These days, consumers can outfit their
cars with a host of safety features such as curtain air bags and traction
But too many times, buyers choose style over safety,
says Gabriel Shenhar, a senior auto test engineer for Consumer
Reports. "When price is already a sensitive issue and options
get scrutinized, most people would prefer alloy wheels and a CD player
to curtain air bags," he says.
Even price shopping can be difficult since many options
are bundled together in packages and the technology varies from manufacturer
to manufacturer. Bottom line: Decide what you need on your car, then
An ABS system "allows you to maintain steering
control when you're braking extremely rapidly," says Love.
Curtain (or head protection)
air bags: These are not standard in most vehicles, but are
especially important for drivers of sedans with all the SUVs on
the road. If your sedan is hit by an SUV, your head is level with
its bumper. Curtain air bags help level the playing field by giving
you and your passengers more head protection.
Cost: "As little as $250 to $500," says
Though different carmakers give this feature different names, it's
a system designed to prevent loss of control and flipping by sending
power to whichever wheels are gripping the road.
"It limits wheel spin during acceleration so
that the drive wheels have maximum traction," says Love. "It's
designed to improve a vehicle's ability to get going on wet, snowy,
Electronic stability control system:
Again, different manufacturers call this by different names and
the mechanics behind the system can vary. Simply, it's designed to
anticipate a mishap and prevent it. "It applies brakes automatically
-- one or more brakes -- and some systems
will also reduce engine power," says Love.
The cost: from a few hundred dollars to several thousand,
says Shenhar, depending on the maker and how the options are bundled.
"Stability control is one of the options coming
up that you will see much more. We would like to see it standard
on all SUVs," says David Champion, director of automobile testing
for Consumer Reports.
"On any car it can help you," he says. "Especially
an inexperienced driver -- you don't have to do anything.
The stability control, it comes in automatically."
New in stability control systems:
incorporating rollover prevention systems. It adds additional sensors
to detect and prevent rollover. Currently, it's available on only
a few models. "It's the next step, and it can be a very valuable
system," says Love.
Camera or parking sensors in the bumpers:
"On average, more than one child
is killed every week due to blind spots behind vehicles," says
Love. (For more information on blind-spot accidents, visit www.kidsandcars.org/.)
Consumer Reports' finding: Cameras are more effective
than sensors, which are more effective than nothing at all. But
even the best technology has blind spots.
A camera is usually bundled into the price of a navigation
system, which runs about $2,000, says Champion.
"Parking aids (sensors) will help you pick up
the location of a fence or post, but will not always pick up a child
or small pet," Love says.
These sensors run only a few hundred dollars, says
"If you can't get the car with a camera, get
the parking aid, but recognize it has limitations," says Love.
"Blind spots behind cars are much greater than you think."
Adjustable pedals: These
allow the driver to configure the control area for maximum comfort.
"You don't want to be too close to the steering wheel, especially
in an air bag situation," says Rick Asher, group manager for
General Motors truck communications.
Cost: "Usually a couple of hundred dollars,"
Good safety measure for climates with snow and ice. Cost: about
$2,000, says Champion.
Heated seats: Great
for those cold mornings -- and for resale. The heat is
great in the cold, especially if you suffer from back problems.
Cooled seats: In addition,
some automakers also offer individually air-conditioned seats. "We
love the heated and cooled seats," says Champion. The cooling
feature helps long-distance drivers stay fresh and alert, he says.
But testers report they will pass on the massage option,
offered in select high-end cars. "It's a bit like the kid behind
you pushing on your seat," Champion says.
Nice but not necessary
If money is not the prime driver in your purchase
-- or if you spend serious time in your car and just want to splurge
a little -- here are some options to consider:
"If you're in your car a lot and going to areas you don't know
like the back of your hand, a navigation system can be a great asset,"
says Love. If not, "There are other, better ways to spend that
money." Cost: about $2,000, plus a monthly subscription fee.
DVD player: Entertainment
systems are becoming more popular as people try to convert their
vehicles into "their home away from home," says Jan-Willem
Vester, manager with GM product communications. Some of the new
systems offer wireless headphones, so there's less of a distraction
for the driver and other passengers.
Premium sound system: Drivers
are looking at high-end systems, similar to those they might install
in a home. Music-lovers also can elect to have MP3s.
The new wrinkle: satellite radio. Similar to cable
TV, but sound only. You buy the system with the car and pay a monthly
subscription fee. In return, you get hundreds of channels with different
themes such as top 40, talk, R&B, etc. And because the signal
comes from a satellite, it stays with you on long trips.
When you turn the steering wheel, all four wheels turn. This option
makes driving a pickup or SUV "more like driving a car,"
says Asher. With the General Motors version, back wheels will turn
in the opposite direction from the front wheels at low speeds, he
says. At more than 40 mph, the wheels all turn in the same direction.
"If you're inexperienced [in] towing, or towing
in tight environment, it does help," says Champion. Cost: about
$5,000, he says.
Sequential manual gearbox:
A six-speed manual transmission outfitted with controls to
shift with steering wheel paddles or a lever, instead of the clutch.
"It's an advantage on the highway - you can look straight ahead
and shift and never take your hand off the wheel or your eyes off
the road," says Gordon Keil, spokesman for BMW.
"It's a way of getting the best of a manual transmission
with the convenience of an automatic," says Champion, adding
that it will also give slightly better gas mileage. His recommendation:
"Nice to have if you're a real sporty driver."
Sunroof/moon roof: "Many
of us are spending an hour or two a day in a vehicle," says
Love. "For people who use their vehicles for long commutes
or long drives on vacation, things like premium sound systems, sunroof
and climate control can enhance your time behind the wheel."
A factory-installed sunroof or moon roof can give a car the edge
at resale time.
Remote start: Tired
of getting into a car that's too hot or too cold? Start the car
remotely and let it warm up or cool down first. (Just make sure
you open the garage door first.) General Motors is introducing the
feature on the Malibu this year, says Vester. Cost: approximately
"It's very useful on cold mornings," says
Champion: But since it's idling, "It's a bit of a waste on
Save your money
There are a few factory options and after-market services that you
can forgo, according to auto experts at Consumer Reports.
Active/laser cruise control:
Uses sensors to detect vehicles in front of you and will
apply brakes to slow the car accordingly.
"We tested this on high-end vehicles and didn't
like it very much," says Champion. It tended to cut in quickly
"which we didn't think was very comfortable, and it's quite
alarming when it occurs," he says. Another problem the testers
found: Move out from behind a line of cars to the off ramp and "the
car tries to accelerate," Champion says.
"In theory it may prevent some accidents, but
we were not overly impressed with it," he says.
VIN etching: This is
when the vehicle identification number is permanently inscribed
on the car, to aid recovery after theft. The cost: usually about
$200 from the dealer, says Love. Compare that to the cost of doing
it yourself with a kit: about $30, he says.
Pin stripes: Offered
by dealers, pin stripes can be attached via adhesive or hand painted,
says Love. It's a question of taste. Cost: about $200, says Love.
and fabric protection: Remember that scene in "Fargo"
where the slick auto salesman tries to pressure a skeptical buyer
into paying for undercoating? Well, the Coen brothers got that one
right: You really don't need after-market undercoating.
"Modern vehicles come from the factory with a
fairly extensive quantity of coatings on the chassis, and those
do a pretty darn good job of protecting the vehicle," says
Most people can probably pass up after-market fabric
treatments, too. "Unless you have young children eating ice
cream in the car on a regular basis," says Love, "you
could probably spend the money more wisely elsewhere."
Dana Dratch is a freelance writer
based in Atlanta.
-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003