By Rick Newman, U.S. News & World Report
It had to happen-somebody was bound to invent a car that can navigate better than a human. But the Lexus LS 460, which can parallel park on its own, is only for a select few-those willing to pay $65,000 to compensate for their deficiencies behind the wheel.
Most drivers would rather spend a few hours practicing in the parking lot and save the money for a down payment on a house or a year of college tuition. But even among midpriced cars these days, there's a dizzying menu of gizmos that can open and close the doors for you, create multiple environmental zones, keep your kids entertained (and silent), and even massage your back. By the time you've compiled your wish list, however, chances are you've added $5,000 or even $10,000 to the price of a car that seemed like a good deal when you were just looking at the list price.
Since I test-drive dozens of new cars each year, people often ask if this or that feature is worth paying for. The answer, of course, depends on your budget. Some options, like flexible seating configurations or hidden storage nooks, provide lots of functionality for multitasking drivers and their families. But there are just as many features you'll never miss if you go without them-even though manufacturers and salespeople might tell you it's the latest must-have technology.
Not all of these features are offered a la carte-they're often bundled into packages, so you can't customize as specifically as you'd like. But if you eliminate a few unnecessary features, you may be able to bypass an entire $3,000 or $4,000 options package, or step down a whole trim line, and spend the money on better options or aftermarket products-or just keep the cash in your savings. Some purists will argue with these choices, of course, and there are buyers who simply want the most loaded model they can get. But most car buyers can do without the following features and never know the difference:
Automatic stick shift, also known by proprietary names like Autostick, Tiptronic, Steptronic, or Shiftronic. This allows you to shift gears without having to press a clutch, usually by pushing the gearshift up or down, or tapping paddles or buttons on the steering wheel.
Why you should skip it: Automatic shifting is meant to convey a sporty sensation to drivers who don't know how to drive a manual transmission, or don't want to. But it's more of a nuisance than a thrill, unless you're driving a true sports machine, with Formula One-style paddles, like the Mercedes SLK or the BMW M5 On most other cars, people just end up leaving it in drive. Ho-hum.
Cost savings: $1,000 or more
Instead: Shop for a car with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. This new technology increases engine speed without shifting from gear to gear. What drivers notice is a smoother ride and slightly better gas mileage.
All-wheel drive. Sends power to all four wheels, instead of just the front or the rear axles.
Why you should skip it: If you live where there's sloppy weather, and routinely drive in snow or mud, then yeah, all-wheel drive is handy. But most people don't go out in snow anyway. And there are misperceptions about the safety benefits of all-wheel drive. It can help you get out of a snow bank, but it won't stop you from sliding on ice or reduce braking distance. It also lowers gas mileage.
Cost savings: $1,500 or more
Instead: Antilock brakes, stability control, and side-impact and side-curtain air bags have proven safety value. On SUVs in particular-more prone to rollovers-these safety options should be considered essential.
CD changer. Audio systems that can handle multiple CDs are becoming standard-just as CDs are going the way of vinyl.
Why you should skip it: With iPods and MP3 players becoming ubiquitous, there's no need anymore to junk up your car with stacks of CDs.
Cost savings: $500 or more
Instead: A single CD player with AM/FM is fine-as long as it has an auxiliary jack for external devices. Also consider XM or Sirius satellite radio. After listening to 150 channels of mostly commercial-free music and talk, you'll realize how dead commercial radio is. And look for an audio system with duplicate controls on the steering wheel, which helps keep your eyes on the road and off the dashboard.
Power folding seats. This is an upscale option on many vehicles with third-row seats. Push a button, and it's like magic-the seat disappears and you're left with a flat cargo space.
Why you should skip it: On well-designed vehicles like the Honda Odyssey and the GMC Acadia, it's a breeze to fold the seats manually-pull or push a couple of levers and you're done. It's usually faster than waiting for a motor to do the job, plus there's no complicated machinery that might break.
Cost savings: $700
Instead: On SUVs and minivans, a power-operated liftgate can be very helpful for people, especially women, who find the rear hatch too high to reach or heavy to close. Plus, if your hands are full with groceries or kids, you can pop open a power liftgate at the touch of a button.
Keyless ignition. As long as the key fob is in your purse or pocket, all you have to do is push a button to start the car and drive off.
Why you should skip it: Keyless ignition is a cool feature that will probably be standard someday. But on most cars today, it falls one step short, since you still must have the key fob in hand to unlock the car. Then you have to find someplace to stash the key fob-an invitation to misplace it. Some cars even have a little slot where you can store the "keyless" unlocking device. Isn't that the same thing the ignition slot used to do?
Cost savings: $200 to $400
Instead: Remote start is a wonderful option, in winter and summer both. It lets you start your car from a distance, without being inside it, so you can cool or warm the car for a few minutes before you get in.
Xenon headlamps, also known as HID (high-intensity discharge) headlamps. They give off more light than ordinary halogen lamps and have the cool blue tint that is often their main appeal.
Why you should skip it: The light beam from xenon bulbs shines further than many people can see or react to, and some experts worry that the stronger beam could interfere with the vision of oncoming drivers.
Cost savings: $300 to $500
Instead: Automatic headlamps. You set the cockpit switch to "A," and the lights automatically go on when it's dark and off when it's light. Even better-you no longer have to worry about leaving your lights on and running down your battery.
Dual-zone climate control. Lets you choose different temperature settings for the driver and passenger side. Tri-zone systems have a third control for the rear seat.
Why you should skip it: People who are really this fussy can achieve the same result by manipulating the air vents and fan settings. Besides, come on: If the driver's temp is 68, and the passenger's is 72, do you really believe it's not 70 inside the whole car?
Cost savings: $800 or more
Instead: For people who drive in cold weather, heated seats are a delight-and they often warm up faster than the climate system itself. Cooled seats seem to be less effective. But in both cases, they offer truly personalized comfort that doesn't bleed into somebody else's space.
Factory-installed navigation systems. Nav systems are marvelous, especially for people who drive routinely in unfamiliar places. Letting the onboard computer guide you to an address or destination is far better than reading a MapQuest printout, calling for directions on a cellphone-or, God forbid, having to stop and ask a stranger.
Why you should skip it: The problem with installed nav systems is they're very pricey-upwards of $1,500 in most cases. Plus, they're so popular that some manufacturers offer them only on the upper trim lines of a given model, which draws even more money out of your pocket.
Cost savings: $1,500 to $2,000
Instead: Shop for a portable, off-the-shelf navigation system. Good ones are available for $500 or less, plus they can be moved from car to car.