January 28, 2013
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Article by Justin Pritchard
“Can I just take your Jeep? It’s blocking my car. I’ll be back in twenty minutes.”
I was visiting my mom, and she needed to make a run to the store. It was dark out, and my Jeep Grand Cherokee tester was parked behind her car.
“Sure, see you soon” I replied.
Mom hates driving at night. She avoids it at all costs, and when she has to venture out regardless, she talks at length about how horrible it was after the fact. Accordingly, I was nervous when she hadn’t returned an hour later.
When she finally did, she had a grin on her face.
“I went for a drive!” she proclaimed, holding her bag of late-night shopping.
“I could actually see! I haven’t enjoyed driving at night for years!”
The new Grand Cherokee that she was driving had a set of xenon headlamps, a far improvement from the yellowed, hazy halogen lights she’s used to on her 2000 Honda Accord.
“It was amazing, can you put lights like that in my car?”
Maybe so, maybe no. But this all got me thinking about the wide range of performance you’ll find in factory lighting systems on new cars today – and how most folks on a test-drive won’t get to see what they’re like. After all, most dealerships close before dark.
I’ve driven over 500 new cars, all of them at night, and most at night on a winding, empty highway across parts of Northern Ontario. Not all lighting systems are created the same – and when I see a good one, it sticks with me.
The new Grand Cherokee with the optional xenon lights was one of those good ones. Xenon lights are fantastic. A good, quality set will flood the road ahead with illumination, saturating your forward vision with crisp and clean white light that’s easier on the eyes than halogen. With a good set of xenon lights, most drivers will notice their eyes ‘lasting’ longer into a late-night drive before becoming fatigued, too. That’s because they have to do less work to see properly.
The best headlights I’ve ever used? It’s a tie between the Cadillac CTS’s xenon headlamps, or the LED-fired headlights in the Audi A7. Both of these systems drenched the road ahead with white light that reached past the tree-line to the sides of a two-lane highway. Both of them left my eyes alert and fresh, even after 4 or 5 hours of nighttime driving.
Mind you, both of these cars were fitted with optional lighting equipment. The CTS used xenon in an adaptive projector, which turns the light into corners to keep light pointed where it’s needed – though the performance is just as impressive going straight down a highway. The A7’s LED headlamps are a pricey option, capitalizing on the latest in low-energy, high-performance headlight technology. Note that both of these rides also came with a headlight washer system to clear their lenses in lousy weather, maintaining unobstructed output. You’ll appreciate that in a snowstorm.
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Of course, you needn’t be in a high-dollar ride, or even one with xenon lights, for good headlight performance. Browsing my recent test-drive notes, I can recommend the new Dodge Avenger, the Lexus CT 200h, new Honda Accord and Mitsubishi RVR as models with better-than-average headlight output. Conversely, I had logged complaints in my reviews about the headlights in the new Ford F-150, Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Accent.
So, how do you test-drive the headlight performance of a new ride you’re considering if the dealership closes before dark? You might not be able to – though a check on Google, or in the online owners club of the model in question, it might shed some light [ha ha –Ed.] on the situation. Or, find someone you know with the model you’re interested in, and ask them to take you for a nighttime ride.
If you’re concerned, barter with your sales rep to have a set of premium bulbs installed ahead of your purchase. Most affordable car lighting systems are, after all, built to a price-point and use the cheapest bulbs possible.
And, if you have a beat-up old Accord like my mom? There are still options. If the headlight housings are faded, pitted, cloudy or yellow, replace them, too – or have them polished or buffed with any number of the products available to clear old plastic lenses. Then, replace the bulbs, as these dim over time. Maybe I’ll get mom a set.