Around our Connecticut-based Auto Test Center, where we have an abundance of overcrowded, indifferently maintained roads and four distinct seasons of crummy weather, we're drawn to automotive gadgets that promise to make us cooler, warmer, less anxious, or more secure. Often such features turn out to be cash-sapping frills, but some have lasting value.
Based on our experiences, here's a selection of features that I think makes life behind the wheel more tolerable.
Heated steering wheel. Like heated seats, a warmed-up wheel is one of those things that once you have it, you don't want to live without it. For people whose hands get cold on even a moderately raw day, a heated wheel is better than mittens. Long the province of Audi, BMW, and Cadillac, heated steering wheels have finally started migrating to more mainstream vehicles like the Buick Verano, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Kia Optima, and Nissan Altima. The question is, if Kia can do it, why can't everybody, especially on decidedly all-weather vehicles, like Subarus?
Navigation. For a small state, Connecticut is an easy place in which to get lost. This may relate to our ancient and irrational road layout. For folks who have mastered Manchester but are baffled by Branford or derailed by Darien, a satellite navigation system is a life-saver, especially at night. For years, carmakers charged an outrageous $2,000 or more for built-in GPS, even after portable Garmins and TomToms were selling at Walmart for less than $200. Built-in factory units have brighter pictures now, and add a mere $500 to $800--still overpriced but far more attainable. Hopefully the price will continue to edge down on in-dash systems.
Backup camera. We have been strong supporters of backup cameras. They are essential for a minivan, truck, or SUV, where rearward visibility can be compromised by numerous factors. These cameras also come in handy when kids are around and for hitching a trailer. And since most modern cars obscure your view to the rear with big head restraints, short windows, and wide roof pillars, even sedans benefit from a bumper's eye view. Though no substitute for actually looking where you're going, rear cameras are mighty handy for backing into a tight parking space. More and more sedans include them as standard, or, more often, as part of a luxury or technology package.
Push-button start. When you're loaded down with packages or bundled up for winter, it's nice not to have to fumble for that iron-age artifact known as a car key. Most upscale and a few mid-market cars offer a keyless entry and ignition system. These "smart" keys use a radio-transponder key fob that you needn't remove from your pocket. Once seated, you simply push a dashboard button to start or stop the engine. Some fobs even unlock your door when you approach it from outside. Bonus points for a factory remote-start system allowing you to pre-heat or cool down before leaving the house.
Cross-traffic alert. One of the few safety gadgets that you can experience daily, cross-traffic alert beeps to call attention to traffic crossing behind you when you're backing up. The cross-traffic alert acts as a second pair of eyes, particularly welcomed when backing up into a street or in a bustling parking lot. Increasingly common on mid-priced and upscale cars, it's usually bundled with blind-spot detection.
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