What do you look for in a car?

There are a lot of things to think about when buying a car, and most people focus on the different aspects of the “deal.”  This includes the monthly payment, how much they want to finance, how much money they want or can afford to put down on it, or what the best finance rate they can get is.  I’m here to talk about some of the other things to look for, such as driving dynamics and the myriad of options available on today’s technology-laden automobiles.

Driving Dynamics

A lot of manufacturers talk about “Driving Dynamics” when referring to their cars.  This usually refers to a car’s sportiness, or to an SUV or Crossover vehicle’s ability to drive more like a car.  The latter is the ability of a tall, boxy vehicle to handle tighter corners than its predecessors from 10 years ago.  The jargon may be confusing, so make sure you drive normally during your test drive(s), but remember to take into account weather and the size of a vehicle.

Options (favorites marked with ):

Listed below are a lot of today’s more popular (or ubiquitous) options, where you might find them, and what they do.

Adaptive Cruise Control – some luxury vehicles – Using sensors mounted in the front of the car, an on-board computer slows the car when necessary to keep a preset distance from the vehicle in front.  When the road ahead is clear, the system will accelerate the car back to the driver’s desired speed.

Adaptive Headlights – some luxury vehicles – Allows the headlights to swivel left and right with the steering wheel, lighting more of the road where you are headed instead of just straight in front of you.

Automatic Climate Control – optional on some vehicles under $35,000, standard on most luxury cars – The driver or passenger sets a temperature he or she feels is comfortable, and the car figures out how to use the fan speed, heat and air conditioning to attain that temperature.  Usually seen with two (dual) zones, the system works best when driver and passenger zones are within 5 degrees of each other.

Automatically Dimming Mirrors – optional on cars starting around $30,000 – Dims the rear-view and sometimes the driver’s side-view mirrors when headlights are detected in the rear-view mirror at night.

Automatic Headlights – optional on cars starting around $25,000 – Using sensors, the car detects the amount of ambient light outside the car and turns the headlights on when needed.  This usually also turns on the internal lights, illuminating the gauge panel and center console of the car.

Back-up Camera – optional on most cars starting around $25,000 – a great feature for family vehicles and anyone who’s ever run over a bicycle or other object which was not visible behind their car.  This feature usually comes bundled with GPS Satellite Navigation systems, as they share the screen.  Some cars and trucks build the backup camera into the rear-view mirror.  Some cars have lines delineating how far away an object is by green, yellow and red lines.

Backup / Forward Parking Sensors – optional on cars starting around $28,000 – Radar sensors in the rear and sometimes front bumper of the car are used to pick up objects which may not be visible to the driver.  Forward parking sensors are fairly rare still, but a lot of entry-level luxury cars are starting to feature the backup sensors.  A tone will sound inside the vehicle when objects get close, and usually the pitch or frequency of the tone increases as distance decreases.

Ford's BLIS on a 2010 Fusion Hybrid

Blind Spot / Traffic Detection – optional on cars starting around $30,000 – Ford calls it BLIS w/Cross-Traffic Alert, this system uses sensors to detect cars in your blind spots and traffic behind you when backing up.

BlueTooth Wireless – optional on most cars starting at $20,000; all Fords – By “pairing” your cell phone with your car, it allows you to use a built-in microphone and the car’s stereo to make and receive calls, all without taking your eyes and hands off of driving the car.

Dual-panel Sunroof – optional on cars starting around $35,000 – Adding to the traditional sunroof, the dual-panel sunroof or moonroof contains a traditional tilt/slide sunroof, as well as a fixed panel in the rear.  Some systems have manually-operated sunshades, while others have power-operated sunshades.

Easy Entry / Exit Seating – optional on some cars starting around $35,000 – Usually bundled with power steering columns, this system moves the seat back and tilts the steering column upwards when the car’s engine is turned off, allowing easier egress.  When starting the vehicle, the steering column and driver’s seat return to the last position you left them, or “memorized” seating positions, depending on the car.

Heated / Cooled Seats – optional on some cars starting around $30,000 – Heated seats are becomes ubiquitous on higher-end cars, and now cooled or ventilated seats are making their way onto more and more cars each model year.  Heated seats use elements built into the seat to heat it, and cooled seats pump some of the air conditioning through the seat onto the person sitting in it.

Heated Steering Wheel – optional on few cars starting at $35,000 – I haven’t seen this feature on a lot of cars, but it’s seen on some luxury cars and the 2009-2010 Nissan Maxima.  Ford also announced recently that it would start adding it to Lincolns starting in 2011.

iPod Integration / USB Port – just about mainstream – A lot of manufacturers are adding iPod integration, and because of that, USB integration, to their vehicles.  With millions of iPods and USB drives floating around, this feature is used to sway younger buyers, and most of them are pretty good now.  The better ones allow full control of the iPod through the steering wheel or regular audio system controls.

