Not so long ago, a car's cigarette lighter served no other purpose than to fire up a Lucky Strike to calm dad's jangled nerves as he negotiated the highways with you and your screaming siblings in the back seat.
But in today's age of multitasking, your vehicle has evolved into a rolling office, entertainment center and all-around home away from home, with the lowly cigarette lighter as portal to a whole new 12-volt world of possibilities. And it's just one add-on avenue.
In addition to the cigarette lighter, newer cars offer at least one dedicated 12-volt socket to tap directly into your vehicle's electrical system. Many, especially SUVs, contain multiple outlets in the passenger cabin and trunk or cargo area for use on camping trips, at tailgate parties or while on the move.
Here are 10 of our favorite plug-in devices, both in terms of creativity and usefulness:
Hate to ask people for directions? How about asking a machine instead? Just plug in your Garmin StreetPilot 2610 and it'll give you turn-by-turn directions. You select your destination by touching the screen or using a remote control and the dash-mounted StreetPilot uses GPS technology (like built-in navigational systems) to tell you where you are within 50 feet. The StreetPilot comes with a default map plus everything you need to download additional map details via a personal computer. Accessories include an external speaker, a USB cable to connect with your computer and an AC adapter so you can use the device indoors.
Italy's Bertone has whipped up a plug-in espresso maker that is as stylish as the custom cars for which it is best known. Just add water and coffee before you set out on your trip, and it will produce a steaming jolt of caffeine to get you where you're going.
Vibrating and Kneading Massage Cushion
Long trips would be much more comfortable if your car seat felt as good as your favorite recliner. The next-best thing is the plug-in Vibrating and Kneading Massage Cushion, which straps to your car seat. The cushion features four spinning massage nodes that treat your back to a rolling Shiatsu-style massage in addition to the traditional vibrating massage. The cushion also comes with an AC adapter for home use.
10-Motor Massaging Seat Topper
If the cushion isn't enough, consider a 10-Motor Massaging Seat Topper that provides the comfort of massage with heat. After you plug it in and attach it to your car seat, you can select from five separate massage zones (upper back, mid back, lower back/lumbar, upper thigh and lower thigh) while you also direct some gentle heat to your lower back. The massaging unit features a full-function LCD remote, three massage programs and an automatic 20-minute on/off switch.
Hot+Cold Car Snack Box
What's cooler than a cooler full of treats on a long trip? How about a mini-refrigerator that never loses its cool (or heat)? The portable Hot+Cold Car Snack Box from Sharper Image provides all the heat or cold you need to enjoy coffee, sodas, sandwiches and more on trips of any length. The little fridge weighs eight pounds (empty) and measures 16½ by 9½ by 7½ inches -- big enough to hold six 12-oz. beverage cans plus some goodies. (A larger model measures 17 by 11 by 12½ inches deep and has room for 15 12-oz. beverage cans if you're planning a longer trip.) The cooler also has two external cup holders and a lid that doubles as a slide-proof tray. Its power cord is nine feet long, so it can ride practically anywhere in your vehicle.
11-in-1 Survival LanternEvery car needs a survival kit for emergencies, but some kits are more well equipped than others. The 11-in-1 Survival Lantern won't help you fix flats or jump-start your car, but it sure can help you pass the time, whether you're stuck on a back road or rolling happily down the highway. For starters, it comes with a spotlight and two separate fluorescent lamps. That will help you tune its 5�-inch black-and-white TV and AM-FM-weather band radio. Can't pick up anything worthwhile? Then try the survival lantern's emergency siren and red blinking light to attract help. The device also has an LCD digital clock, a thermometer, a compass and even a sonic mosquito repeller.
Ionic BreezeDashboard IonizerBecause of car exhaust and other outdoor pollutants, the air you breathe in your car isn't always the best. But it can be better. Sharper Image has come up with a dashboard version of its popular indoor air cleaner. The Ionic Breeze Dashboard Ionizer circulates air in silence and traps airborne particulates such as auto exhaust, tobacco smoke and dust. The Ionizer includes a pass-through socket so you can use another accessory while it is in use.
From Audiovox, well known for its car stereo systems, comes a portable VCR that includes a 5-inch LCD screen. The VCR, which comes in a carrying case for protection and portability, can sit in your lap or be hung from a seat back.
Travel DVD Player
You don't have to buy a new car with a factory-installed DVD player to enjoy flicks while you're on the road. Brookstone's Travel DVD Player makes it easy to catch a movie on the move, as well as VCDs, CD-RWs and MP3s. The 7-inch player features a high-resolution, anti-glare screen that rotates 180 degrees and folds flat, and offers many features found in home DVD players. It also comes with earphones, a remote control, a rechargeable battery and AC adapter. Even better: It's compatible with many home TV and stereo systems.
BELtronics VectorPro GX1 and GX2 Meter
If you ever wanted to play doctor with your car, check out the BELtronics VectorPro plug-in diagnostic kit. Both models attach to the inside of your windshield with suction cup mounts, and then measure such things as your car's off-the-line acceleration prowess, quarter-mile time, braking distance, cornering efficiency and more. In addition to satisfying your curiosity about your car's performance, the meters also can help you improve your driving skills and verify the gains to your car's efficiency provided by installing high-performance parts. You can get the basic model or move up to the advanced GX2's added functionality.
Most of these automotive plug-ins can be found at popular retailers such as Sharper Image and Brookstone or car specialty sites like AutoSportCatalog.com. You may be able to get an even better price by checking directly with the product manufacturer or one of the many online shopping sites.
Splitting power is easy
What if your appetite for plug-in toasters, electric razors and cell-phone chargers overwhelms the number of sockets in your vehicle? Don't worry. There are splitters available to multiply the number of appliances you can operate simultaneously.
Several merchants offer a basic splitter that allows you to run two devices at once. But if you want something a bit more fancy, consider the 2-in-1 Multi Socket. It can be adjusted to seven different positions so you can easily use devices on your passenger seat and above or below the level of your dashboard.
If you're a dedicated multitasker, look into the Auto Socket. One model contains four sockets, while another includes three plus a built-in battery status monitor that uses colored LED lights to warn you if your auto battery voltage starts getting low.
And if you truly want to convert your car into home sweet home, check into the converters that allow you to run virtually any AC-powered appliance in your house off your car battery. One just might come in handy if the power goes out on the day of the big game.
John P. Holmes is a freelance writer based in Florida.