The car market, both new and used, is bloated with features and technology which each manufacturer will tell you you need, and that theirs is the best.
Every touchscreen, every button you press, every dial you turn and with the scratching of every head out there, you’re bound to know the most common features. But do you know which ones you need and which ones you don’t? It’s important to test your next new car thoroughly >>
Would you know how to use them all? I’m willing to bet you probably don’t realise how limiting these features are in their ability to help you drive the car, stay safe while you do, and get the most use out of them in exchange for the money you pay. Buying used cars vs new will mean older, tested tech vs untested new tech, so make sure you use various features before paying.
Let’s help you figure out which gear is the best, the worst and which gizmos will be worth your while.
Will apply the vehicle’s brakes when on-board cameras detect an imminent collision either with a stationary object or another vehicle.
These systems are vulnerable to confusion when performing low-speed manoeuvres, differing speeds between vehicles changing lanes, accelerating in anticipation of overtaking, or simply failing to recognise a solid object like an animal moving across the road.
For all their imperfections, auto emergency braking systems only need to work once, in the heat of the moment, to pay for themselves. Nobody, victim or driver, ever recovers from killing someone on the road.
A very clever system that keeps your vehicle at a predetermined distance from the vehicle in front, when used on a highway/freeway at flowing speeds. This system will slow the vehicle if another vehicle merges in front, in order to keep you at that set distance. Generally, the minimum distance you can set is a two-second gap, which will vary in distance at greater speeds - because the vehicle requires more distance/time to brake sufficiently at greater speeds.
You can override the computer by using the accelerator as desired, or by applying the brake which will disengage the radar cruise - requiring manual activation to resume.
Some radar cruise systems can be confused by a blend of situations like downhill roads where it also has to slow for a merging vehicle or accelerate because space has opened up.
The biggest mistake people make while driving today is failing to keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front. Precious metres are sacrificed just to sit closer to the vehicle in front to no advantage. If something happens, you have no time/space to respond (by hitting the brakes). Adaptive cruise gives you that breathing room.
Reversing out of carpark spaces, out of dodgy driveways or simply trying to get into a space when an errant kid or vehicle might race to cross into your path, RCTA will make an audible warning to the driver to stop immediately.
Many systems will also include a throttle-cut feature which will kill the signal going from the throttle to the engine. Combined with reverse emergency braking, which will jam on the brakes to avoid hitting, or at the very least, significantly reduce impact speed in the event of an unavoidable impact - this combination of safety tech can scare the hell out of some people, but only because it works.
Far too many motorists simply do not check their tyre pressures regularly enough at the fuel station, at home or even bother to ask during their yearly routine mechanical service.
Incorrectly inflated tyres costs fuel, money, ramps up emissions, damages the tyre prematurely and is a massive safety risk on the road. A shredded tyre at 110km/h can cause untold damage to you and others.
If you don’t do your own routine vehicle checks, make sure you get TPMS on your next new car and at least have the information at your fingertips, and then make sure you check it frequently (each time to fill up) - and put some air in if they’re under inflated.
The tyre placard on the inside of the driver’s door sill will tell you what pressure they should be at.
Arguably more or as important as forward auto-braking, coming out of a driveway and having a system ready to slam on the brakes in the event someone’s child runs behind you, is invaluable.
Carparks, shopping centres, school drop-off zones, your own driveway - these are very busy places where plenty of sensory overload can create tiny windows for disaster. Parents are tired, stressed and forever failing to multi-task (mostly because cognitively we cannot actually do that). Reverse emergency braking is one of those features that should be made standard on all new cars, like reversing cameras are today. Sadly, it’s not.
So it’s up to you to find the right vehicle which has it in your price range - or negotiate harder: here’s how to do that >>
The car industry has been disgracefully slow to implement this - considering how many decades we’ve had front and side curtain airbags for.
If you are in a crash that was not prevented by all the computer software around you, which is trying to keep your distance, detecting vehicle speeds and warn you of approaching impacts, then a front-centre airbag will reduce the impact of or stop you entirely from hitting the other vehicle occupant beside you.
This is a last resort, because obviously, not being in a crash is the ideal outcome. Sadly, you don’t always get a say.
The airbag deploys either from the roof, seat bolster or centre console (generally the seat) and in less than 50 milliseconds it inflates to cocoon you from nasty cranial injuries caused by inertial forces basically launching your passenger (or you) into one another.
So much more than just parking aides for the spatially lacklustre. Sensors not only contribute to keeping you from hitting yellow steel bollards in your local Aldi carpark, but they also help you judge where the corners of your car are for tight, low-speed manoeuvres such as three-point turns, navigating narrow driveways and avoiding touch-parking.
Most mainstream brands tend to be throwing front sensors in with rears these days, but a couple of years ago it was Tightarse Tuesdays when it came to getting them together.
Be aware, they can go off if you go down sharp valleys, such as steep driveways onto the road, and they don’t pick up everything when you’re parking - such as thin grass or sometimes wire fencing can simply not register. Don’t barrel in at full throttle hoping the sensors will chirp when it’s stop-time.
Allows you to keep the car at a decent temperature without having to fiddle with settings, fan speeds and distribution throughout the cabin.
Some systems can be pretty stupid when it comes to literally reading the temperature, so test it out on both hot and cold days if possible. Some climate controls will blast you with cold when it’s warm but not hot, other times on hot days it’ll start cool, but only gives you a light breeze when you’d prefer to bring the whole car’s cabin temperature down as fast as possible because, y’know, kids.
