We like gadgets, add-ons that make life easier, happier, and better. But carmakers might like gadgets even more than we do. A profusion of electronic options help differentiate a base car versus a luxury model — and bolsters the company’s bottom line.
But any company’s blossoming bottom line can come at your expense. So when you’re considering a new car and its various options and convenience packages, it’s worth giving serious thought to those you’ll actually use. Just like apps on your phone or gadget conveniences for the kitchen, you’ll soon discover that some car options are worth every dollar, while you’ll never use others. They may be pointless or maddening or simply not ready for primetime.
If I was to put together the perfect car, across brands and models, here are options I would definitely choose. And a few I’d leave off.
It might seem odd, but my foremost pick are smart headlights, which might be described as "active cornering" headlights or similar depending on the make. While most options are a matter of convenience, the best headlamps are a matter of safety. My favorite among these are BMW’s adaptive beams, which move as the steering wheel moves. When you’re darting around twisty roads at dusk, the lamps will pick up the arc that you’re actually driving.
Bimmer’s lamps measure the steering angle and yaw of the vehicle, with electric motors swiveling the beams as you turn around bends. They even account for dips and crests in the road. For instance they lower when you’re atop a crest, so you can see the road below you. The added cost is nominal: $800 as part of a lighting package with automatic high beams on a BMW 3 Series, and about $1,000 also including LED lights on a sister brand Mini Cooper four-door.
The US has vastly outdated restrictions concerning headlights, which don’t allow for varying levels of intensity. Hence we don’t get Audi’s laser-based "matrix" high beams, which I’ve tested and loved on the European-spec R8, and would be ideal in forlorn roads in the Southwest. Ford, meanwhile, is working on a system which will shine extra light directly on potential obstacles alongside the road — namely pedestrians or animals like deer. This sounds genuinely useful.
While we’re on the subject of lights, I love auto-dimming features, which turn off high beams automatically — no more blinding oncoming traffic or having to continually futz with the stalk. Automatic windshield wipers that respond to rainfall are also highly welcome. If your car model offers them all as a package deal, snap them up.
Safety options naturally bring us to the very contemporary subject of crash-avoidance systems, both early-warning systems and semi-autonomous features. A host of new cars, from brands as diverse as Hyundai to Tesla, come with a proliferation of sensors, ranging from forward- and rear-facing cameras to radar and everything in between. In the case of models like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it allows the car to operate semi-autonomously on the highway as long as you keep a hand on the steering wheel. (And even that technology is starting to filter down — Honda’s new Civic has some rudimentary self-driving features.)
As for the warning systems: I’m all for them
As for the warning systems: I’m all for them. They are standard in some cars and usually worth the nominal fees in others, especially as they will save you from fender benders. I was boxed into a tight parking spot in a Hyundai Elantra the other day, and the cross-traffic alert went off. A minivan was blasting through the parking lot and I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise until I was halfway pulled out. Similarly, blind-spot monitors, which usually signal a light in your side-view mirror when there’s a car coming alongside, are genius. A friend of mine recently disabled the feature on a Hyundai SUV, and didn’t bother to mention it to his wife. Bad idea, as he was reminded after paying the repair fees for the Hyundai and the car she sideswiped. She’d come to rely on it.
Self-driving: not ready yet
The semi-autonomous features are still a mixed bag, however. For instance, Mercedes’ steering assist is not something I’d use often. Working in tandem with the adaptive cruise control, it is supposed to keep you in your correct lane. But the driver still has to keep a hand on the wheel or the system will begin beeping and then eventually disengage. And sorry to the would-be texters and nappers, but you very much need to pay attention to the road. The logic behind the system is limited: it follows the car in front of you, and also takes note of the lane markings. But lane markings are lousy in the US, so the system is sometimes confused, and you’re also trusting the driver in front of you to do the right things.
I’d say it is not worth the $2,800 for the driver assistance package, except for a few key safety systems that will engage the brakes if it senses you’re going to rear-end another car, or if a car is going to rear-end you. These "pre"-braking systems are the next big thing in active vehicular safety, and judging from the recent NHTSA announcement, I expect to see similar systems eventually mandated by law.
Self-parking systems? Pass. (And an extra $970 on the E-Class.) Perfume atomizers and LED "stars" in the headliner? (Various Mercedes and Rolls-Royce models, respectively.) Pass and pass.
The other must-haves
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto? Yes and yes. Not all is perfect, but in-car navigation and infotainment systems simply can’t keep up with the pace of smartphones. We consumers have come to expect rapid upgrades. Take Siri. It is far from flawless, but even the first gen beats the heck out of any car’s asinine voice-command systems.
Which brings me to my other favorite feature, once found only in GM products but now across a variety of brands: the heads-up display (HUD). Audi may give you Google Earth maps, and screens may be getting bigger and with better resolution, but no matter what, you have to take your eyes off the road to gather information. The heads-up display, meanwhile, reflects info like your speed directly onto the windshield in front of the driver.
BMW again wins this war. Its latest HUD includes color graphics and can display the next upcoming turn from the navigation system, but never seems to overload you with information. (Maybe one day soon we’ll see those head’s-up systems integrate with the CarPlay and Android Auto. That’s the level of optional integration we really want.)
Ordering a car can be a lengthy and confusing process — just take a look at a Porsche order sheet, which can offer many dozens of options, combinations of options, and package discounts. Just remember that you’re there to drive, to be safe, and to have fun. You don’t need the rest.