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Car options: Must-haves and forget-its


Our test driver singles out the features and systems you should insist on--and dismisses the expensive gimmicks.


Car options: Must-haves and forget-its

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Choose article section... Thumbs up for these features But thumbs down on these Other choices—good and bad

Our test driver singles out the features and systems you should insist on—and dismisses the expensive gimmicks.

By Michelle Krebs

On a January morning, I gazed out the window of my suburban Detroit home after a monster storm had piled nearly a foot of snow in my street. It was a day to stay inside, but I couldn't. Detroit's annual auto show—an absolute must for folks in my line of work—was opening.

I had to find a way to get downtown, some 40 miles away, and luck was on my side. I had no four-wheel-drive vehicle, but in my driveway was a front-drive Ford Windstar, with traction control, that I had been testing. I gave it a shot.

As I crept down the unplowed streets of my subdivision, I could see that none of my neighbors had ventured out in their cars. But I had an advantage: The traction control on my Windstar instantly detected when a wheel was slipping and gave more power to the ones that had grip. The system engaged frequently; the flickering light on the dashboard told me that. With nary a slip or slide, I made my way through my neighborhood until the Windstar reached plowed pavement. The rest of my drive to the convention center was relatively a breeze.

That was the day I became a believer in traction control, especially for those of us in snow country who don't own four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Traction control is but one of the amazing technologies on today's cars and trucks. In fact, the auto companies are fond of boasting that many cars now have more computer power than did the Apollo spaceships that rocketed men to the moon—computer power that makes trips like mine on snow-clogged streets possible.

True, most of us aren't looking to fly to the moon. We just want to travel safely and comfortably to the office or supermarket. We don't need a lot of useless high-tech gimmicks to further complicate our lives and drain our bank accounts as we pay ever-higher prices for cars that also bring ever-higher repair bills. The features we need—be they standard equipment or options—are things like traction control, obstacle detection systems, and antilock brakes. They're worth every penny because they save lives.

Thumbs up for these features

Traction control on a vehicle without four-wheel drive is a no-brainer for those of us who live in Michigan's snowy clime. But I can also envision its usefulness during monsoon season in Naples, FL, where I lived before. It's standard on most luxury cars, and worth the money as an option on two-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicles and rear-drive sports cars, as well. General Motors' Saturn division remains one of the few manufacturers to offer it on a lower-priced car.

Other features in the "gotta have it" category, even if you have to pay extra for them as options:

Air bags, and more air bags. No question about it—they save lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 6,000 people are still drawing breath today because of air bags. Among those fortunate folks is a colleague of mine. He and his wife walked away from a head-on smashup with only minor injuries, thanks to the air bags in their car.

Federal law requires all new vehicles to be equipped with dual front air bags. Though many people view the air bag mandate as government intrusion on personal rights, I say the more air bags in a car, the merrier. Even if they're not standard on the model you choose, I recommend spending a few hundred dollars extra for side air bags that pop out of the door or, preferably, from the side of the seat. They've been proved to help prevent serious head injuries as well as damage to the ribs and chest. Some luxury cars, including all BMW models, even offer them for rear-seat passengers.

Air bag "curtains" are the latest innovation. They deploy from the roof along the side windows. In side-impact accidents, some of these curtains inflate and deflate in milliseconds, much as front air bags do in head-on collisions. Others, such as those on the 2002 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer, sense instantly when a vehicle starts to roll over, and they remain inflated. While no statistics are available yet on curtain air bags' effectiveness, they seem like a good idea to me.

Best of all, in my book, are the "smarter" air bags. They detect when a seat is occupied, how large the occupant is, and how he's positioned (leaning against the door, for example, or sitting in a seat that's tilted back). They also calculate the vehicle's speed, so that they can deploy at just the right force—or not deploy at all—to keep from injuring the rider. While you're at it, I'd recommend that you opt for the newest generation of front air bags, which deploy with less force than the early ones. Those often injured small drivers (folks my size) who sat close to the steering wheel.

