Used to be that power windows and locks were the epitomy of luxury. Today they are standard on most econoboxes; technology has gifted us with a great many more goodies and gadgets. Here are ten features and options that will make life with your car a lot easier and safer.
1. Remote keyless entryKeyless entry systems allow you to unlock your car by pushing a button on a remote. The ability to quickly get into your car without fumbling for the key is an important safety feature, especially in poorly-lit areas. With most remotes, pushing the button once unlocks just the driver's door; you must push twice to unlock other doors, so there's no worry about a hidden intruder jumping into the passenger's side. Most also have a panic button that honks the horn and flashes the lights.
2. OnStar SystemWith OnStar, help from a real-live person is always just a button-push away. Got a flat tire? Someone following you? Just need to hear a human voice? Push the button. OnStar advisors can summon a tow truck or a cop, or just say hello. If your airbags deploy, they call you. They can even track your car if it's stolen and remotely let you in if you're locked out. OnStar charges a monthly subscription fee; the basic plan gives you the most critical safety benefits and is a bargain at $17/month.
3. Anti-lock brakes (ABS)Simple physics dictates that a turning wheel has more traction than one that is skidding. Antilock brake systems (ABS) watch individual wheel speeds; if one locks up, they pump the brakes far faster than a human could. Don't worry about giving up control to a computer; if the ABS system goes on the fritz (they rarely do) the brakes work normally. Do-it-yourselfers can still do their own brake jobs (though you must relieve system pressure before removing a brake line; check your repair manual).
4. Electronic stability/skid-control systemESC systems use the anti-lock brake sensors (which show individual wheel speed), accelerometers, and steering wheel/pedal position sensors to figure out what the car is doing and what the driver wants it to do. If the two don't seem to match up, ESC does what no driver can: It applies the brakes to individual wheels and reduces power as needed to keep the car going where the driver is trying to point it. They are almost transparent and work surprisingly well.
5. Telescoping steering wheel/adjustable pedalsMost new cars have height-adjustable (tilt) steering columns; some cars have steering wheels that telescope (move in and out) and/or electrically adjustable pedals. The latter two not only make finding a comfortable position easier, but they allow shorter drivers to safely position themselves farther from the airbag while still keeping their feet comfortably on the pedals.
6. Rear-seat DVD playerGot kids? Movies-on-the-go can make long trips easier for both you and them. Many rear-seat entertainment systems include wireless headphones, so you can enjoy the stereo (or the peace and quiet). My own children would have TVs surgically implanted in the backs of their hands if they could, so in order to avoid turning them into road-going zombies I generally limit movie watching to long trips. They also make a convenient reward and/or dangling carrot.
7. GPS navigation systemUsing the Global Positioning Satellite System and sensors in the car, GPS navigation systems can pinpoint your exact location and give you turn-by-turn directions (via a small video screen, spoken voice, or both) to help you find your way. Most will also guide you to the closest gas station, ATM, hospital or police station. They can steer you out of a bad neighborhood, they can route you around traffic, and no matter how lost you get, they can always help you find your way home.
8. Side airbagsMost cars have at least three feet of crush space at the front and back, but only a few inches of protection at the sides. Federally-mandated door beams help keep the car intact instead of caving in. But there's still the problem of inertia: While the car is being pushed away, your body (particularly your head, which isn't secured by the seat belt) wants to stay still, and it could go right through the side window. Side airbags cushion your noggin and help keep it safely inside the car.
9. Center console with power outletOpen the center consoles on many new cars and you'll find a power outlet (a.k.a. a cigarette lighter without the lighter). These outlets provide a way to charge your mobile phone while keeping it out of sight. I'm dead-set against talking on the phone while driving (though I sometimes do it anyway), but it's good to know you'll always have juice to make a call in case of an emergency.
10. Roadside assistanceFlat tire? Dead battery? Out of gas? Traditionally, people have turned to AAA (US) or CAA (Canada) for life's little motoring emergencies, but many new cars come with roadside assistance as part of their new-car warranty. Several manufacturers even offer it as part of their "certified used" programs. That said, AAA and CAA memberships are inexpensive; with all the travel discounts they bring, your membership may very likely pay for itself.