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Car Tech Features That Are Worth the Hype

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By Andy Jensen on December 3, 2020 in life hacks

Have you ever noticed how no one regrets buying Girl Scout cookies? Sure, maybe they should have bought a few more boxes, but you’d be hard pressed to hear “I didn’t want these.” On the other hand, new car buyer’s remorse is a surprisingly common feeling. If you’ve ever opted out of certain features and regretted it later — think of it as saying no to some more expensive, life-changing cookies — you know what we’re talking about. A recent study showed the vast majority of drivers are willing to wait for a car with the tech features they want, but an even more recent survey showed we don’t want to pay a lot for that cool tech. The good news is you can prevent car buyer’s remorse by purchasing a vehicle with the exact tech features you want and need. Here are the features that get you your money’s worth and will future-proof your ride.

Connectivity Features

Connectivity was the huge push in the last decade, with every manufacturer wanting to seem as cool and critical to your life as the brand new smartphones. From syncing contacts and Bluetooth for hands-free calling to blasting playlists and reading emails, infotainment with seamless connectivity is high in value. In fact, it’s almost a dealbreaker if a vehicle doesn’t have it these days. It shouldn’t be, says Greg Kopf, Brand Ambassador at CARiD.

“A lot of these tech features are really important to someone buying a new car,” Kopf says. “They need to get it right the first time.” The most common value right now is Android Auto/Apple Carplay interfaces. Kopf says drivers use this feature all the time, and it usually doesn’t cost much to add. However, don’t stress if your car doesn’t have it.

“That’s something that if you buy a car not equipped with it, it’s easy to add,” Kopf says. Whether you need navigation for your Uber side grind or just want a better sound system to connect to your ancient iPod, you can add aftermarket infotainment systems for a fraction of what the auto manufacturers want.

Not all connectivity features are a great deal. While everyone wants a good Wi-Fi signal, it turns out your vehicle isn’t the best place to add this tech. “A lot of cars these days offer Wi-Fi capability,” Kopf says. “To me, unless you’re working and practically living out of your vehicle, I don’t see a reason to pay the extra money for Wi-Fi capability.” For a $350 router and a $60 monthly service fee, this option gets expensive quickly.

Comfort and Convenience Features

Once restricted to high-end luxury cars, comfort and convenience tech features gradually made their way into super-affordable cars like the Mitsubishi Mirage, the most affordable new car in the U.S. Features include heated and cooled seats, wireless phone charging, and driver profiles with all your saved radio, seat, and mirror settings. This category usually doesn’t see as much action as the connectivity group, depending on your circumstances. For example, if you live in New England, you’re going to smash that heated seat button every drive during the winter. Summers in Florida? Not so much. Wireless phone charging is a more recent development, but don’t pay too much for it. Not every phone can use it, and even if it can, how hard is it to plug in a cord? If convenience tech is critical to your drive, insist on finding a car with the options you want.

Kopf, who previously worked in Porsche and BMW shops, says it depends on the car and manufacturer whether or not some of these comfort and convenience features can be added after purchase. “But generally, a lot of this stuff needs to be installed when the car was built at the factory,” he says. “It’ll cost an exorbitant amount of money to have features retrofitted after the fact.”

Not having to hit the gas station as often is a huge convenience and comfort for your wallet. To help you out there, popular cars like the Corolla and RAV4 now offer a hybrid option for a little more money. Kopf says this feature can help on a financial front — eventually. “In the long haul, when you’re talking about fuel savings, if you have a really long commute to work, sure. For that person, a hybrid option would pay off in fuel savings over time.”

Safety Features

Automakers argue that their car is the safest the same way they debate which car has the most horsepower or highest gas mileage. With a 5-star NHTSA safety rating getting increasingly difficult to attain, the only way for manufacturers to win the safety arms race is to pile on safety features. Unlike connectivity tech, these safety systems remain on and could prove critical in the right moment even if they’re rarely used. Some of these features are brilliant and worth every dollar, while others are less so.