Adjustable pedals. While I'm praising options for short drivers, let me put in a word for adjustable pedals, With the push of a button, the accelerator and brake pedals move closer to the driver's feet or farther away, allowing the "height disadvantaged" to find a comfortable driving position that's a safe distance from the air bag.

Unfortunately, adjustable pedals are not widely available. DaimlerChrysler offered them first on its Dodge Viper sports car. Ford provides them on high-volume models, such as its Taurus sedan, Windstar minivans, and its sport-utilities. When you can get them, they'll set you back no more than a couple of hundred bucks.

Antilock braking. It's another safety feature I won't do without. Standard on many vehicles, ABS costs between $200 and $600 as a stand-alone option or part of a package. Think about it: That's roughly the same as your deductible for body shop work, and you're likely to use the system at least a couple of times a year to avoid a much more expensive—and perhaps potentially lethal—accident.

Antilock brakes do require you to brake differently than most of us were trained. I was taught in high school driver's ed to pump the brakes in panic situations so they wouldn't lock. In effect, ABS does the pumping for you, but far more quickly. To work efficiently, the system requires you to keep the brake floored—even though you may feel a shudder under your foot or hear a noise.

Obstacle detection systems. With the exception of most luxury models, these systems aren't widely available yet, but I'd sure want one if I owned a minivan or high-riding sport-utility vehicle. It breaks my heart to read about a driver backing over a child in a driveway. Obstacle detectors are designed to prevent such tragedies, and to help you avoid damaging your vehicle when you're backing up. They're available on Ford Windstar minivans and Buick Park Avenue sedans, among other models.

The system uses a rear-mounted sensor that beeps to let the driver know an object is close; the beeping becomes more insistent as your vehicle draws nearer. A few luxury cars, including the BMW 5 and 7 Series, have a similar sensor in the front to help with parallel parking. The system is priced at about $300.

But thumbs down on these

So that's my go-for-it list of safety features. There are others, though, that I doubt most of us would use often, if ever:

Stability control. It was introduced on luxury cars and is available now on many other vehicles. I've tried such systems in controlled settings on icy test tracks and sand-covered racecourses. In those tests, I imagined another vehicle suddenly pulling into my lane, forcing my car into a skid. Clearly, there was a difference in the car's behavior. With the stability control system off, I swerved to avoid the other car, but mine fishtailed and sent me into an uncontrollable spin. With the system on, it felt as if an invisible co-pilot nudged me back on course and prevented my car from twirling.

Sensors track what the driver is directing the car to do through turns of the steering wheel as opposed to the way the vehicle moves in response. If it's not doing what the driver wanted, the stability control system automatically brakes the appropriate wheels with enough pressure to put the car back on course. Some systems also adjust engine power to stabilize the vehicle.

The system could be a lifesaver on ice, and an aggressive, lead-footed driver might use it often. Those of us who are more cautious may never engage it.

"Smart" cruise control. Because I actually enjoy the act of driving—the more the road twists, the better—I'm not thrilled with the new smart cruise control systems. Currently, you can get them only on the Lexus LS 430 and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but they're planned for future luxury cars, including Jaguars. These systems use sensors to track the vehicle ahead, varying the accelerator and brakes to maintain a set distance between vehicles.

To me, that means too much control is being taken from the driver. But I'll admit that I'm probably the exception; many people can't wait for the car that drives itself. Considering the number of inattentive, tailgating drivers clogging the roads, maybe it's not a bad idea—for them.

Night vision. This is another system I can do without. At $2,000, it seems like an expensive gimmick to me. General Motors' Cadillac division was the first to offer it, but other automakers, including Chrysler, are planning to install similar systems.

