Best and worst auto features

Look at any automaker’s website and your mind and eyes will tire from reading through the almost endless lists of available equipment. But do we really need the latest and greatest doo-dads? Or can we save some money and our sanity and improve safety with some wiser choices?

I’ve road-tested more vehicles than I care to count over the years and have listened to thousands of customers wonder aloud why certain accessories or equipment were installed by the manufacturer in the first place. On behalf of them, here are my picks of the best and the worst.

Failed features

1. Touch-screen controls for audio, navigation or heating and air-conditioning systems. No matter who makes them or what type of vehicle they come in, these are a distraction to read, use and clean. And when the sun shines directly on them, they can’t be read. In the night, their multi-coloured glare can reduce our eyes’ ability to see in low light. Extra demerit points go to any system without an easy-to-find and use “screen-off” switch, or which default to full intensity whenever the vehicle is restarted.

2. Infotainment. This term is becoming so engrained in our lexicon that my spell-checker didn’t red-line it. It refers to the nasty habit of carmakers to jam every distracting web-based service and smartphone feature they can into their vehicles’ audio systems without concern for safety. The solution to this and touch-screens is simple: if the vehicle is in any other gear but park, the touch-screen should be disabled and only voice commands should be accepted.

3. Lane departure warning systems. Still only found in higher end units, such as Infiniti, Acura and most recently Cadillac, these units use side-mounted cameras to determine exactly where the lane marker lines are and where the vehicle is in relation to those lines. If the vehicle strays over these lines without the turn signals being activated, the response, depending on the manufacturer, will range from an audible warning beep to driver’s seat vibrations to the brakes being lightly activated on one side of the vehicle to gently bring it back to the centre of its lane. From firsthand experience I can attest to the fact that this system is easily defeated by a very common condition on our highways and roads: poorly maintained and faded lane markers or snow-covered roads. If you get accustomed to this feature and start to rely on it too much, you’ll be in for a rude awakening when it lets you drift into a ditch because the white lines on the road needed painting or were covered in snow or mud.

4. Self-parking cars. This is more of a problem with the drivers than the feature. If you really need this system to help you park your compact, then we, the reasonably intelligent and conscientious rest of the masses, really don’t need you on the road with us.


1. Hands-free cellphone connectivity. This one is a no-brainer. Almost every household has at least one cellphone and almost every jurisdiction has laws prohibiting hands-on use of such phones while driving. So if it doesn’t come with a hands-free system, either demand one be installed or choose another vehicle.

2. Tilt-telescoping steering wheels. Unless you will be the only driver of the vehicle in question, having this feature means that other drivers of varying heights and arm lengths will be able to properly adjust the seat and reach the pedals without getting too close to the airbag.

3. Antilock brakes and electronic stability control. These systems have demonstrated their ability to reduce collisions in spades. The U.S. National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration confirmed a 2004 study showing a 35 per cent reduction in collisions thanks to ESC. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claims that ESC can reduce fatal single-vehicle rollovers by a whopping 77 per cent. ESC works in conjunction with antilock brakes and various sensors to apply individual wheel brakes and reduce engine power when a vehicle rollover or spin-out is imminent. The only downside with antilock brakes is the habit of drivers to lock their hands motionless on the steering wheel in a panic stop. ABS’s main advantage is that it allows a driver to maintain steering control in these circumstances. I’ve always suggested that drivers try out their ABS feature on an empty snow-covered parking lot to learn how to steer in a panic stop. Maybe carmakers could find room on the instrument cluster for a large-font illuminated word “STEER” that would light up whenever the ABS was activated.

4. Nissan Tire Easy Fill. This won’t be out until 2013 in the Altima, but Nissan has managed to turn one of today’s biggest auto annoyances into a real valued feature. Tire pressure warning lights have quickly eclipsed the “check engine” light as the biggest headache for drivers. Nissan has turned this around by incorporating a nifty feedback system when adding air to a tire. If your instrument panel indicates a low tire, the Nissan system will specify which tire is low. Then when you add air, the signal lamp nearest to the tire will flash to indicate air is being added and the horn will chirp once when the proper pressure is reached. If you add too much air, the signal lamp will flash rapidly and the horn will chirp three times. No more need to carry a pressure gauge or depend on gas station pump readouts.

Photo © Anatoly Vartanov