Saturn Aura cruise control button
Saturn Aura cruise control button. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Jil McIntosh

When cars first came out, they didn’t have a lot of features: you got a chassis, a seat and an engine, and that was pretty much it.

But that was then and this is now, and automakers depend on numerous features to help interest you in their vehicles. So I’ve come up with a list of things I like, things I don’t like, and things that, simple as they are, just make a whole lot of sense.

This stuff’s good:

Keyless entry – I was delighted when power locks made their way into lower-priced cars; keyless entry is just the icing on the cake. It’s not such a big deal when I’m by myself – it’s really no trouble to insert a key into a lock – but if I have passengers, they can get into the vehicle at the same time, without waiting for me to unlock my door, get in, and then unlock theirs: a great little time-saver, especially in foul weather when people don’t want to stand in the rain outside the car.

CVT – Continuously variable transmissions use pulleys and a belt to provide a theoretically infinite number of gear ratios, moving up and down between them as engine speed changes. I like their seamless operation and fuel economy.

Cruise control – On a long highway trip, cruise control is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I like the fact that I can move my legs around to reduce fatigue, and my ankle doesn’t cramp up after a couple of hours. A pox on automakers who don’t include a “cancel” button, though; I should be able to shut it off temporarily without tapping the brakes, which can confuse drivers behind me, and if I have to reduce my speed by turning the system off altogether, the “resume” button no longer works.

Fuel gauge in 2007 Nissan Versa
Fuel gauge in 2007 Nissan Versa. Click image to enlarge

Tethered fuel cap – Such a simple device, and such a handy one. I’ve left one or two gas caps behind on the pump in my day, and so I really appreciate that little cord.

Gas door indicator – Many fuel gauges include a little arrow that indicates the side where the gas door is located. That simple little splash of paint is such a great idea, especially for people who don’t always drive the same car all the time: multi-car families, rental vehicles, and yes, auto reviewers. Whenever I end up in a vehicle that doesn’t have it, Murphy’s Law dictates that I always pull up on the wrong side of the gas pump.

But this stuff’s not so good:

Hyundai Entourage shift lever
Hyundai Entourage shift lever. Click image to enlarge

Manual-mode automatic transmissions – You want to shift, get a clutch. I’m guessing most people just play with it for the novelty factor in the first week or two, and then simply put it in Drive and leave it there. And these transmissions very seldom show up on economy cars with small engines, where they could actually be useful for selecting gears when a burst of power is needed, such as merging onto the highway.

Remote start – Get your lazy butt out there and start the thing yourself. Idling isn’t good for the engine, and most of them warm up so quickly that they’re blowing hot air out of the heater within a few blocks. If it’s a hot day, roll down the windows to help the air conditioning get going. It’s not rocket science, folks.

DVD entertainment systems – Children are under siege from television; do them a favour and turn off the glass babysitter once in a while. Parents complain that it’s so tough to set aside “quality time” with their youngsters – well, they’re a captive audience in the back seat, so make the most of it. Play license plate bingo, talk about the scenery, or sing along with them. If you can’t fathom a couple of hours in the car without putting the children into a movie-induced catatonic state, maybe you should be assessing your role as a parent, instead of seeing what Disney has to offer this week.

Hyundai Entourage DVD Entertainment system
Hyundai Entourage DVD Entertainment system. Click image to enlarge

Volume speed control – Stereos that increase the volume as you go faster and decrease it as you slow down drive me around the bend. And so many of them bury the control deep in their electronic innards, so I have to run for the owner’s manual to try to figure out how to turn the damn thing off.

Rain-sensing wipers – Good idea in theory, but I’ve yet to use one that works really well all the time, and that’s on everything from bargain-priced vehicles to those in the six-figure range. I find that light drizzle or snow tends to confuse them, and they’ll either refuse to come on, or keep scraping away on dry glass. Give me variable intermittent wipers and be done with it, please.

“Green auto” celebrities – When the Prius first came out, it was hard to get one; most of them were going to celebrities, who made sure they were seen in these socially- and environmentally-conscious vehicles. And now they’re falling over themselves to be the first in flexible-fuel and hydrogen and electric and solar cars. Give it a rest, folks. You’re no holier than the rest of us. Sure, George Clooney in a Prius saves more fuel than George Clooney in an Escalade. There’s no question that these technologies can use fewer resources than conventional vehicles. But have you seen most celebrities’ houses? Judging by magazine photos, the majority of them live in huge, air-conditioned mansions, with swimming pools, manicured lawns, guest houses and lush gardens, many of them in the desert.

My house is about 900 square feet. I don’t have air conditioning, I don’t have a pool, I never water my lawn, I don’t use pesticides, and my water comes out of a well in the back yard, instead of being diverted from Colorado to California. Yes, my own vehicle is a full-size V8-powered pickup truck. But overall, I’d say that what I burn in gasoline in a year is less than the energy George spends to air-condition his house and heat his pool for a month. Frankly, I think we’re more than even.

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