Cadillac claims its night vision system allows the driver to see three to five times farther down the road than he can with low headlight beams. That would, of course, give the driver more time to react to danger ahead. Cadillac's system, based on jet fighter technology, has a sensor that resembles a camera lens peeking out of the grille. It uses infrared to detect heat emitted by objects in or near the car's path. The image seen by the sensor is then projected onto the lower portion of the windshield. Hot objects—such as animals, people, and moving cars—appear white. Cool ones—trees lining the road, for instance—are dark.

In test drives, I found the system a distraction. I was instructed to look through the windshield as I normally would and to check the night-vision screen with my peripheral vision. Yeah, sure. Trust me, it takes lots of practice—and self-discipline—not to focus on the night vision screen. Imagine trying to explain to a traffic cop, "I ran the stop sign because I was watching my infrared system for deer in the road."

Navigation systems. Permit me to turn my thumb sideways here; I'm not completely down on nav systems. My daughter's track team competes with out-of-town schools, and the navigation systems I've tested can guide me to those locations. And I was grateful to have one on a California trip to keep from getting lost. But I've only recently accepted the view that these systems are useful for around-town driving.

Navigation systems know where your vehicle is because satellites track it. A menu allows the driver to punch in a specific address or cross streets, or to select a location—a restaurant, say, or a famous landmark—from its memory bank. Data is delivered to the screen via compact discs in a CD changer, usually housed in the trunk.

Automakers offer various versions of the system. Jaguar was the first to provide voice recognition. Acura and Lexus are among the first to use DVD technology; it allows the entire US to be contained on a single disc that also carries millions of bits of information, from locations of gas stations and ATMs to sites of museums and amusement parks.

Still, for creatures of habit, who rarely travel into unknown territory, this option isn't worth the $2,000 or so it costs. You can find cheaper, portable navigation systems in electronics stores. They're especially handy if you move from one car to another.

Other choices—good and bad

Onboard emergency communication systems. Those such as OnStar, first introduced on General Motors vehicles, provide peace of mind, especially when your problem is handled by a real human. I feel vulnerable in a car without my cellular phone, but these systems make me feel more secure than even a cell phone can.

They connect your vehicle to a command center manned by friendly earthlings. The center immediately summons emergency services if the air bag has deployed. The people at the center can track a stolen vehicle, unlock doors by remote control, provide directions to a stymied driver, and even make dinner and hotel reservations.

In the early days, these systems worked poorly. I tested the first OnStar system and was frequently put on hold for long periods while the monitors at the center came up empty-handed after trying to find the theater or restaurant I wanted. Since then, though, the service has vastly improved.

Entertainment systems. They may not save lives, but they can certainly preserve parental sanity. Numerous minivans and sport-utilities, including those from DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Ford, Nissan, and Honda, offer entertainment systems that allow rear-seat passengers to watch movies on a VCR or DVD player, or to play video games.

A video screen folds down from the roof, or it may be located in the back of the console. Headphones either are wireless or plug into outlets. Front-seat passengers can listen to the vehicle's audio system while back-seat occupants play games, watch a movie, or listen to different music. If my family took frequent car trips, I wouldn't hesitate to order one of these systems, just to silence the incessant "Are we there yet?" Beware, however: These systems are pricey—up to $1,500, installed. So I'd consider a less expensive aftermarket system. There are a number that can be moved from vehicle to vehicle or removed and used elsewhere.

Internet hookup. This is the latest technological marvel developed for cars, and it's the one that interests me least. Beginning last year, a number of luxury cars, including models from Cadillac and Mercedes, were equipped to let the driver access the Internet for downloading of e-mail, sports scores, news headlines, and stock quotes.

Eventually, such systems will offer real-time traffic news; OnStar is testing one now in three cities. A system that can do that would be worthwhile. But the rest is just too much. My car is my sanctuary. Surely I—or any other driver—can wait to reach home or the office to check e-mail and stock quotes.

The author, a veteran automotive journalist, tests scores of production models and "concept cars" each year.


Michelle Krebs. Car options: Must-haves and forget-its. Medical Economics 2002;4:51.

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