Worth having if you can afford it, which is becoming more ascertainable in modern mainstream cars in the middle of most model ranges.
Is it better than regular manual air conditioning? That’s up to you to judge.
It is staggering how some brands still don’t offer ventilated seats, yet have been selling cars in Australia - one of the driest continents on Earth - for decades.
And then some brands have had ventilated seats in their range for years, and their vehicles are cheaper than the stalwarts. Once you try ventilated seats on a hot summer day, you’ll never go back.
Counterintuitively, those same old brands offer seat heating, despite the fact Australia is warm/hot for eight months of the year. Ventilated seats are considered fairly premium these days, so you’ll have to shop higher in the model range, generally, to find it.
Cooled seats are good for keeping you comfortable and therefore focussed on driving, and help reduce fatigue. Good excuse anyway.
Okay, if you do live on the Great Dividing Range anywhere from Wollongong to Gippsland, or anywhere in Tasmania, granted - heated seats are pretty good on a cold morning.
Thing is, like with ventilated seats, you don’t get heated without leather because perforations in the leather allow the warm/cool air to flow. Cloth seats are much harder to do that with and carmakers want you to pay more for your car, not less.
Having a warm bum will be very tempting, but just make sure you don’t overspend on luxuries if you really can’t afford to. Dealers are only too happy to take advantage of your lax impulse control when it comes to getting all the sexy features in your next new car. Heated seats are becoming increasingly popular lower down in most model ranges, but they’re still fanciful. Your bum will eventually warm up once you start driving, and remember: cloth seats don’t get nearly as cold.
Being bone cold can be distracting from a safety point of view, so consider heated seats if you have particular issues staying warm while driving. Being cold takes energy from your body to keep warm (like shivering), so there is a practical safety element to heated seats, helping to reduce fatigue and aid concentration.
Last of the useful luxuries is the ability to pre-set your optimum seat position, but also to quickly re-adjust on long trips or if you’re experiencing discomfort for whatever reason.
Electric seats mean you can make this bodily positional change without being smashed in the back by the seat in manual, spring-loaded seats. You can also quickly adjust the seat base forward/backwards while driving, without having to be stopped like you do in manual seats with the metal handle below the front (under your knees).
The thing to remember about adding electric seats with heating and cooling, is weight gets added to the vehicle. Every kilo you add is a kilo you need to move when you drive, which means more work for the engine, more fuel gets burnt, costs you more.
Not all lane-related features are that good, to be honest. They’re often confused, they can be overly authoritarian when it comes to how you position the vehicle on the road, and it may be disconcerting when you start using these features.
But they only need to work once to save your life. They help to break bad driving habits you’ve picked up or never had corrected - or they’ll help mitigate substandard practices you may have taught your kids learning to drive.
Approach these features with cautious optimism, because they’re ultimately designed to keep you safe. You might not like how accurate they can be when it comes to weaving in your lane or trying to swap lanes without indicating. But that’s on you.
Try them out, see if you can learn to live with them, and if you really, really cannot stand them, figure out what the situation is with turning them off. Increasingly, it’s becoming difficult to permanently disable these features - so you might have to make friends with them.
As for camera systems, they all look crisp and high-def on the website, but I guarantee you, there are some shoddy 360-degree and rearview camera systems out there.
They often work poorly in dim light, or the night-vision mode might be blurry and pixelated to hell.
In particular, 360-degree cameras often have poor software that badly stitches together the camera images from the front, sides and rear - giving you an image that is worse and less informative than simply getting out of the car and manually checking your environment with your own peepers. Sloped, curved, overgrown or complicated driveways may not suit some camera/software systems - so try them out. For goodness sake, you shouldn’t be testing the vehicle you’re buying because research comes before buying the car >> So take the test vehicle home and have a go in your own driveway, or if that’s not possible, find a similarly gnarly driveway near your test vehicle and try out the camera systems.
As for BSM, these are typically good at what they do, however, it indicates you don’t have your door mirrors correctly adjusted. Turn them out so you cannot see the rear of the vehicle on the inside of your door mirror. Blind spot eliminated. Go ahead, collect $200. Or just buy yourself a celebratory coffee for breaking with the appalling driving convention institutionalised by decades of state government road authorities.
These are ultimately just fancy ways of making yourself look richer than you probably are. There is a legitimate case for people with poor circulation getting heated seats and steering wheel, but apart from that, you shouldn’t need these things.
They might save you a few seconds of time putting shopping on the ground before pushing ‘unlock’ on the key fob or opening the boot yourself, but you’ll only get fitter doing it yourself. Bigger wheels are only more likely to get gutter rash and colour does nothing for braking performance compared to braking earlier and keeping your distance to vehicles in front, while ultimately paying full attention at all times.
You’ll see this a lot in new car advertising, where they will spruik ESC, ABS, brakeforce distribution, traction control and so on.
But most of these features, particular anti-lock brakes and electronic stability/traction control, are standard by law in Australia. Have been for years.
So don’t be swayed by dealers and brands trying to make it sound like you get all these wonderful things as part of their exorbitant pricing. Those features must be there by law otherwise they’re nor Australian Design Rules (ADR) compliant and cannot be sold.
A basic reversing camera displaying the rearview image on a screen is basically industry standard now on new cars sold in Australia, which is thanks to the trickle-down economics influence of making them legally required in the US from 2018.
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