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Luxury car feature creep

Consumer Reports News: November 09, 2007 09:31 AM

When the advanced plan for the November-issue luxury car group was put on paper, I began anticipating where to drive and what to do with these sedans. Now, there are groups where I drive the cars, then there are groups where I drive the cars. And this proved to be an enjoyable group, indeed. However, the injection of more and more technology into cars is taking that enjoyment away.

I accept, and wholeheartedly endorse, unobtrusive safety technology. Give me more air bags, better crash structures, and active head restraints. I like ESC...so long as I can turn it off or, at the least, engage a competition mode like in the Chevrolet Corvette. And advanced engines and transmissions that deliver seamless power without sacrificing fuel economy? Bring it on.

But features for the sake of features (keeping up with the Automotive Joneses, if you will) drives me nuts. The cruise control on the Volvo that some colleagues find intriguing, with its distance settings, for me replaces "ease of use" with "frustration." It works fine on empty roads. But add in just a bit of traffic and it is always slowing and stopping and accelerating...but never at what feels to me like the proper time. The other Volvo bells, whistles, and lights are a bit too much. Blind spot warning systems? What happened to paying attention and setting your mirrors properly? Poor design that leads to obstructed visibility is a problem. "Fixing" it with a warning system is going from bad to worse.

After many opportunities (BMW 530i, 745i, 650i, X5, and our recent 535i) to play with it, I'm comfortable with iDrive. But that still doesn't make it necessary. Certainly these systems are powerful, but the move by many manufacturers to a multi-function, driver-interaction system is not a positive.

Simplicity is relative in these cars. While most controls in the LS 460L benefit from using a more simple touchscreen (although regular buttons would be even simpler), it could really use a joystick controller for adjusting the hands-free-parking system. Plus, the Toyota/Lexus still refuses to let you program the navigation system when the car is moving, even if an adult is in the front passenger seat. That's ridiculous.

No, this feature creep is not for me. I was recently talking about this with a friend in the automotive industry. We wondered where the simple, user-friendly cars have gone, the ones without rain-sensing windshield wipers, distance-sensing cruise control, automatic headlights, and driver-interaction systems. They're still for sale, but there are fewer and fewer new ones available each year. And that's a shame. I think we're creating and coddling more and more drivers who can't think for themselves and ably control a 3,000-plus pound vehicle without these systems, let alone when they're busy adjusting their cell phone, iPod Touch, Blackberry, or satellite radio.

--Jon Linkov

Also read: "Luxury cars - What is luxury?" and "Autopilot: Coming to luxury car near you, almost."

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