Best new car features are fresh takes on old ideas
Coffee cups, Midwestern values, action heroes — Americans love to hold on to things. We especially like holding on to our cars. Despite record new car sales in 2015 and again in 2016, Americans held on to their cars for a record average of 11.6 years as of 2016, according to IHS Markit.
People who haven’t bought a new car in a while may be surprised that features such as a CD player, full-size spare tire, hand brake, even a key have gone the way of the telephone booth, VCR and fax.
Evolution is all about trade-offs, and there’s plenty to look forward to in new cars. Just be patient with the learning curve.
Adaptive cruise control: There’s plenty of concern about the advent of self-driving cars, but reality is that the technology dates to the 1958 Chrysler Imperial. That cutting-edge land shark featured cruise control.
Adaptive cruise uses sensors in the front of the car or in the housing by the rearview mirror to detect vehicles in front of it and maintain a desired speed based on car length. Once the driver sets the cruise, the adaptive element will speed up or slow down based on traffic in your lane. Following distance can range from one to four car lengths, but in actuality the length is about three times that. On highway trips the driver may never need to apply the brake or gas, or press arrows on the steering wheel.
Many technology packages with adaptive cruise also come with some iteration of lane keeping, which reads lanes and alerts drivers when the vehicle is drifting, or may even move the steering wheel to maintain the lane. Lane-keeping is far more polarizing than adaptive cruise, but the twin love-it-or-leave-it technologies are the basis for self-driving cars.
Welcome lights: There’s no better symbol of that touchstone of western civilization — personal property — than keys. Once upon a time cars came with two keys, one for the doors and trunk, another for the ignition. Now we have fobs.
The next evolution of remote keyless entry is rock-sized fobs, or smart keys, that never need to be removed from pocket or purse as long as you don’t go swimming and drown yourself from the weight of some of them.
Smart keys unlock the doors as you approach, as the car senses the fob from about 10 feet away. Luxury makes ranging from Jaguar to Lincoln, and premium trims from Ford to Subaru, take it a step further and will illuminate front and rear lights as well as project the make’s logo on the ground as an illuminated welcome mat. Interior lights come on and some cars with remote start can be programmed to heat or cool the interior upon arrival.
The “approach detection” on the new Lincoln Continental is one of the best at its price point, like a robotic pet coming to life at your approach, but Tesla, like all things Tesla, takes things further. The driver side door of the Model X will open when the fob is within about 5 feet, and not only does it have remote start, it has remote summon, where you can press the fob and the car will back out of the garage or parking spot and warm itself up. BMW has something similar.
The downside to smart keys is replacements must be bought from the dealer, and can range from $200 to $500.
Automatic lights: If you’ve driven a car, odds are you’ve left the headlights on and needed a jump. Chances are you’ve forgotten to turn them on at the end of a long day.
Automatic headlights sense light conditions and respond accordingly, then go full illumination in fog or at nighttime. Not only do they help the driver see better, they also make the car better seen by traffic and pedestrians. All the driver has to do is leave the headlights switch in its default setting.
Backup cameras: It’s taken us a few years to warm up to the backup camera, and our appreciation of it comes just as the backup camera is mandated in all cars from 2018 model year on. Side mirrors are still better for backing down the driveway, but the camera acts as a fourth eye showing what’s behind the rear bumper in a way the rear or side mirrors cannot. When equipped with colored lines showing how much room is left, it really boosts confidence in urban parallel parking situations. .
Worth the upgrade is 360-degree backup camera, which gives a bird’s-eye projection of the vehicle on a split screen with the backup camera.
The issue is keeping those cameras clean without driver interaction, especially in any place where there is weather. Two steps forward, one step back is still progress.