Must-have car features, and those you can skip

Eric Evarts
March 1, 2014
New federal rule requiring rear-view cameras is a boon to vehicle safety

We see lots of new features while testing about 80 new vehicles each year. Here are some that are worth getting and some that we definitely wouldn’t pay extra for.

Voice controls. Using your voice to operate sophisticated controls is safer and easier than fumbling with a touch screen while driving. The best voice controls, such as those used by the Cadillac CUE and Ford Sync systems, allow you to use natural speech instead of requiring specific commands spoken in order. The latter can be frustrating to use.

Backup cameras. Most models are now available with a backup camera. It can be especially valuable in cars with poor rear visibility by helping you avoid backup accidents, guiding you into a tight parking space, and even making it easier to hook up a trailer. We like systems with a big dashboard screen. Systems with lines superimposed on the image help guide you when the car is in reverse.

Cross-traffic alert. This can help take the guesswork out of backing up in a busy parking lot. It can warn you about a potential collision with a vehicle approaching from either side. Available on many new vehicles, the systems use sensors mounted on the rear bumper and issue a visual and audible warning when danger is detected.

In-car apps. The infotainment systems in some models, such as Ford’s Sync and Toyota’s Entune, include built-in apps that stream data through a smart phone to let you listen to Internet radio, search the Web, make restaurant reservations, and more. The options vary by carmaker and are evolving. Make sure to get a thorough explanation of what’s available with any model that you’re considering.

Heated steering wheels. A nice luxury on cold mornings, these were available only on high-end models until recently. Now they’re within the reach of drivers shopping for more mainstream cars, such as the Ford Fusion sedan and compact Kia Forte and Soul.

Automatic high beams. Adding a measure of safety and good manners, these high beams automatically dim your headlights to avoid blinding other drivers and switch back to high beams when the road is clear. They’re available on models from Chrysler, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, and others.

Hands-free entry. This lets you unlock and lock the car’s doors without having to remove the key from your pocket or purse. A sensor detects when the key is close to the vehicle and activates the system. It’s a great when your hands are full.

Adaptive headlights. They turn with the front wheels and are intended to help you see into curves better. We have found them to be helpful when driving at slower speeds on twisty roads, but they’re often part of an expensive lighting package.

HD radio. It’s advertised as having better fidelity than conventional AM/FM signals, but we’ve seen little benefit on the road. It’s offered by most major carmakers. We’ve found that the signals tend to come and go, resulting in annoying changes in sound quality.

Touch-sensitive capacitive switches. In place of conventional switches and knobs, capacitive switches are meant to respond to a quick tap or swipe of a finger. They’re used in models including some from Cadillac and Lincoln, but we’ve found that they just don’t work very well. Alternative voice and steering-wheel controls can be easier, but they don’t provide all of the functions.

This article also appears in the April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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