Keyless entry / Push-Button Starting – optional on some cars starting around $30,000 – Building upon the keyless entry which is standard on probably 90% of cars sold these days, this system detects a keyfob being close to the car and allows the driver to unlock the doors.  Once in the vehicle, some systems allow the driver to put their foot on the brake and press a button to start the car, and most of these also allow the driver to keep the key in their pocket, and on some cars, does away with the key completely.

Manual mode for automatic transmissions, including paddle shifters – optional on cars starting about $25,000 – With a myriad of names, this feature allows so-called manual control of the car’s automatic transmission, either through pushing and pulling the gear shift lever or paddle shifters.  This adds a little more sportiness to cars, and is most popular in urban areas and cars where a driver may want more control sometimes, but doesn’t want to deal with a clutch.  Manual mode comes in quite handy when traversing steep hills, as you can ensure that your engine isn’t working too hard, by downshifting.

Memory Seating – usually found in luxury cars – Gives the driver two or three positions they can set, which includes seat adjustment settings, mirror position, as well as steering column position on some cars.  This allows two or three drivers to set up the car they want, and to be able to recall those settings whenever they drive.

One-Touch Up / Down on all windows – usually found on luxury cars – Most cars these days will allow the driver to press or pull their window switch to raise and lower their own window, while the other windows require the window control to be held.  With luxury cars, the manufacturer puts the sensors and controls in for all side windows.

Power tilt/telescope Steering Column – usually found on luxury cars – Replaces traditional levers that tilt and telescope the steering wheel with a button that does the same thing.  It’s usually paired with memory seats and entry/exit systems.

Reverse Tilt-Down Mirrors – usually found on luxury cars – When the car’s transmission is put into Reverse, the driver and passenger side-view mirrors tilt down to show curbs and other obstacles.  This helps to prevent hitting the curb while parallel parking.

SYNC Map ScreenSatellite Navigation – optional on cars starting around $30,000 – Instead of using a hand-held GPS system, it’s built into the car.  Since it’s built in, the chance of break-in is lessened somewhat, and the screens on built-in units is usually larger than hand-held versions.  The downside is expense, as the option package which includes navigation usually costs $2,000 or more, although those prices are coming down each year.  Furthermore, map updates are usually more costly and harder to do.

Rain-Sensing Wipers – usually found on higher-end luxury cars – Some luxury cars have an extra sensor built into the windshield that detects rain and changes the wiper interval based on this.  A great feature when the weather changes from misting to heavy downpours.

Satellite Radio – optional on most cars – Receives an audio signal from satellites instead of local radio stations, which allows drivers and passengers to listen to a multitude of stations continuously across the continental US.  When driving under bridges and overpasses or through canyons and tree-covered streets, however, the signal may disappear, which can become highly frustrating, since the station doesn’t “fade” at all, like an AM or FM station would.

Difference between “Dealer Installed” and “Factory Installed”

Oftentimes, the features listed above (and others) will be installed when the car is built, at the factory.  On some cars, however, they are installed at the dealer, as part of a customer buying the car and requesting such features.  Drop-down DVD players, iPod connectors, even backup cameras are sold to customers at the time of purchase.  Unless otherwise stated, these features are “aftermarket,” meaning the hardware which is added to your vehicle wasn’t created by the manufacturer of the car.  This is especially true with backup cameras and DVD players.  If the feature wasn’t on your car when you took your test drive(s), ask about who created the item and who will be doing the installation.  Sometimes, a dealer will go so far as to have an outside company install features on your car for you.  You may be able to save money if you go to an outside shop directly, if you still want the feature.  Many aftermarket radio installers have diversified their knowledge and product lines so they can install anything that doesn’t require heavy modification to your car.


Option packages are a very profitable part of the new-car sale, so a lot of manufacturers bundle them together.  For instance, a lot of cars include a moonroof/sunroof and an upgraded stereo as part of one package.  If an option package includes things you don’t want, make sure that you think long and hard before buying a car without the option you want, as you may kick yourself after the purchase for not getting everything you wanted in the first place.  It may require slightly larger monthly payments to get the option package that includes your desired features, but your happiness may be worth more in the long run.  If you find that the car then costs more than you want or can afford, take extra time to save for a bigger down payment to offset the extra cost, or consider buying a used version of the car, if you can find one optioned the way you want it.

by John Suit


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