Forward collision warning provides an audible, visual, and/or tactile signal (such as steering wheel vibration) to alert you about an obstacle ahead. If the forward collision warning didn’t get your attention, then automatic emergency braking does exactly what it sounds like, performing some mental calculus and automatically applying the brakes to prevent a likely collision. Ideally, if you pay attention while driving, you don’t need these systems. But with 10 percent of drivers busy on their phones, other drivers around you may not be paying attention.

No matter how you adjust the side mirrors, some vehicles have a large blind spot on either side. Blind spot warning systems use sensors to monitor the space you can’t see. When a vehicle cruises into your left blind spot, a light illuminates in the left side mirror, a visual warning to look carefully. For just a few hundred dollars, these systems seem reliable and provide a high degree of peace of mind. Kopf grew to love blind spot monitoring. “It’s saved me a couple of times. That’s a feature that if I bought a car tomorrow I’d want.”

Adaptive cruise control uses radar and other technologies to adjust to traffic speed. Standard cruise control will only drive the speed you programmed, which can get dangerous on congested highways. Adaptive cruise control is smarter in that your car will stay a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you regardless of traffic conditions and speeds. If highway traffic slows from 70 to 45 during rush hour, adaptive cruise control handles it without your intervention.

Autonomous Features

Speaking of handling it all, active safety tech overlaps a lot with autonomous tech, as the two have similar goals. By removing the human from the act of driving, the software aims to reduce errors and accidents on the road.

“Stay in your own lane” is a motivational saying now, but automakers draw on this phrase to help keep you safe. Lane-centering steering and lane-departure warning tech are usually packaged together. Lane-departure warning sounds an audible alert when you approach or cross lane markers. Lane-centering steering uses automatic steering inputs to keep the vehicle centered, like a cruise control for its own lane. It even works if you try to change lanes without signaling, keeping you and others safe. Since the tech uses low-cost cameras, lane-centering steering is usually a $250 or less option. With Consumer Reports stating nearly three-quarters of owners are very satisfied with these features, lane-centering steering and lane-departure warning are clear winners.

Park assist tech takes the sometimes challenging job of parking out of the driver’s hands. Pull up to an empty space, either a traditional lot space or parallel, and the car will pull in, back in, or even parallel park without human assistance. It looks cool in the commercials, but it runs around $400 and not everyone is a fan.

“It was a really big deal a few years ago when it came out,” Kopf says. “But I don’t know if it will stay relevant; that kind of tech will probably fade away as full autonomy gets more advanced.”

Manufacturers push fully autonomous driving as the hot new thing, but self-driving cars aren’t quite ready to take over for you. Most systems today are SAE Level 2 autonomy, meaning you can let go of the controls, but you are still the driver, paying attention and able to take control at any moment. This is a long way from the ability to sleep in your car as it drives you to work. With Tesla’s Full Self-Driving system costing $8,000 and Cadillac charging $2,500 for their Super Cruise, the value-per-dollar ratio swings away from this feature.

“A lot of the autonomous features offered are very entry-level and rudimentary,” Kopf says. “They do offer some level of safety on vehicles they’re equipped on, but there’s still a lot of work to get it right before auto manufacturers can offer something mainstream.”

Conclusion

High technology doesn’t always mean high cost. Automotive connectivity, convenience, and safety tech features all offer a different return on investment. Pay attention to the feature’s list price and think how often you’ll really use it. If that feature is a deal breaker, Kopf says don’t settle.

“If there’s a certain feature or piece of technology that is a must-have,” he says, “it’s worth waiting to find the car that already has it fitted.”

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Andy Jensen is a consultant for Say Insurance. He's an automotive enthusiast writer specializing in new and used models, industry tech and trends, and the car culture that surrounds it all. After receiving a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma, he decided to write about cars instead of getting a real job. He’s written for Jaguar, Volvo, Ford, Advance Auto Parts, Haynes Manuals, and others. His project car probably isn’t running.

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