Car options: Which ones are worth it

March 17, 2006

Our automotive expert runs through the latest gizmos, and singles out those you should shell out for.

The truth about life insurance-that it's sold, not bought-is true in car options, too. Manufacturers today actively hustle options as a way you can personalize your vehicle. That's true, but each choice adds to the cost and raises the question: Is it worth it?

The answer depends on how and where you drive.

If you drive aggressively and often at night, buy the best possible headlight system: halogen or HID (high-intensity discharge). And, your vehicle should have some form of electronic stability control. If you're mellow, drive more slowly, and get lost easily, you may want to look at the best navigation and sound systems; if you drive in the snow belt, think about all-wheel or permanent four-wheel drive.

Yes to . . .

Adjustable pedals. These are generally included as part of a vehicle package, but occasionally they're priced separately. Chrysler adds them for $125 to its 2006 Dodge Charger SXT, plus offers something a lot of expensive cars don't: a telescoping and tilting steering wheel. An adjustable wheel and pedals allow a driver to sit back from the steering wheel, an important factor in safety.

Side air bags. Air bags, too, improve safety during traffic accidents. Although it's still not advisable to sit too close to the wheel or put children in the front seats, the newer dual-phase air bags inflate appropriately based on the vehicle's rate of deceleration or, in the case of some Ford models, a sensor that's able to detect the size of passengers. To protect from crashes other than straight-on, manufacturers are now also offering side air bags for both front and rear seats, with extra head side curtains in many models.

What's the cost for this additional protection? That's where it gets tricky. Companies like BMW and Volvo have extra air bags as standard equipment. Chevrolet makes them standard on some models; the Malibu LTX and SS models, for instance. In cases where they aren't standard, Chevy and Ford charge a modest amount-in the neighborhood of $600 to $700-for side air bags and certain other safety features. In Ford's Five Hundred SEL, one of those features is a rollover sensor.

So would it be worth paying more to get such protection? Absolutely. There's no downside to buying a car with multiple air bags.

Navigation systems. I've never felt navigation systems did anything other than distract drivers, yet I found the Lexus system (in the 2006 GS 430) invaluable on a recent 500-mile trip. Alpine Electronics became the global leader in satellite-linked navigation systems from its early work with Honda. Most of the navigation systems are the same, only the cars are different. I'd spend the extra money and get one in my next car.

Stability control. Almost all the stability and traction assists are worthwhile despite the bewildering range of titles (mostly created to protect proprietary interests), making it difficult to go looking for one by name. Instead you have to choose the car company models and see what they have.

Three specific devices that show promise include those available from Mercedes-Benz, Saab, and Volvo. The Mercedes' "Pre-Safe" collision anticipation system gives cars better reflexes than their drivers. The system reacts to a multitude of early warnings, senses an impending collision, and applies tension to the seat belts. It even moves reclining seats to vertical and closes the sunroof if a rollover seems possible. The system has already won industry awards.