Working in the automotive service field has conditioned me to value mechanical simplicity and to pass up optional features that add complexity, likelihood of inconvenient failure, and unnecessary weight. Because I often only see vehicles when things aren’t working properly, I’ve become jaded against so-called “convenience features” that require extra sensors, motors, and control modules to perform a task I could easily do myself. And because I tend to own older cars long enough to encounter issues when items of higher complexity fail before their time, I’ve become realistic that many systems on modern cars just suffer from poor design, low-cost quality, or lack of proper testing.
Because many so-called luxury items are standard on the majority of vehicles today, one cannot avoid them. A particular example to cite is computerized climate control most cars are equipped with. To provide “set it and forget it” regulation of cabin temperature, these systems use a control module to read both inside and outside temperatures, automatically adjust heat vents under the dash, activate the air conditioner compressor as needed, and control fan speed functions. A digital readout displays the temperature you’ve requested it to obey, and buttons are used to control on & off, high/low vents, defrost and more.
In order to function properly automatic climate systems need to know the outside air temperature, requiring a temperature sensor often mounted under the front bumper which easily becomes damaged over driveways and curbs. I see this happen so often it makes me shake my head at designs that were not well thought out. Not just one, but multiple motors are required to open and close the vent doors in the heating system underneath the dash. When these burn out and stick in the wrong position, no heat or too much heat is the result. Depending on the design of the car, many hours of labor are typically required to disassemble the dash to access the blend door motors that need replacing.
The computer control module can often short out itself, meaning the climate control system doesn’t power up at all. This this computer module is one piece with the display panel on the dash and is typically an expensive part. I owned a popular ’99 model vehicle for ten years that had none of these problems for one simple reason – I declined the optional climate control in lieu of the base system. Like heating systems in cars have had since the 1930s, mine had rotating round knobs connected to actual cables that opened all the vent doors instead. The cables never broke, shorted out, nor required an outside sensor that I could have accidently caused damage to.
Having motors and a computer to perform a task I can very easily perform myself has typically been inconceivable to me. Until, I am ashamed to admit, recently…
Which leads me to the car my wife and I leased two years ago equipped with virtually every type of feature I preach(ed) against owning. As we came to appreciate our new car’s solid body integrity, handling, and performance over the miles something else also happened…I began to get spoiled by the very convenience items I complain(ed) about. Now, when I get into a classic car I own, I miss the convenience features. Below is a list of favorite guilty pleasures…
• Remote door locks – Before driving most any car built before the late-1990s, first I must remember I need to actually turn the key in the lock instead of just pressing a button on the key that unlocks the car and disarms the alarm system. Even my ’91 Mercedes has a relatively modern-looking black key and I find myself looking for buttons on it that aren’t there. This feature deserves credit for being a lifesaver on winter mornings where rain has frozen in the door lock cylinder.
• One-touch auto down power windows – As I’m fumbling with my wallet, credit card, and mileage log at the gas station, the ability to free up my hands after pressing both front window buttons once quickly is quite nice. They’re also convenient going through tolls if change must be fumbled for.
• Windows and sunroof that close from outside the car – Being able to open or close all windows and sunroof from outside the car just by turning the key in the door lock is genius. It allows that initial burst of hot air to escape when the car’s been parked all day in the sun before getting inside. And it’s invaluable when running out in the rain to fully shut everything.
• Heated seats – We’ve become quite spoiled by these because on a cold winter day, they warm up faster than the car’s engine and heating system. The painful edge of winter freezing is reduced so much faster.
• Good brakes – We tend to take these for granted on modern cars, but for the most part strong braking power is something lacking on most older cars (especially American ones). When I take my ’75 Pontiac anywhere I have to actively remind myself not to get in situations where nuclear braking will be needed, or I will regret it.
• Turnsignals that blink three times with one flick of the blinker lever – Here is a prime example of allowing a computer to control something I could easily do myself such as manually shutting of a turn signal. But it isn’t until longer highway trips with repeated lane changes that this feature adds up to be quite a nicety.
• Fold-down / fold-flat seats – Once you get used to the utility and convenience of rear seats that fold completely out of the way, it’s hard to live with anything less. Some SUVs even feature power controls for raising and lowering them. How else can you get that large flat-screen tv home?
• Autodim rearview mirror – This is a feature I scoffed at initially, but when I lived with this feature regularly I was impressed at how fast and how well this convenience item works. No glare ever. And never having to take your eyes off the road to fumble with the mirror is very stress-reducing at night in areas of high deer population.
Navigation systems – Far easier than fumbling on the side of the road with maps, this is a feature that truly spoils a driver. Whether you have a portable aftermarket unit that sits on the dash or one that’s built in to the car, it takes the stress out of going almost anywhere you’re not familiar with. I’ve grown used to not worrying about finding my way around unfamiliar ground. Now, when taking a classic car to a show somewhere I’m not familiar with, I don’t automatically remember to print out map pages from Google first.
Bluetooth hand-free phone connectivity – Until we got our new car, I was content to use the speaker phone function on my cell when driving. It worked, but conversations were difficult. Once we used to the new car’s bluetooth system which links with a cellphone then uses the car’s speakers and a built-in microphone, we realized how much easier and better hands-free conversations can be.
• Speed sensitive radio volume – I enjoy when the music is loud enough to hear the nuances of it over highway noise, and hate when it’s suddenly too loud when reaching a stoplight. Adjusting the volume up and down all the time to the perfect level isn’t something I’ll actually ever bother to do myself, so it sure is nice that the car does it for me and keeps the decibles at a perfect level!
• “REST mode” – This allows the heating system to keep circulating warm air into the passenger compartment when the car is shut off for up to thirty minutes. I know it’s a drain on the battery but on winter day errands it goes an extremely long way to remove the frigid pain of getting back into a cold interior over and over.
• Full-time four-wheel-drive with traction control – Sure this system adds a lot of heavy, complex parts and hurts gas mileage…but when matched with a good set of tires on the car it’s invaluable in snow. (If you’ve ever dealt with the hassle, embarrassment, and safety risk of being stuck on ice in the middle of a high-traffic location, you understand what I mean.)
• “Tip-tronic” type automanual gearshift levers – Almost every car with an automatic transmission now features a gearshift lever with a built-in slot to the side that allows you to control the shifting of the gears by flicking it up or down. It may be a gimmick but it is still a source of constant, cheap fun to me.