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Must-Have Car Features, and Those You Can Skip

Advice to help with optioning your next car

Last updated: March 20, 2016 10:00 AM
Photo: TYLER GOURLEY

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the abundance of features available in new cars, especially if you haven’t been in the market for a few years. It seems there is a new advancement in convenience, infotainment, or safety systems almost every month, making for tough choices, pricey options, and a cavalcade of acronyms. We’re here to help.

Consumer Reports buys new cars for testing on a near-weekly basis, ensuring our staff has experienced just about every new feature that comes along. Some features are clever innovations that we wouldn’t want to be without, while others can be as much of a nuisance as a help. (Learn about how we test cars.)

Based on our experience, here are recommendations for features worth considering, as well as those that you should think about skipping.

Must Haves

Comfortable seats! Drivers can spend a lot of time in the car. If the seats aren’t comfortable, you won’t be happy with your car for long. Be sure as part of your test drive that you spend adequate time evaluating the seat. It’s important that each driver get’s a chance to assess the seats for at least 15 to 20 minutes.

Power driver’s seat with height-adjustable lumbar support. With greater fine-tuning ability than most manual seats, power seats can help most drivers find a much more comfortable driving position. Height-adjustable lumbar support is another key to long-term comfort. If the lumbar bulge is in the wrong place, it’s no more comfortable than having too little lumbar support.

Forward-collision warning (FCW) uses laser, radar, or cameras to assess surrounding conditions, as well as the speed of your approach to a potential impact with a vehicle ahead of you. The system alerts you with visual and/or audible signals to a potential crash, allowing you time to react. Some systems also sense and alert you to the potential for a collision with pedestrians. We want to see forward-collision warning standard in every car.

Automatic emergency braking (AEB) adds to the benefits of forward-collision warning. AEB will sense a potential collision, and if you don’t react in time, the car will initiate braking for you. Auto-braking is another technology we would like to see standard in every car.

A backup camera is like having eyes in the back of your head, reducing the risk of reversing over or into something that might otherwise be unseen behind the vehicle. It’s both a safety feature and a convenience for parking.

Rear cross-traffic alert takes seeing behind you to the next level by warning you when other traffic is approaching from the side as you back out.

Blind-spot monitoring signals when there’s a car in the blind spot beside you on the road. The best systems illuminate little lights in the side mirrors where you should be looking anyway. They emit a chime if you signal a move toward a car next to you. We’ve found these systems to be very effective.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto bring the features and usability of your smartphone to the car’s dashboard. The appeal is being able to use interfaces you are familiar with to the larger screen of your car’s infotainment system. The systems allow you to use a selection of car-friendly apps, and make voice-activated texting simple.  

Bluetooth connectivity lets you answer a cell-phone call hands-free, without fumbling with the phone or risking a law violation. In addition, Internet-sourced audio can typically be streamed to the car wirelessly, provided you took the time to pair the phone to the car.

360-degree surround-view camera systems help drivers park more easily, and check for obstructions, through a bird’s-eye view from above the vehicle. Multiple cameras positioned around the car show parking lines relative to the vehicle, making maneuvering in tight situations a snap.  

Head-up displays share redundant information such as current speed, navigation information and audio selections on the windshield directly in front of the driver. This reduces the need for the driver to move their eyes from the road to the dashboard or central display screen, although it may take some getting used to.  

A USB port can be used to charge a device and play music through the stereo.

Voice controls can keep you from fumbling either with your phone or the car’s controls when looking for the perfect song or trying to phone home. They’re also handy for entering a destination in the navigation system, even under way.

Heated seats and steering wheel can be much appreciated during a cold winter.  Trust us, once you try these, you’ll never want to live without them.

Dual-zone automatic climate control allows the driver and front passenger to fine-tune temperature settings. Set and forget—the system will make adjustments as needed to keep everyone comfortable. It also has a safety benefit – in Auto mode, you’ll be fumbling less.

Automatic high beams take the stress out of driving on back roads at night by automatically turning off the high beams for oncoming traffic, and then turning them back up once the cars have passed. We’ve found some systems work much better than others, however.

Spare tire. Lots of cars come without them these days, so check before you buy. In many cases, a spare tire can be added for a fee.

Keyless entry makes a huge difference when you’re trying to open the car and you have your hands full of bags, babies, or a briefcase. Just walk up and open the doors—sometimes by touching a sensor on the handle. Almost all cars with keyless entry also have pushbutton start. But even if they don’t, it’s easier to fish for the key once your hands are free.

Features to Skip

Gesture/character recognition. Some cars are introducing separate touch pads to interface with their center screens, where you can scribe letters to enter addresses, for example. But they’re just as distracting and no easier to use than scroll wheels or simple touch screens.

DVD player. With all the modern connectivity in cars and the abundance of iPads and tablets, DVD players seem redundant. iPads/tablets can carry movies, as well as games, making rear entertainment systems another unnecessary expense and complication.

Built-in navigation brings a big screen and integrates with the car’s controls. But phone-based navigation usually has easier input, better points of interest, and voice recognition. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto further negate built-in nav, as these systems transfer the maps from your phone to the car’s screen.

Apps are feeding into more and more cars. Some of them are handy: Aha, Audible, Pandora, Stitcher, and Spotify, among others, make it easier to control playback rather than just using the direct Bluetooth connection in the car. But as quickly as new apps come along, they can become obsolete before you trade in your car. The systems that seem particularly ridiculous are those that require a separate umbrella app on your phone to interface with any app on the car, such as Toyota’s Entune system.

Wi-Fi in cars is the latest rage. GM rolled it out across its lineup for 2015, and select luxury cars have offered it for a few years. We don’t get it. Most cell-phone plans offer mobile hot spots. And the signal has to come from somewhere. Wi-Fi routers in your car require their own monthly 3G data subscription in addition to your new car payment.

Lane-keeping assist monitors the lane lines and electrically nudges the steering wheel to keep you between them. In our experience, lane-departure systems are just as effective at warning you if you’re not paying attention, and they’re less annoying because they don’t give you the eerie feeling that someone else is tugging at the steering wheel.

—Mike Monticello and Gabe Shenhar


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