The best of the new options

By Dana Dratch

These days, consumers can outfit their cars with a host of safety features such as curtain air bags and traction control.

But too many times, buyers choose style over safety, says Gabriel Shenhar, a senior auto test engineer for Consumer Reports. "When price is already a sensitive issue and options get scrutinized, most people would prefer alloy wheels and a CD player to curtain air bags," he says.

Even price shopping can be difficult since many options are bundled together in packages and the technology varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Bottom line: Decide what you need on your car, then shop price.

The must-haves

Want to make sure your new model is properly tricked out, safety-wise? See how many of Consumer Reports' "strongly recommended" items it has:

Anti-lock braking system (ABS): "Some automakers offer them as standard on certain vehicles," says Douglas Love, communications counsel for Consumer Reports. "They can be optional on others. The reason it's on the strongly recommended list is that anti-lock brakes can be of tremendous value when you're in a crash-avoidance situation."

An ABS system "allows you to maintain steering control when you're braking extremely rapidly," says Love.

Side air bags: While air bags are standard equipment these days, you might have to shop around -- or pay a little extra -- to make sure you've got the latest technology. Side-impact air bags protect you and your passengers if the vehicle is hit from the side. Cost: a few hundred dollars to $500, says Shenhar.

Curtain (or head protection) air bags: These are not standard in most vehicles, but are especially important for drivers of sedans with all the SUVs on the road. If your sedan is hit by an SUV, your head is level with its bumper. Curtain air bags help level the playing field by giving you and your passengers more head protection.

Cost: "As little as $250 to $500," says Shenhar.

Traction control: Though different carmakers give this feature different names, it's a system designed to prevent loss of control and flipping by sending power to whichever wheels are gripping the road.

"It limits wheel spin during acceleration so that the drive wheels have maximum traction," says Love. "It's designed to improve a vehicle's ability to get going on wet, snowy, icy roads."

Electronic stability control system: Again, different manufacturers call this by different names and the mechanics behind the system can vary. Simply, it's designed to anticipate a mishap and prevent it. "It applies brakes automatically -- one or more brakes -- and some systems will also reduce engine power," says Love.

The cost: from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, says Shenhar, depending on the maker and how the options are bundled.

"Stability control is one of the options coming up that you will see much more. We would like to see it standard on all SUVs," says David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports.

"On any car it can help you," he says. "Especially an inexperienced driver -- you don't have to do anything. The stability control, it comes in automatically."

New in stability control systems: incorporating rollover prevention systems. It adds additional sensors to detect and prevent rollover. Currently, it's available on only a few models. "It's the next step, and it can be a very valuable system," says Love.

Camera or parking sensors in the bumpers: "On average, more than one child is killed every week due to blind spots behind vehicles," says Love. (For more information on blind-spot accidents, visit

Consumer Reports' finding: Cameras are more effective than sensors, which are more effective than nothing at all. But even the best technology has blind spots.

A camera is usually bundled into the price of a navigation system, which runs about $2,000, says Champion.

"Parking aids (sensors) will help you pick up the location of a fence or post, but will not always pick up a child or small pet," Love says.

These sensors run only a few hundred dollars, says Shenhar.

"If you can't get the car with a camera, get the parking aid, but recognize it has limitations," says Love. "Blind spots behind cars are much greater than you think."

Adjustable pedals: These allow the driver to configure the control area for maximum comfort. "You don't want to be too close to the steering wheel, especially in an air bag situation," says Rick Asher, group manager for General Motors truck communications.

Cost: "Usually a couple of hundred dollars," says Shenhar.

All-wheel drive: Good safety measure for climates with snow and ice. Cost: about $2,000, says Champion.

Heated seats: Great for those cold mornings -- and for resale. The heat is great in the cold, especially if you suffer from back problems.

Cooled seats: In addition, some automakers also offer individually air-conditioned seats. "We love the heated and cooled seats," says Champion. The cooling feature helps long-distance drivers stay fresh and alert, he says.

But testers report they will pass on the massage option, offered in select high-end cars. "It's a bit like the kid behind you pushing on your seat," Champion says.

