I get many questions from friends regarding what options they should consider when buying a new (or pre-owned) car. I like to go over a check list of things of options I think are really useful, many of which are considered “must have” when buying a car.
Here’s my updated list:
- Power windows with one-touch up/down features – all windows, if possible. Once you’ve experienced the convenience of one-touch power windows, you won’t want to go back.
- Automatic headlights. This should be a standard safety feature on all cars. BMW has considered automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers (together) as standard safety equipment for several years now. The technology has been around for decades and it can now be found on inexpensive compact cars. Your lights are always on when they should be on and shut themselves off saving you the inconvenience of a dead battery.
- Rain-sensing wipers should also be considered a standard safety feature. Rain, particularly in So Cal, doesn’t come at a steady pace the entire time you’re in the car. If it’s raining, then the streets are much more dangerous. Constantly adjusting the speed, or turning the wipers on and off, takes hands off the wheel and diverts driver attention from the road. Automatic wipers do it all for you with a small sensor on the windshield behind the rear view mirror.
- Automatic climate control – dual zone preferred. Studies have shown that a temperature that’s comfortable for one person may not be the same for the passenger. In particular, different genders prefer different temperatures. It’s a great feature to keep the peace and to stop fiddling with fan speeds and the blue-red dial.
- Heated front seats; cooled too, if available. It doesn’t matter where you live, heated and cooled seats really make driving more comfortable and relaxing. If you’ve never experienced cooled seats, small fans blow chilled air through perforated leather. It’s a godsend in warm climates and reduces sweating.
- Auto-dimming rear view and side mirrors. Electrochromatic mirrors have been around for decades and the technology is very inexpensive, yet it still isn’t standard on many cars. These mirrors help reduce rear and side view glare at night and even during inclement weather in daytime driving. It’s a great, inexpensive safety feature.
- Tilt and telescopic steering wheel. This feature helps you find the most comfortable driving position with the best view of the instrument cluster. I see it as a safety feature as it reduces driver fatigue and ensures a clear view of vital instruments.
- Bluetooth. You need this feature for hands-free in-car mobile phone use. It is also best if it is the latest Bluetooth 2.0 that can wirelessly stream stereo music from your mobile or iPod. It should be a required standard safety feature on all modern cars.
- HomeLink garage door opener. If you have a garage or any sort of automatic gate to get into your home/condo/apartment, it’s much more convenient to have a system built into your car rather than a clip-on device that looks ugly and can get lost, broken or have a dead battery. HomeLink (or something similar to it), if not standard, is usually part of a Convenience Package.
- Power seats with driver’s side memory are really indispensable when two people share the same car. Some cars have power memory seats that are paired with smart keys. It saves time and cools tempers.
- Satellite Radio. It’s pretty clear that the state of terrestrial radio is dismal these days. With the exception of NPR on the FM band and local traffic/weather/news on the AM band, there is really nothing worth listening to. Whether it’s for Howard Stern, the NFL, Real Jazz or E Street Radio, there is something for everyone and you get it no matter where you drive. On road trips, it’s indispensable.
- Ambient temperature gauge. I have to have it. I want to know how hot or cold it is outside. It’s standard on many cars, including subcompacts. Look for it and make sure it’s on your car.
- Digital compass. This is another feature you don’t miss until you’ve had it. It’s usually embedded in the rear view mirror or in a dash display. It’s also a feature on many hand-held GPS devices. It’s nice to know which direction you are heading, particularly when you’re in an unfamiliar city/area.
- On board navigation. Should you get it? Maybe. Here’s the deal: Your alternatives are a navigation app on your smartphone or 3G-enabled tablet or a hand-held GPS device. The built-in one is more expensive but it’s also more convenient and looks better – none of those unsightly power cords – and the audio is pumped through the car’s audio system. The real-time traffic offered on most systems is useless – it’s never right. But I like seeing where I am on a map. Some systems are using 3-D renderings of the streets, freeways and buildings and some, like on Audi’s new A7, are using Google Maps, including a satellite view of the actual streets you’re on. Pretty cool stuff. Hard-drive or flash-based navigation systems are best and fastest at calculating routes. The older DVD-based systems still work well, but are slower and more likely to be out-of-date.
- Back up camera. One perk of a factory navigation screen is its coupling with a back up camera option. Often the two come together in a package. If you’ve never used one, it’s like crack once you have. Audible parking sensors are nice, but seeing exactly where you are going with a wide-angle backup camera is heaven. It will help you parallel park and save you from scratching your bumper. If you don’t have the navigation option, a few companies offer a backup camera display in the rear view mirror.
- All-wheel drive. For the vast majority of LA drivers, all-wheel drive is an unnecessary feature that drags down fuel economy. However, if you live in areas that have regular mud slides or floods (you know who you are), it’s not a bad idea. Also, if you have a place in Arrowhead or take regular ski trips to Mammoth, AWD may be a necessary safety feature. These days, many diverse cars offer an AWD standard or optional. Subaru and Audi are famous for their AWD; but cars as diverse as a Mercedes S-Class to a Ford Taurus offer AWD as an option. You don’t have to buy an SUV or crossover to get the traction and safety of AWD.
- Keyless entry and ignition. The jury is still out on this option. It’s becoming more common and we see it offered on compacts like the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus. I love the convenience and use it with ease; however, some people never get the hang of it. My biggest beef is the size of the key fob. If I’m supposed to keep it in my pants pocket, I want it to be lightweight with a very slim profile. Unfortunately, not all smart keys are small.
This list certainly isn’t exhaustive. The more expensive the car, the more exotic some of the options become. Night vision. Massaging seats. Radar-guided active cruise control. Automatic high beam control. Active sports seats that conform to your body. Blind spot warnings system. Lane Assist (keeps you awake).
Before you buy a car, make your own list of “must have” features. Do research online, keep within your budget and play hardball with the dealer. Don’t settle for what they have sitting on the lot. Be prepared to walk away or even special order the car you want.