Archive for the ‘Options’ Category

My hands are always cold and it’s often quite uncomfortable. One frigid LA winter morning, several years ago, I drove a friend’s Range Rover with a heated steering wheel and it was a revelation. Ever since I’ve wanted a car with that option. So I confess that the only reason I checked the option box for Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) on my 2012 Dodge Charger is because it was the only way I could get the heated steering wheel.

The 2012 Dodge Charger SXT Plus. Note the small "eagle eye" in the front lower fascia to the right of the (right) fog light.

What I wasn’t prepared for is how ACC has changed the way I drive and has changed my life – for the better.

Thom and I love to spend weekends at our condo in Palm Springs, but to get there you have to drive the dull, 120 miles from our home in West Hollywood, through the vast suburbia of Inland Empire through the San Gorgonio Pass into Palm Springs. Even the dog is bored by the trip.

The hotel tower of the Morongo Casino Spa Resort in Cabazon, CA.

The worst and most stressful portion of the drive is getting from the Land of No Freeways (thank you, Beverly Hills) to the point on the Hollywood Freeway where it morphs into Interstate 10. Once all the splits are done, I-10 opens up to a long, uninvolving slog through such tantalizing destinations as West Covina and Fontana. You know you’re 22 minutes from Central Palm Springs when you pass the Morongo Casino & Resort Spa Hotel that looks like the desert was fracked with ipecac.

I use cruise control to relieve my heavy foot, get better fuel economy and hopefully avoid the California Highway Patrol’s radar gun. However, it’s no secret that people don’t pay attention to driving and certainly don’t drive a constant speed. We’ve all had the experience at cruising along when a minivan suddenly slows everyone down. It’s usually driven by a wearied and stressed-out mom trying to mediate Israeli-Palestinian peace in the rear. Drop out of cruise and try to go around then back to speed.

I’ve now entered the surreal and serene world of Adaptive Cruise Control. I set it to 75 mph, select a comfortable following distance and rest my right foot for the next 100 miles. I select 75 mph because it seems to best approximate the flow of traffic in open stretches of freeway and it’s not too fast to garner the attention of the ever-lurking CHP. There are plenty of other “sacrifices” that fly by me at 80 – 100 mph who will get caught. At least that’s the plan and it’s work well for several years now.

The driver's information screen tells you that adaptive cruise control is on and ready to use.

The car’s on-board radar constantly monitors the speed of the vehicle in front of you and makes the infinite adjustments to maintain a safe distance and constant speed. At first, your reaction is to hit the brake when you come up on a slower car or someone cuts in front of you; but it’s not necessary as the system does it for you. The technology foreshadows a futuristic vision of all cars having sensor systems that talk to not only other cars, but to Big Brother’s SkyNet in hopes of avoiding accidents, saving lives and moving traffic more efficiently.

The first time the car brakes itself, you realize the pedal by your foot isn’t moving. In addition to the car’s standard power-assisted hydraulic anti-lock brakes, the car is equipped with a redundant brake-by-wire system to service the ACC. The Electronic Brake Controller (EBC) also facilitates additional stopping power in a panic brake situation.

Twice now, I’ve set the ACC to 75 mph on our way back from PS to LA. I do it as soon as I pass the last stoplight on northwest-bound Highway 111 at Mountain Gate. I haven’t touched either the brake or accelerator until I’m at the La Brea Ave exit on the westbound Santa Monica freeway. Not once. That’s astounding. That’s a game-changing technology.

Another feature of ACC that differs from standard cruise control is the speed setting. I can set the upper speed limit regardless of my current speed. I simply hit the +/RES (resume) button on the steering wheel until I reach the desired number. My top speed is displayed in the ACC screen of the car’s electronic vehicle information center. You can’t do that on a standard cruise control.

If traffic grinds to a halt, the system disengages below 20 mph and the center display screen beeps and flashes BRAKE! The system uses up to 25% of the car’s braking capacity through the EBC; but it can’t fully stop the car. (Some systems can fully stop the car if it senses an emergency.)

The ACC also allows you to set the following distance comfortable to you. The three settings on my car are: 3 (long), 2 (medium) and 1 (short). I’m most comfortable with the medium setting which is around 3-4 car lengths.

The same ACC radar system and electronic brakes also form the car’s Forward Collision Warning (FCW) system. The FWC default is “on” and you may never notice it until a car in front of you slams on its brakes or cuts you off.

This just happened to me when a car rudely cut in front of me with little distance between our cars. We’ve all been there, right? The FCW system chimed rapidly like Dr. Sheldon Cooper knocking on Penny’s door. The word “BRAKE!” flashed urgently in the center display. I was on the situation instantly even without FCW, but it’s nice to know how fast and accurately the system reacted.

I hate to admit that the adaptive cruise control makes me a safer driver. I’m not tailgating. I’m less stressed-out over distracted drivers and vacillating traffic speeds as the car adapts to the leading car. I change lanes less frequently and if I’m momentarily distracted, the car automatically slows down, so there is less risk of sudden braking. I’m even more comfortable as I can rest my legs in a more forward position. And as a bonus, I find I’m getting better fuel economy because the cruise control module and drive-by-wire throttle can adjust and adapt much faster than my own lead foot.

If you regularly drive long distances on the open highway, don’t hesitate to check the adaptive cruise control option box for your next new car. This is one electronic nanny you can have a long-term affair with and not get kicked out of the house. It will change your life.

2012 Dodge Charger SXT Plus with the Blacktop performance package. The blacked-out car looks a bit sinister and some drivers mistake it for a cop car and get out of my way. That's not a bad thing!


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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

    Notice the "Auto" on the headlight control knob. Just set your lights for automatic and forget them. You get used to this pretty fast and you won't have a dead battery from leaving your headlights on.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

    The 2011 Hyundai Elantra offers dual zone automatic climate control with digital readout.

  1. 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.

    The 2012 Acura TL offers heated and cooled front seats. Heaven!

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

    This Mercedes E-Class offers 3 memory positions. You can find memory power seats on much less expensive cars these days.

  1. 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.

    The new infotainment system used by Chevrolet is called MyLink. It offers XM Satellite Radio as well as an app for Pandora Internet Radio. The screen also displays the chilly ambient temperature of 27 degrees. Note the Bluetooth Logo for mobile phone hands-free operation.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

    This Lexus has an auto-dimming rear view mirror, digital compass display in the mirror and HomeLink garage door openers (the three buttons) overhead. You can get all this on a Mazda3 now.

  1. 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.

    The touch-screen navigation system is lovely in this 2011 Prius.

  1. 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.

    Wide-angle cameras give the driver a clear view of what's behind when you're backing up. It's particularly useful in large cars like this Toyota Sienna minivan.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

    Keyless entry and ignition are available on entry level cars like this Nissan Juke. The cost of such systems has come down dramatically in just a few years.

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.