Nice but not necessary

If money is not the prime driver in your purchase -- or if you spend serious time in your car and just want to splurge a little -- here are some options to consider:

Navigation system: "If you're in your car a lot and going to areas you don't know like the back of your hand, a navigation system can be a great asset," says Love. If not, "There are other, better ways to spend that money." Cost: about $2,000, plus a monthly subscription fee.

DVD player: Entertainment systems are becoming more popular as people try to convert their vehicles into "their home away from home," says Jan-Willem Vester, manager with GM product communications. Some of the new systems offer wireless headphones, so there's less of a distraction for the driver and other passengers.

Premium sound system: Drivers are looking at high-end systems, similar to those they might install in a home. Music-lovers also can elect to have MP3s.

The new wrinkle: satellite radio. Similar to cable TV, but sound only. You buy the system with the car and pay a monthly subscription fee. In return, you get hundreds of channels with different themes such as top 40, talk, R&B, etc. And because the signal comes from a satellite, it stays with you on long trips.

Four-wheel steering: When you turn the steering wheel, all four wheels turn. This option makes driving a pickup or SUV "more like driving a car," says Asher. With the General Motors version, back wheels will turn in the opposite direction from the front wheels at low speeds, he says. At more than 40 mph, the wheels all turn in the same direction.

"If you're inexperienced [in] towing, or towing in tight environment, it does help," says Champion. Cost: about $5,000, he says.

Sequential manual gearbox: A six-speed manual transmission outfitted with controls to shift with steering wheel paddles or a lever, instead of the clutch. "It's an advantage on the highway - you can look straight ahead and shift and never take your hand off the wheel or your eyes off the road," says Gordon Keil, spokesman for BMW.

"It's a way of getting the best of a manual transmission with the convenience of an automatic," says Champion, adding that it will also give slightly better gas mileage. His recommendation: "Nice to have if you're a real sporty driver."

Sunroof/moon roof: "Many of us are spending an hour or two a day in a vehicle," says Love. "For people who use their vehicles for long commutes or long drives on vacation, things like premium sound systems, sunroof and climate control can enhance your time behind the wheel." A factory-installed sunroof or moon roof can give a car the edge at resale time.

Remote start: Tired of getting into a car that's too hot or too cold? Start the car remotely and let it warm up or cool down first. (Just make sure you open the garage door first.) General Motors is introducing the feature on the Malibu this year, says Vester. Cost: approximately $300.

"It's very useful on cold mornings," says Champion: But since it's idling, "It's a bit of a waste on gasoline."

Save your money

There are a few factory options and after-market services that you can forgo, according to auto experts at Consumer Reports.

Active/laser cruise control: Uses sensors to detect vehicles in front of you and will apply brakes to slow the car accordingly.

"We tested this on high-end vehicles and didn't like it very much," says Champion. It tended to cut in quickly "which we didn't think was very comfortable, and it's quite alarming when it occurs," he says. Another problem the testers found: Move out from behind a line of cars to the off ramp and "the car tries to accelerate," Champion says.

"In theory it may prevent some accidents, but we were not overly impressed with it," he says.

VIN etching: This is when the vehicle identification number is permanently inscribed on the car, to aid recovery after theft. The cost: usually about $200 from the dealer, says Love. Compare that to the cost of doing it yourself with a kit: about $30, he says.

Pin stripes: Offered by dealers, pin stripes can be attached via adhesive or hand painted, says Love. It's a question of taste. Cost: about $200, says Love.

After-market undercoating and fabric protection: Remember that scene in "Fargo" where the slick auto salesman tries to pressure a skeptical buyer into paying for undercoating? Well, the Coen brothers got that one right: You really don't need after-market undercoating.

"Modern vehicles come from the factory with a fairly extensive quantity of coatings on the chassis, and those do a pretty darn good job of protecting the vehicle," says Love.

Most people can probably pass up after-market fabric treatments, too. "Unless you have young children eating ice cream in the car on a regular basis," says Love, "you could probably spend the money more wisely elsewhere."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003