auto

Some car options not worth the cost

A somewhat surprising list came out of the J.D. Power organization recently that was a compilation of the top 10 options buyers want on their new cars.

It wasn't surprising that safety items like dual-stage airbags -- which can discern between a fender-bender and a full-on collision -- back-up cameras and blind-spot detectors made the list.

All of these and one other listed option -- headlights that move with the vehicle's steering -- can protect and save lives.

What was surprising were the expensive options that buyers are willing to tack on that either add little value to a vehicle or can be replaced by cheaper alternatives.

No. 1 on the list was run-flat tires. These expensive tires, costing from $150 to as much as $400 per tire to replace, sound like a good idea. If you get a puncture, you can drive about 50 miles on a run-flat, enough to get you to a tire store for a repair or replacement.

But replacement expense aside, owners of cars equipped with run-flats often complain of a harsher ride than on regular tires and say that some punctures that are fixable on regular tires can't be fixed on run-flats.

Throw a $5 can of flat tire fix-it in the trunk and that will get you to a service station for all but extreme sidewall blowouts.

No. 3 on the list was satellite navigation. There's no arguing that this is a whiz-bang gadget and is useful when traveling to unfamiliar regions. But at prices ranging from $1,600 to $3,000, it's doubtful that most buyers get their money's worth, and the return at resale is a fraction of the option cost. Also, portable units from Garmin and other aftermarket manufacturers offer similar or better service for hundreds of dollars less.

No. 4 on the list was a premium sound system. As traffic gets worse, we all see our vehicles as rolling entertainment centers. After years of seeing stereo shops eat up consumer dollars in the aftermarket, manufacturers have made a lot of money selling sound systems with names like Bose, Harman/Kardon and, on the Audi A8, Bang & Olufsen.

In the end, most of these factory systems aren't worth the money, running as much as $8,000 for the B&O system. For less or equal money, most mobile audio stores can install a system that usually will sound better and be more up-to-date than what the manufacturer offers.

Consider that only now are iPod connections being offered in many cars, yet three years ago any stereo store could have installed an iPod jack for as little as $100.

No. 8 on the list was heated and cooled seats. If you live in an extremely hot or cold environment, I could see the value here. But for most people, this is a frivolous option that likely will not add a single dollar to a vehicle's resale value on its own. And because these seats are usually bundled with other options -- like leather seats and dual thermostat climate controls, the cost can be $700 or more.

No. 9 on the list was keyless entry. Things have come full circle in the automobile business. More than 80 years ago, cars had starter buttons and keys were not needed. Now, we seem to crave a high-tech return to those days.

These new systems use slight radio signals in a key fob, usually carried in your pocket, to tell the vehicle you're an approved driver and it's OK to unlock the doors and drive away with a push of a button.

All this is cool, but the real cost will come when you lose the key fob or accidentally dunk it in water. It can cost upward of $200 to get a replacement. It will give you a new appreciation for the good old days when simple keys ruled.

No. 10 on the list was OnStar and similar concierge services. If you haven't experienced this, basically it's a built-in cell phone that, with the push of a button, will connect you with a real person who can help diagnose problems with your car or, for extra cost, give you directions to the nearest sushi restaurant.

It also can notify emergency officials if the car's airbags go off. This last feature has merit and would be worthwhile if it was a no-cost option that came along with the car's other safety equipment.

But after a free trial period, such services can cost $17 or more per month. In an era when it seems like everyone over the age of 3 has a cell phone, such services seem redundant in all but the most dire circumstances.

The bottom line here is that consumers should look beyond the popularity of some options and ask themselves how much use or value they will get. Looking at the option list with such clarity can shave thousands of dollars off the cost of your next new vehicle.

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