option up to an audio system that played both cassette tapes and CDs. And since then, satellite radio has been added as standard or optional equipment on most vehicles.

Other technically advanced features you couldn't find in 2001 include power ventilated front seats (that cool or heat one's seat) Bluetooth wireless connections that enabled cell-phone integration into the vehicle's audio system, and Satellite TV.

Options including head-up display, voice-controlled navigation systems and rear-view cameras - some available in 2001 and some not - are becoming more widely available today.

Comfort and Design

If you have the opportunity to drive a 2011 model back-to-back with a 2001 vehicle, you'll be surprised at everything you don't notice; wind noise, engine noise, and road noise.

In order to make voice-activated systems such as GM's OnStar and Ford's Sync operate more reliably, engineers were forced to make automotive interiors quieter. The results are notable and help making driving more relaxing and comfortable.

Modern interiors are also generally more handsome than those of a decade ago. Illustrating a major improvement in just seven years, the differences between the 2003 Porsche Cayenne and the all-new 2011 model couldn't be more obvious. Gone are the acres of plastic and cheap looking vents. The second-generation Cayenne picks up styling cues from the Panamera sedan, enveloping drivers in a rich interior filled with careful detailing and vastly improved materials.

The same could be said for the wholesale changes Chrysler made in their line from 2010 to 2011. While the 2011 Chrysler 200 is still not one of our favorite cars, the sedan's interior is much improved over the 2010 edition. Materials feel richer because designers specified soft surfaces for the areas occupants touch. The feel is certainly superior to hard plastic. Likewise, the instrument cluster features a highly designed, 3-D appearance as opposed to plain gauge faces.

What It All Means...

While 2011 models still have four wheels and burn fossil fuels, much has changed, and it's all for the better.

Hit a dealer showroom near you to see the advances for yourself.